Parental leave can be a tough topic for nonprofit organizations facing real budget limitations and working to execute important missions with a small team. It’s hard to imagine doing without a full-time staff member for three months, let alone continuing to pay that person’s salary while they are gone.
At the same time, it astounds me that many organizations with missions to fight poverty and inequality set policies that undermine family economic security and advance cultural perceptions about gender and family structure. When I was planning to get pregnant in 2010, I remember seeing an informal landscape analysis of parental leave policies at nonprofits of similar size and scope. Most did not offer paid parental leave, even after two or more years of employment, and if they did, the leave was minimal.
Many of the nonprofit umbrella groups like Independent Sector and National Council of Nonprofits are remarkably silent on this issue, which is also surprising. If, as a sector, we are perpetuating injustices we seek to address, that pretty much makes us hypocrites. According to MomsRising, a quarter of all poverty starts because of having a baby. It’s up to all of us to set the expectation children deserve a strong start to their lives, which requires some time and energy from a parent or parents. There are also implications for gender equality, and might help address the concerns that women’s pay lags behind and women are far less likely to lead nonprofits with budgets over $50 million. If any sector ought to be leading the way in parental leave, it’s the nonprofit sector.
Parental is a long-term investment to our society. I’m fairly certain that few nonprofit employees were spawned in a laboratory. We are all here because some human fed us when we were helpless newborns, and probably provided some affection, care, and parental guidance along the way. Like it or not, we live in a country where the government does not provide parental leave benefit for all of its citizens. As nonprofit leaders, that leaves us in a tough position, but one that we ought to embrace.
First and foremost, parental leave is good for organizations. Parental leave actually improves worker retention, which will save your organization training and turnover costs. There is a prevailing myth that women will have babies and leave their jobs. It’s simply not true. By showing that your organization is committed to families, you will strengthen employee loyalty and also advance your brand and mission.
If you are in a leadership role at a nonprofit organization, take parental leave – moms and dads alike. If your organization doesn’t have a parental leave, fight for one. Lead by example, and don’t apologize for it. Your organization and your career will survive. When I had my first child, I took 12 weeks while running fundraising, administration, and finance in part to show that it could be done. I worked with our incoming CEO and the rest of the staff to ensure that things would run smoothly in my absence. Anyone that comes after me in the organization will be able to say, well, if she did it, I should be able to do it.
Fathers and co-parents use leave in flexible ways. Moms ought to consider this option as well, depending on their role. When my second child was born, my manager and I agreed that I would take a full 12 weeks leave, but distribute it across the first year. This allowed me to participate on internal weekly calls to stay up to date on organizations, relationships, and staffing. I also brought the baby – who spent nearly all her time eating or sleeping – to a few staff meetings, check-ins, and even to a conference in Texas. For small organizations, this can work really well – provided that it works for both parent and baby.
Before I had children, I had no idea how challenging it would be to juggle career and family, and the degree to which systems undermine my ability to do both successfully. When I had the opportunity to help shape my organization’s policy, I pushed hard for paid leave. Three months without a salary would not have made my family homeless, but thought about employees who made less than me. They should not have to choose between necessities of life and bonding with their babies, especially while working at a nonprofit dedicated to a better, more just world.
What is your organization’s policy on parental leave? Does it make the world a better place? Or perpetuate inequities we’re all trying to solve?