How balancing my non-profit and my new baby might actually benefit both

6 minute read

You haven’t seen me around much lately—that’s because, as of 4.29 in the morning on the 1st January, 2017 already has 2016 beat: our daughter Kathleen Rose was born, the first SIMLab baby since 2014.

Meanwhile, at my office

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Finding out you’re pregnant with your first baby when you’re the CEO of a tiny non-profit is a scary thing. Alongside the usual feelings of joy and trepidation is a whole other worry—how will the business cope? As a small team, every one of us does our fair share of business development, project delivery, office housework and general repping—and imagining being one person down, in the pivotal first quarter of the year no less, would be hard to cope with whoever it was. Aside from added pressure on the rest of the team, it’s always difficult for a small business to cover the cost of providing paid leave. And presumably, that person would never again be able to devote as much time to the organization once the baby arrived.

As CEO, all this felt so much harder. I’ve been with the organization as Chief Cook and Bottle Washer for seven years, and had ended up with a finger in every pie. I had managed to make myself part of everything from paying state taxes, to finishing the website, to project decision-making. My husband and I habitually carved extra work time out of evenings and weekends, even while working full days. We were at the beginning of a new Strategy period, with a brand new Board, and relatively new staff in key positions. We needed to fundraise urgently, in a tricky political climate—this, at least, was not new—and I wondered whether funders would be concerned about my commitment as a leader given that I’d just had a baby.

In fact, we’ve been able to take the opportunity to take building our SIMLab team in a new direction. With the full backing of the team and board, we developed a maternity leave plan for me which allowed me to work flexibly from home during my leave, and return on an initial 80% basis starting from this month. I’ve been able to be around for key meetings and decisions, and as institutional memory when needed, and have had the luxury of fitting work around my (admittedly very sunny and easy) two-month-old. The team have been wildly wonderful when a call has to be rescheduled—or have a tiny additional participant, and one who does not respect meeting etiquette at that. I’ve kept my hand in, while being forced to finally handover old duties for the first time, and going back to work is more a case of ramping up than a wrenching change in my life as a new parent. And I’ve realised how many of our friends and donors also have caring responsibilities, and how sympathetic they are to the challenges.

It’s not all plain sailing—I’m still working out how to cope with unexpected limits on my working time, when little Lee is sick or wants her Mum, and struggling with switching my brain to work mode without the usual methodical checks through email and Asana. And I have yet to find the perfect daycare. I also recognise that to be able to get by on 80% on my salary speaks to our privilege as a family.

SIMLab has not arrived here accidentally. It’s long been my intention to create a supportive culture, and support our team to have outside interests and care for families. For me this is part of our definition of success. This isn’t always easy, when at times it would be simpler to accept funding and other solutions that wouldn’t allow for that. But our Board supported this aim completely, and in our last Strategy period we agreed to make diversity one of six core Aims. I believe whole-heartedly that this will pay dividends in the long run—indeed we already have a happy team who know they can ask for what they need. Our staff are able to work remotely, and negotiate new arrangements and work locations. We offer the same competitive parental leave policy for people giving birth as for partners, and for adoption. With my leave and new part-time arrangement, we’ve demonstrated that we’re a family-friendly organization, and a great potential employer for the growing numbers of people in our space who need to factor care and home into their working life. And we’ve learned quite a bit from the experience, for example:

  • When you’re writing your parental leave policy, more is more: a clear, detailed policy that factors in all eventualities will be invaluable to help new parents to plan. Don’t leave ambiguities. As CEO, I found that I felt uncomfortable taking the leeway to make mistakes and miss meetings when working from home with the baby that I’d offered a past staff member when she was on leave. As a senior team member, with no-one to offer that flexibility formally, it felt like taking advantage of my leadership position. Similarly, different managers might approach things differently, leading to different interpretations of your policy from one team to another. Spell everything out, and you’ll get the policy you intended.

  • Make a good transition plan when preparing for someone’s leave, factoring in key relationships and who will pick them up during the new parent’s absence. Encourage openness in the organization about how the absence will be managed. Talk, too, about the demands of care on employees, particularly leadership, balancing responsibilities at work and at home. Open discussion makes people feel comfortable about using and helping to improve organizational policy, and about working together to facilitate a flexible approach to teamwork when someone is out or under pressure.

  • Factor in ‘keeping in touch days’, a British habit which allows parents to work up to 10 days during their leave to attend key meetings, keep their hands in and practice being away from their baby and dealing with things like breast pumps.

  • As the parent, don’t expect that you’ll be able to work from home without someone else on hand to care for the little one. Even if you’re not a breastfeeding parent, babies need their parents when they get cranky or hit a developmental milestone, and don’t respect schedules!

  • The need for leave doesn’t end when the baby is old enough for daycare, either. Make sure that new parents keep enough time available that they can be at home if the baby is sick, and consider creating a firm category of leave and a way to track it, so that rights and duties are clear. And consider also writing policies for other types of leave - increasing numbers of us have to care for older relatives, and people need to take time for bereavements, jury duty, and community service, too.

These issues are critical to supporting a diverse workforce in our tech for social good sector, particularly at senior levels. We’d love to know how others have dealt with these challenges, and if you have questions or comments, we’d love to hear from you. Normal service will resume with my next post, sharing our Strategy for 2017 and beyond.