Reimagining holidays in nonprofits

Artwork by Nina Yagual from Amplifier Art. Light blue background with people and colorful flowers, words stronger together

By Rochelle Hazard

For 117 years, Neighborhood House has fought to end the cycles of poverty, racism, and social inequities. We have committed to becoming a fully inclusive, anti-racist, multi-cultural organization (see our 2021-2024 strategic plan here). As such, we recently reevaluated our holiday structure to create a more equitable organizational culture.

We recognized that our holiday structure excluded different faiths and values that are held by Neighborhood House employees. Neighborhood House has 350 staff members who speak over 40 languages. 72% of staff members identify as Black, Indigenous or POC. 33% self-identify as immigrants and 36% report that English is not their primary language.

The holiday structure we inherited was based on white, Christian-centric values and beliefs. Historically our agency recognized federal holidays, such as New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, and Thanksgiving, as paid holidays for employees. Neighborhood House is a diverse organization that employs people with many different faiths or no faith at all. Many people celebrate events or individuals that are not significant to others for various reasons (see Fakequity’s List of Culturally Significant Dates here). Limiting our paid holidays to federally recognized holidays only was inequitable for many Neighborhood House employees.

Christmas is one example of how this inequity was playing out. For some Neighborhood House staff, December 25 is an important day to spend with family and friends. But what about other faiths such as Orthodox Christians, who do celebrate Christmas but not until January 7? Still, others may not celebrate Christmas because they have different values and beliefs, such as atheists or agnostics. For some Indigenous and Native American people, Thanksgiving Day is not a celebration, but a day of mourning. For some African Americans, Independence Day/4th of July is not a celebration of freedom, but a reminder that even though Black people are no longer shackled with chains, they are still fighting for the full actualization of promises made by the US Constitution (see Frederick Douglass’ “What is the 4th of July to a Slave” speech).

The question was not if the agency holiday structure was good or bad. The question Neighborhood House had to answer was: Who are we leaving out by not recognizing that we are a multicultural agency with people of many different faiths, beliefs, and values? As part of our journey to becoming a fully inclusive, anti-racist, multi-cultural organization, I knew we had to change our holiday policy.

Neighborhood House’s internal equity committee proposed the following solution: take the 12 agency’s paid holidays and turn them into floating holidays. This new All Floating Holidays policy allowed staff of different faiths and beliefs to be paid to celebrate the days that are important for them and their families, without forcing employees to observe a holiday that they don’t believe in, or having staff dip into their vacation time to celebrate their holidays. As an example, between July 19-20, 2021 (the dates of Eid al-Adha, an important holiday for Muslims), 19% of Neighborhood House staff requested vacation time or other paid time off. With our new proposed holiday policy, staff could use their floating holidays to take time off for holidays and use vacation time for actual vacations.

Some staff expressed concern about converting all holidays to floating holidays because they worried large numbers of staff might request the same days off and leave teams short-staffed. Once we analyzed the HR data, we realized large numbers of staff would continue to request time off for their holidays, whether Neighborhood House chose to recognize them as holidays or not. The only difference with the new policy is that staff won’t have to use their other paid leave to take time off for holidays. The real change will be that staff of all faiths feel valued and seen. Further, because we are intentional about hiring staff who reflect the languages, cultures, and faiths of the communities we serve, our staff and clients often observe the same holidays and take off similar days to be with their families. We already see a drop in preschool attendance and requests for services on days like Eid and Lunar New Year.  

This was not an easy policy to change. It took months of listening, talking, and negotiating with board members and staff at all levels of leadership. Neighborhood House’s new All Floating Holiday policy went into effect 1/1/23, and we are excited to be taking this next step toward becoming a multiracial, anti-racist agency. We will be keeping a close eye on how this policy change affects people’s ability to celebrate holidays that are important to them. We will track data to see how staff utilize their floating holidays and other types of leave, as well as ask staff for their input on the policy throughout the year. We understand that we may need to make adjustments in how we implement this policy, and Neighborhood House will remain committed to making space for everyone’s faith (or no faith) and joy.

Rochelle is the Neighborhood House Director of Inclusion, Diversity, Equity and Access (IDEA). Rochelle identifies as a biracial queer Black woman who oftentimes is mistaken for butch, but identifies simply as a woman who wears comfortable shoes.

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I am writing from the lands of the 29 federally recognized and non-federally recognized tribes in now Washington State, including the Coast Salish people — Duwamish, Muckleshoot, Suquamish, Snoqualmie, Snohomish, and Native American organizations that have treaty rights and have been here since time immemorial. I give my thanks to the elders, Native and Indigenous colleagues and relations, and the land itself. Fakequity pays “rent” to Native organizations in Washington and Hawai’i; a small act to repair and work to be in more justice-based relations.