The Sustainability Question, Why it is So Annoying

sustainabilityThis morning, I woke up early and realized I was face-to-face with my son, Viet, who has been sleeping in the same bed with his mom and me. Looking at our sweet little baby, who was still sleeping peacefully, one tiny hand under his soft and rosy cheek, I was filled with warm fatherly thoughts. Namely: “When is this kid going to get a job and help pay for his keep?” I was tempted to wake him up and say, “You do realize that childcare for you each month is literally more than our mortgage, right? You better enjoy this while you can, little dude, because when you turn 18, you’re on your own.”

And that makes me think about the issue of sustainability of nonprofit programs. In every grant application, there is the “Sustainability Question,” which is basically, “How will you sustain this program or project when funding from the So-and-So Foundation runs out?” This seems absolutely reasonable at first glance, but honestly, it’s one of the most annoying questions we face. Most of us nonprofit professionals absolutely hate this question, and each time we see it, we have to leave our desk, go on a walk, maybe do some yoga or watch “The Daily Show,” then come back to our desk, take a deep breath, and write something  like:

“We will continue to develop our staff and board’s ability to fundraise and diversify our revenues, including building relationship with other funders, as well as cultivating support from corporate sponsors and individual donors. Our special events continue to increase in revenues, and the board is leading the effort to explore earned income through program fees and the door-to-door sales of inspiring macaroni artwork made by the children in our extended-learning program.”

All of that is basically a euphemism for “We will leave you alone and bother other people.”

“Just once,” said my ED friend, Director Maureen, “here’s what I’d like to put in response to that question:”

  • Program staff and the board will triple the amount of time they spend praying for money
  • Program participants will be asked to pray for money to provide for their services as well
  • 10% of general operating funds will be utilized to purchase Power Ball lottery tickets
  • Fund development staff will regularly consult a reputable psychic to help track which direction foundations are trending to support

Why is this question so aggravating? Why does every time I answer it, I feel like crap? I sent out an email to my ED friends in the field, asking for their thoughts, and the responses were passionate and insightful. While the issue is complex and requires a lot more time to explore, I’ll try my best to summarize my colleagues’ thoughts. Overall, the Sustainability Question is annoying and frustrating because:

Sustainability is in large part determined by funders, not nonprofits. As much as we love individual donors, many of us still rely on grants, and grants are usually small and one-year in duration. We get a bunch of one-year grants that are Frankensteined together to support programs, each one with their own set of demands and restrictions, (which I explored here in “Nonprofit Funding: Ordering a Cake and Restricting it Too.”). As one ED puts it, “Why is fidelity to the mission so highly valued and expected of nonprofit leaders and staff but funders expect to ‘sleep around?‘ One year and you’re out. [They] don’t even come back and ask.” This lumbering, unwieldy, tenuous system is the antithesis of sustainability, so to ask how we nonprofits will maintain and grow our programs within it is kind of like setting a fire and asking how we will be putting it out.

Sustainability depends on the whole organization being strong, yet funders do not like providing general operating funds. Really great programs do not magically appear out of thin air. It takes real people, people who need, like, an office to work at and healthcare for their stress and carpal tunnel and stuff. These things are critical, and yet we have to constantly fight for them. “We will cultivate relationships with individual donors and corporate sponsors, etc.” sounds great, but that requires development staff, which is fundraising, and no one likes to fund “fundraising” and “admin” expenses, because those things are so frivolous and useless.

The nonprofit model is unique in that success at carrying out our missions leads to increasing costs, not revenues. The more successful programs are, the more clients they will serve, the more staff and other expenses will increase, without a proportionate increase in support. An example is VFA’s Saturday English School (SES) program, which provides English and Math support to recent-arrival immigrant and refugee students every Saturday for three hours. Five years ago, we had 30 students show up each session. Because of how awesome the program is, we now have over 150 students each session. This is a five-fold increase in number of students served. The expenses tripled, since more students means more snacks, more teaching staff, more curriculum material, etc. But funders are not going to triple the amount they provide; if we’re lucky, they’ll renew at the same level, and we’ll have to go search for other, newer funders to provide support. This is the Program Growth Paradox, where the more a program is successful and expands, the less sustainable it is.

Other reasons cited by my ED colleagues include “we know very, very well that not every program that literally changes people’s lives for the better can become self-sustaining” (but should be funded anyway, see “Nonprofit’s Ultimate Outcome: Bringing Unicorns Back to Our World“), “I have no clue where my future funds will come from so everything I say sounds like BS” and “after five or more friggin pages of explaining just HOW MUCH you need the bucks, you are now invited to totally reverse yourself” and “I will think about this and get back to you after I have several drinks to calm down.”

Credit: James Hong, VFA’s Director of Operations

The most serious challenge with the Sustainability Question, however, is that it symptomatic of a divisive and patronizing system that perpetuates the unhealthy dichotomy of nonprofits as supplicants continually begging for spare change, and funders as benefactors. “How will YOU sustain this program? How will YOU sustain it after OUR funding that WE (might) give YOU runs out?” We now feel like the underemployed college-grad living in our parents’ basement, freeloading off of their good will, until they call us in for a serious talk about our future and demand to know what our plans are to find a job and inform us that it’s for our own good that in six months they will kick us out. We feel like Oliver Twist, who has to beg for another bowl of gruel from the…uh…that one guy, who serves…gruel…

OK, I haven’t read Oliver Twist.

The Sustainability Question is aggravating because the responsibility is overtly placed on nonprofits’ shoulders to fix problems in the world that we didn’t cause in the first place. Once the question is asked, “It immediately becomes somebody else’s problem,” writes one of my ED friends.  It feels like funders are at the end of their ropes trying to “help” us nonprofits and if we fail to sustain our work, it is all our fault. This is not working for our field.

Every once in a while I meet a program officer who used to be a nonprofit staff. “Ah,” they sometimes reminisce, “I miss being on that side of the table.” And I would say, “Tell me what it’s like on your side of the table?” And we would talk, and I would learn that being on the other side of the table has its challenges, and that it’s not all completely awesome, with ergonomic chairs and dental AND vision insurance and with each person getting access to the company unicorn to ride to important meetings.

But that makes me think, Why the heck are we on opposite sides of the table in the first place? Aren’t we all trying to solve the same problems? Why is the relationship between funders and nonprofits so adversarial? It is ineffective. We should be on the same team, where the quarterback supports the…uh, linebacker so that he can make a, um, rim shot at the…fourth inning…

All right, I don’t know anything about sports. Point is, nonprofits and funders must be equal partners, with different but symbiotic roles, and sustainability of the work must be shouldered by both parties. We nonprofits think all the time about sustainability, even without being prompted, and we will continue to build strong programs and diversify our funding. Funders, as equal partners, should provide multi-year funds, general operating funds, capacity building assistance, and help connect us to other funders and partners. And come visit the programs once a while! We must work together to figure out how to sustain and advance the work. We have to, because the needs of and challenges facing our communities are only going to increase.


More on funder-fundee relationships: The Wall of Philanthropy, Wildlings, and White Walkers

7 self-care tips for nonprofit professionals

Today, I was at the grocery store trying to decide whether it was worth it to buy twelve organic blueberries for five dollars, when I noticed chanterelle mushrooms. Chanterelle mushrooms! Already?! There is nothing in the world that I love more than chanterelle mushrooms, and yes, that includes my wife and new baby. With their bright orange color, sweet apricot aroma, and meaty texture, eating chanterelles is like being punched in the mouth by happiness. I eagerly anticipate them every fall, one of the few consolations for the melancholy end of summer. Delirious, I bought half a pound for seven dollars and came home, inspired to make a risotto.

Risotto can be a difficult dish to make. It involves a lot of stirring, followed by more stirring, then more stirring, and then you run to the bathroom for two minutes and come back and your risotto is burned and you’re all bitter…as bitter as your risotto.

While cooking, I thought, Dude, risotto is a delicious culinary metaphor for our work! Specifically, our pace of work. We are constantly adding broth and stirring! We talk about self-care all the time, but most of us suck at it. My staff, for example, work ridiculous hours, often late into the evening and on weekends. Last week I caught one of them sneaking into the office. He was supposed to be on vacation, and I specifically forbid him from coming to the office. “Go home,” I yelled, looking around to find some stones to throw at him, “get out of here! You’re not wanted!”

We all suck at self-care, and we burn out, and that is not good for us, our clients, our families, our organizations, or the field. Which is why, while making the risotto, I thought up these tips so we can all take better care of ourselves:

Assess what is on your plate and taking up all your time, and also what is draining your energy. Are you attending like way too many useless meetings? Are you on too many committees that meet in the evenings? Do you have annoying coworkers that you hang out with but you don’t really want to hang out with them too much, mainly because it’s fantasy football season and that’s all they can talk about? Listing these things out will be helpful, because then you can prioritize.

Make a not-to-do list: Every once a while, I make a to-do list, which I get through half-way, then other stuff get in the way, and I abandon it. Then I started making not-to-do lists, and that was much easier. You should try it. It can be a list of stuff you are currently doing that you might want to consider no longer doing, for example, do you really need to have a staff meeting every week or is biweekly ok? It can also be a list of stuff that you are currently not doing, but it’ll make you feel better to write them down and check them off. For example, on my list I have “Not sucking up to this one corporate sponsor; not attending this one management training; not attending this fundraising breakfast held by a partner organization.” Check, check, and check. I feel more productive already.

Determine what brings you energy. Make a list of stuff that makes you happy or that you enjoy. Hiking? Chocolate? Pictures of bunnies? Taking naps? Whittling small animals out of soap? Contra dancing? Self-care is about what recharges your battery. This list varies from person to person, and that’s OK. Sometimes self-care tips prescribe things that you should do, like exercise for 30 minutes each day. If those are helpful, great, but if not, they might make you feel bad because you can’t or won’t do those things. For some people, early morning yoga before downing a kale-flavored smoothie energizes them, and that’s great for them. For me, I’d rather juggle Ziploc bags full of live scorpions than do “yoga,” or drink “green smoothies,” or “shower at least once a week.” Find what works for you.

Do the crap that makes you happy: Every day, take time, even ten minutes, to do something on the list you made of things you enjoy. If you enjoy them, it shouldn’t be a chore for you to do them. Still, it may be hard at first, because habits can be difficult to develop, especially the good ones. At work, find stuff you can do while working. For example, taking a break to look at pictures of cute animals (which actually is proven to increase productivity); listening to your favorite 90’s hip-hop songs while writing that grant; or making sock puppets during meetings.

Recruit your coworkers: It’s often more fun to do things with other people. Chances are, everyone in your office is as stressed as you are. At the next staff meeting, share and brainstorm ideas for self-care. Select a couple of them to implement. Don’t be overly ambitious, or you’ll feel like crap if you are not successful. Explore a new restaurant together for lunch once a month. Go on a walk as a team once a week. Have an office talent show to display your awesome sock puppets. Of course, if your coworkers actually drain your energy, then maybe just avoid them until fantasy football season is over.

Learn to say no: Self-care is also a lot about self-protection, specifically from excessive demands. I find that the only reward for competency is more work. The more competent you are, the more people will ask you do to stuff. But, luckily most people usually understand when you say, “I’d love to help, but I can’t take on any more responsibilities at this time.” You can also preemptively buffer yourself from being approached in the first place by feigning incompetence, which I have been successfully doing for years.

Stop feeling bad about self-care: It’s amazing how many people stress out about self-care—“Eeek, I’m not doing enough self-care!” or “Eeek, I’m not doing self-care right!”—which I find to be very ironic.  Dude, self-care is about feeling good, so if thinking about how to make yourself feel good is making yourself feel bad, then knock it off for now, maybe come back to it later. Also, don’t let others make you feel bad about what brings you energy. I happen to watch probably way too much TV. At the end of each work day, I’m exhausted from hours of thinking and making decisions. What brings me energy is NOT having to think or plan or decide or be creative, and TV is awesome for that.

Hell, if work brings you energy and hasn’t been negatively impacting other areas of your life, like your romantic relationship, then don’t feel bad about working too much either. I love my work, and for a long while it energized me with the feeling that the efforts may in some ways contribute to making the world better. The hours flew by. Work WAS my self-care. Now I have a baby, and priorities changed, and a lot of my energy comes from being a good father. But still, this work, with all its craziness and frustrations, is fun and important, and a huge part of taking care of myself is doing a good job at my work, including working evenings and weekends on occasion.

I hope those tips are helpful. Our work never ends. There is always more stuff to do, more grants to write, more donors to cultivate, more research to study, more management concepts to learn, more relationships to build, more program elements to improve, more meetings to attend. And since this work is so critical, with real people being affected, finding down-time can be challenging, sometimes even guilt-inducing. If we stop stirring, we feel like the risotto may burn. But if we don’t stop stirring to take care of ourselves, we will all burn out. And then who the hell is going to make the delicious wild mushroom risotto of equity and justice for our community?

What do you do for self-care? Please add your tips in the comment section. See you later. I’m going to go enjoy my slightly-burned chanterelle risotto while watching “Under the Dome,” an enjoyably awful TV show.

PS: @AllAmericaCity on Twitter pointed out something obvious that I missed: Laughter. Duh! This was one of the reasons why this blog was started in the first place. We must be able to laugh at ourselves, and we should find other things that make us laugh. Poorly-organized panels? That’s funny. Applying to a grant and being called in thinking you are advancing to the next stage only to get kicked in the groin, that’s hilarious!

This literally makes my head explode

Hi everyone, I normally post on Mondays, but recently the dictionary people have changed the definition of the word “literally” to also mean “figuratively” since enough people have used it wrong, and thus have literally destroyed the English language. I cannot in good conscience stand back and let this travesty continue without declaring shenanigans. I don’t care what the dictionary idiots say, people are using “literally” wrong, and each time I hear it, for a split second in my head it’s like having to plan an annual event, and we all know how awful that is. Here are some examples of how we nonprofit folks use “literally” wrong:

Example 1: “One of my staff literally hates my guts.”

Wrong! Your staff probably does not specifically hate your intestines. You just mean that your staff hates you with a passion, including and certainly not limited to your digestive system.

Example 2: “It was an awesome fundraising luncheon. Literally everyone in the room donated.”

Wrong! This would only be correct if ALL of the people in the room actually donated, including the serving staff, the AV dude, the children, the clients, the MC, the auctioneer, the volunteers, everyone.

Example 3: “My board is literally making me crazy.”

Most likely wrong! You probably mean that the board is causing you a lot of stress and anxiety. If, because of board members’ actions, you seek counseling and are diagnosed with a severe psychological disorder, then yes, they literally made you crazy, in which case, you may want to stop working in the nonprofit field and do something less stressful like make organic pesto to sell at the farmer’s market or something.

Example 4: “We need a better database. Our donors are literally disappearing.”

Wrong, wrong! Your database is crappy and it’s not recording information accurately or something so it is hard to find certain people. Your donors are not literally disappearing, since teleportation technology has not advanced to that stage yet.

Example 5: “That site visit literally kicked me in the teeth.”

So wrong that I want to literally freeze a banana and beat you with it. A site visit is an event, which is intangible. It cannot physically kick you in the teeth. It has no legs. Program officers, however, are tangible, and most can certainly literally kick you in your teeth. And if that should happen—worst program officer EVER—your organization may have hit the jackpot (just sue the foundation for “dental injuries resulting from excessive force.”)

Every time you feel the urge to use the word “literally” when talking to me, just punch me in the throat, because that will be far less painful (not literally), unless you actually know what you’re saying, for instance “I literally have over 1300 emails in my inbox” or “Parking was so bad that I had to park literally half a mile away.” That’s the beauty of “literally” when it is used right: It helps to separate reality out of all the hyperbole and exaggerations of which all of us are incredibly fond.

How can a word also mean its complete opposite? Where does the madness end? This has been a sad, sad month for those of us who love language and the power of words. Words are important, since our clients rely on many of us to advocate for them and to help them tell their stories. Look, I’m all for slang and I know that language is an evolving thing. But this is not slang. Slang is like “Dude, your afterschool program is so literal!” That would be OK with me. It’s also not an evolution of a word. It is just a bunch of people using a word wrong!

A while ago I wrote a letter to my newborn baby, detailing the lessons I want to pass on to him in case I die early. The very first lesson is:

Never judge anyone for anything ever. Even people who create stupid commercials, like those Subway commercials with the annoying adults with kids’ voices, what the hell were they thinking? Also, people who don’t know how to correctly use ‘literally.’ They say ridiculous things like ‘that meeting literally made my head explode.’ It’s easy to judge them, but try not to, since it doesn’t make you any happier in the long run.”

Well, son, if you’re reading this, I’m making special exceptions so you can judge people who use “literally” wrong. You can also judge the dictionary morons who decided to change the definition of a word just because a lot of people suck at using it. Heck, by the time you’re old enough, who knows what other “evolutions” the language has made. Maybe “principal” can now also mean “principle” since enough people get those mixed up. Heck, why just keep to language. We should also officially change pi to exactly 3.14, since those are the only numbers people remember anyway, screw precise calculations that has led to achievements like space exploration.

I’m going to bed. This is making me sick. Figuratively, but maybe even literally.

Example 6: “This is literally the worst Nonprofit with Balls post you’ve ever written.”

Uh…well, um, your FACE is literally the worst post ever written!

12 Tips for Not Sucking as a Panel Moderator

A while ago I wrote “Tips for Not Sucking when You’re on a Panel,” which went viral. (Among us nonprofit bloggers “going viral” means that at least 12 people have read your post). Of course, a panel can have awesome panelists, but if the moderator sucks, then the panel will also likely suck, resulting in disappointed audience members who are now in a bad mood though they can’t pinpoint why. It will also result in panelists who will immediately go to happy hour to drink and talk about what a horrible human being the panel moderator is for wasting their time and expertise.

Moderating a panel, however, is not like making meth, which I’ve learned in Breaking Bad is actually very complicated and precise. If you are asked to moderate a panel, or if you know someone who will be moderating one, just follow the simple steps below, and you are guaranteed to not suck. There are 12 tips, which may be hard to remember, so I’ve made them into an acronym: TPLFIDPPVCEC

1. First and foremost, Think of the audience. Yes, the unlearned, unwashed masses huddled silently in front of the refined and much better dressed panelists. Seriously, the whole point of the panel is to impart something useful to this lowly group of people. Panelists are just instruments toward that objective. You wouldn’t have a panel if you had no audience, right? You are there to serve the audience first, the panelists second. Always keep that in mind.

2. Prepare. Nothing is as annoying as a disorganized panel, except maybe toenail fungus or children singing in the background of rap songs. Communicate with your panelists so they know the objective of the panel. Read up on their work so that you are knowledgeable when you brainstorm your questions. Give them a few sample questions you may ask. Send reminders as the date approaches, and ask panelists to arrive 30 minutes early. Tell them it’s so that they can meet one another, but it’s actually just a good strategy to minimize lateness.

3. Limit your panelists to 3 or 4 people; 3 is ideal. I was once on a panel with NINE other people. By the time everyone finished their introduction, we had 15 minutes left. It was on a Sunday, too, so there were approximately 18 people in the audience. Fortunately, everyone left inspired, and by that, I mean bitter and angry.

4. Frame the conversation. In your short welcome speech—and make sure it’s short—repeat the objective of the panel. Why is this topic important? What is the problem? What do we want everyone in the audience to leave with? Framing will help everyone stay focused, especially your panelists, some of whom probably didn’t prepare at all and only signed up to be on a panel to avoid real work.

Also, use this framing time to establish some ground rules, including asking panelists to keep their responses to-the-point, and that you apologize in advance but you will cut them off if their answers are too long. It keeps panelists on guard, and it reassures the audience that you are on their side.

5. Introduce the speakers. You wanted them to introduce themselves? Ask a bystander to slap you right now for even thinking of such a thing. Giving panelists time to talk about themselves is tantamount to panel suicide, and I don’t use the term “tantamount” lightly. I’ve seen a panelist go on for 15 minutes about her background, and the moderator did nothing about it. If you introduce people, you can both make the panelists feel important (“Aw, he learned about my work and memorized a fun fact so he could introduce me…”) as well as control the time. If you insist on having panelists introduce themselves, fine, but say something like, “Please introduce yourself in one minute or less. I mean it, one minute.” Then glare at each of them and draw a finger across your neck to ensure they get the message.

6. Ditch the PowerPoint. As a panelist I never use PowerPoint. One, because I’m lazy, but two, because people don’t really want to look at PP slides, because everyone is generally bad at PowerPoint, adding way too much text and having too many slides. And when you have four or five people, each using a PP presentation, the logistics are annoying, and even if logistically everything goes smoothly, people will always go over time limit, limiting time for discussion, and the audience will be snoozing away. There are exceptions, but overall, a simple one-page summary handout will more effectively accomplish almost anything a PowerPoint can do and won’t make your audience members wish for the Mayan Apocalypse to have taken place.

7. Pay Attention. Some moderators feel like they are just there to kick-off the conversation and let the panelists take over until the Q&A section. No, that’s very lazy. As a moderator, your job is to moderate, thus, you are called a moderator…so therefore you should moderate. However, you can’t do that if you are not paying attention. Sit next to the panelists, or maybe in the corner formation (described here in “Feng Shui for Nonprofits, the Seven Basic Meeting Formations”). Have a notebook with you and write down things as panelists talk that you want to clarify or ask follow-up questions to, which we’ll talk about below.

8. Provoke reactions and discussion. You have a bunch of (hopefully) brilliant experts with a (hopefully) diverse set of viewpoints. It is a boring waste of time and opportunity if they don’t interact with one another. Panelists tend to be too polite (unless they read my Tips for not sucking as panelists, in which case they should be getting into fist-fights with one another), so you must force them to interact. You can do this tactfully by summarizing and asking for counter-opinions, e.g., “John: Susan said that parental engagement is THE key factor in student achievement. You had mentioned earlier that you were a terrible student.  I think Susan may have insulted your mother. How do you respond to that?”

9. Varietize. Too many moderators have the “assembly line” format, where they ask a question, then panelists go down the line answering. Usually by the time the third person speaks, half of the audience has tuned out. By the time the fifth person speaks, 75% of them have entered some sort of trance-like state where they are daydreaming about inventing a time machine to go back in time and prevent their parents from meeting so that they wouldn’t be born and thus would not have to attend this panel.

Assembly line is fine once a while, especially if your questions are good, but don’t keep using it. Call on different people for different questions. Ask panelists to rank or prioritize things and defend their positions. Point out potential disagreements. You must be on your toes to do all of that, but the audience and panelists will get a lot more out of it.

10. Cut off long-winded speakers. A major, in fact probably most important, job of the moderator is to intervene when panelists are off track or rambling. If you followed Tip #4 and framed the conversation right, it will help people to not be offended. Now it’s just a matter of politely jumping in with things like, “I’m sorry for cutting you off, John, but I’d like to get the other panelists’ viewpoints before we move to the next questions” or “John, it seems like you have a lot of valuable insight on this topic, but we have several questions left and I want to make sure we get your perspective on those questions too” or “John, excuse me…John? Hey, John…listen…can you…I’m sorry for…John, just shut up! Shut up, John!” It’s uncomfortable to have to do that, but that’s your job.

11. Engage the audience. If you watch talk shows, notice how skillful they are at engaging the audience. Audience members are asked to participate in everything. On The Doctors, they pull audience members up to feel fake mucus in an enlarged sinus. I think that’s what I saw once. Talk shows know that without the audience, there is no show. Depending on how big your audience is, you may want to do things like ask people to briefly introduce themselves, do a quick ice breaker (here are some icebreakers that don’t suck), have small-group discussions, raise their hands for various questions, come up to feel fake snot, etc. Then leave plenty of time for Q&A, since an engaged audience will have more questions.

12. Conclude with practical take-aways/advice. Do not ask your panelists to go down the line summarizing what they just said, or to conclude with some final words of wisdom or something. Chances are, the panelists will waffle something incoherent. Best to end with something like “What is something concrete the audience members can do today to blah blah” or “what are three practical pieces of advice you have for our audience for blah blah” or “In one word, what do you think will solve the problem of blah blah.” Don’t actually say “blah blah.” Replace it with the relevant topic. (Although, blahness is a really big problem in the world)

Get those 12 tips down and you should be a pretty decent panel moderator. Just remember TPLFIDPPVCEC. Leave additional tips in the comment, and please forward this list on to your panel moderating friends.

PS: Bonus tip: Reconsider giving panelists mugs as a thank-you (I have eight from panels). We don’t expect any gifts, but if you are going to give a small token of thanks, here are some acceptable items: Movie tickets, gift cards to local coffee shops, or bars of dark chocolate (at least 65% cocoa). Mugs are fine, but maybe fill them with whiskey first.

Thinking of Bill Henningsgaard and his family

BillIt has been hard to write anything humorous this week after learning about the plane crash in Connecticut that took the lives of Bill Henningsgaard, his son Max, and the two kids who were in the house. I had known Bill only briefly, but those few moments were enough to see what an amazing person he was, and what a caring and loving family surrounded him.

I knew Bill through his wife, Susan, who drops by once a while to the ED Happy Hours I coordinate, a time once a month for us EDs to get together and drink and complain about stuff. I was on a panel about education that Susan organized, and Bill was in the audience. He came up to me afterward and thanked me for the stuff I said about social justice and equity in the education system.

“Vu, I heard from Susan about EDHH,” he said, “can you add me to the mailing list?”

“Sure, Director Bill,” I said, informing him of the new trend I was starting on how we EDs should be addressed, “we should also get coffee sometime. I’d love to learn more about your work with Eastside Pathways.”

“Absolutely,” he said, “send me an email.”

Life got in the way, mainly my impending fatherhood, and I never sent him an email to get coffee. Bill received the monthly invitations to ED Happy Hour, though, and he would send back apologies for not being able to make them. “As a committed Hobbit head,” he wrote to me in an email, “I’m taking my family to the first-day showing,” which conflicted with the EDHH that month.

“Director Vu,” he wrote me months later when I invited him to my organization’s annual fundraising dinner, “Can’t join you on this, as it’s my (and Susan’s) son’s 17th birthday. As almost empty-nesters, we have to make the most of the few remaining chances for birthday cake and candles (as we don’t tend to go in for that sort of thing for ourselves). Sorry I can’t join you.”

Once, though, he and Susan showed up for an ED Happy Hour, bringing beer and guacamole. We had a great time, the seven or eight EDs who were there. Somehow the conversation turned to PeaceTrees Vietnam’s work detonating unexploded landmines, and Bill had this brilliant idea of using a rock band that would detonate the mines using really loud music. Later, I mentioned I was anxious about the baby, and Susan and Bill tried to cheer me up, imparting advice as veteran parents. They left early for a family event, and I thought of how nice and down-to-earth Bill was, how great it was that Bill and Susan prioritized family so highly, and how I really should follow up with him to get coffee. Anyone who admits to being a “Hobbit head” is cool to me, I thought.

My son was born, and everything was crazy, and I still never followed up with Bill.

Today, I was holding my 4-month-old son, Viet, and I thought of the unimaginable depths of grief and despair that the families must be going through, especially the two mothers, my friend Susan and the mother of Sade Brantley and Madisyn Mitchell, who have watched their kids grow up, sung them to sleep, seen their first smile, heard their first words. A parent’s heart breaks with every scratch, every fever. I know this now. To lose anyone, but especially your child, so suddenly, with no time for goodbyes, it is a pain that most of us can only imagine and hope to never have to endure.

Though I barely knew Bill, I knew he was a brilliant and compassionate person who has given much to the community, who will continue to inspire even though he’s gone. I never met Max, and I can only read about the other two kids, Sade and Madisyn, who were killed in this tragedy, but I know they had families and a community that loved them and whose hearts ache for them. Today, holding my little son, who is already growing up so fast, I was reminded of Bill’s words. “We have to make the most of the few remaining chances for birthday cake and candles,” he wrote, words that we should all live by, since we rarely know what joys and what profound sorrows life will bring us.

A memorial service for Bill and Max Henningsgaard will be held on Friday, August 16th at 1:00 PM.  The service will be held at First Presbyterian Church of Bellevue at 1717 Bellevue Way NE, Bellevue, WA 98004