3 reasons we all need to go to more happy hours


Happy-HourLast week I went to Boise, Idaho to give a keynote speech. And to eat an Idaho potato in its native setting, which is number 37 on my bucket list. (What, like your bucket list is so much more interesting). Boise is a lovely town, and I think my speech, titled “Happy Hour: A Tool for Social Justice,” went over pretty well with the crowd of 300-or-so friendly Idahoans. It was 45 minutes of profound concepts mixed with hilarious nonprofit jokes like “Why did the ED cross the road? So he could hand-deliver a grant proposal while one of his staff drives around the block…” You know what, you had to be there.  (See “8 Classic nonprofit jokes to tell at parties.”)

Anyway, it would be cruel to make you read the entire 7-page, 5,000-word speech. So I’ll just summarize the main points, the chief of them being that we all need to get out of our office more often, because happy hour is not just about getting a drink with some colleagues. It is a tool for social justice, and the fate of the world may just depend on it.

The nonprofit field is full of paradoxes. Prime example: we are dealing with society’s most entrenched and complex problems, and we’re given the fewest resources and the fewest freedoms on what we can do with those resources. We are expected to tackle such profound issues as homelessness and racism, while having our hands tied by funding restrictions. We are expected to sustain ourselves, yet the fact is that the more successful our programs become, the less sustainable we are (See: “The sustainability question: Why it is so annoying.”)

And we know we must collaborate and work more cohesively together to be more effective, yet because of the restrictions and constant pressure for survival, we hunker down in our offices, writing our grants, eating our kale salads, consulting with our Magic 8 balls to predict revenues for next fiscal year, etc. We need to break out of these silos and, yes, go to happy hour. Here are several reasons:

The strength of weak ties. Mark Granovetter, a sociologist and professor at Stanford, did some cool research. His article, “The Strengths of Weak Ties,” published in 1973, has been one of the most cited papers in history, with over 27,000 citations (and this was before social media). You can read it here. It’s fascinating. You’re not going to read it, are you? Fine, basically what he describes are strong ties and weak ties. Strong ties are what we have with family members and very close friends; weak ties are the ones we have with coworkers, acquaintances, neighbors, board members, volunteers, donors, etc. This combination of weak and strong ties holds society together. However, weak ties play critical roles. The most novel ideas and concepts, Granovetter says, do not come through our strong ties, but through our weak ties. That’s because our strong ties are too similar to us, so we tend to know what they know. Imagine spending all day with your BFF. If I were to spend all day with my buddies, we’d just watch 10 episodes of Game of Thrones, get tipsy, and then mumble along to the indecipherable lyrics of the only Kajagoogoo song that we know: “Too shy, shy, hush hush eye to eye.” 

The magic of unforced collaborations. Some of the best collaborating happens when people are not trying hard to collaborate. Things organically and spontaneously happen when we are just getting to know our colleagues. We have lost the art of just getting to know someone, the magic of genuine connection. Instead, we have become a bunch of robots trading business cards, most with little likelihood of follow-up. I’ve seen amazing things happen when colleagues in the field just grab a beer together without much of an agenda. While so many of us snicker at this concept of happy hour, it plays an important role in building genuine agenda-free relationships, and ironically, when there are few or no agenda, kick-ass stuff happens. The most effective boards and staff, research has shown, are the ones where team members enjoy each other’s company outside of official business. This can apply to the entire sector as a whole.

The urgency of community. The building of community is one of the most critical things that we nonprofits do, and something we, above any other field, are great at. Unfortunately, it’s not an outcome most funders would fund, and thus, we don’t prioritize it as much as we should. But we cannot keep being reactive: “Uh oh, this client needs a service that we don’t provide. Crap, who do we know who provides that?” The problems we are addressing are complex, interrelated. Our clients, the people we serve, cannot afford a piecemeal system. We must be more cohesive. We have to understand what everyone else is doing. For example, early learning must work better with youth development who must work more effectively with family services, employment programs, programs for the elderly, etc. We must act as a community.

There you go, those are three solid reasons that we need to spend more time hanging out with our colleagues in the field; that’s not even counting numerous other reasons like self-care and supporting our local economy. Of course, this is all within reason. I mean, we should get our work done too. But seriously, this is part of the work, to get to know our co-workers, build community, and figure out innovative ways to work together. So what should you do?

  • Get a beer with your coworkers. It’s crazy that we probably see our coworkers more often than we see our spouses and children, and yet sometimes we hardly know them at all.
  • EDs, get a beer with your board members. They’re on your board for how long, and you’ve never had a conversation with them about their stories and why they joined your org? You should be having one-on-ones with each of them at least once a year, preferably twice a year or more. The more time you spend with them and get to know them personally, the more effective you’ll be able to work together. Get a beer with your board members individually, and find ways for them to interact with each other outside of official board business. Recruit a board member to be the social chair.
  • Get a beer with your superstar volunteers. They spend endless hours helping out your org. They deserve a beer, and more importantly, some personal time with you.
  • Get a beer with your donors. It shouldn’t be that the only time they ever hear from you is when you’re making a pitch for money.
  • Get a beer with your programs officers. They’re really nice, very charming, intelligent, good-looking, and generous people with impeccable fashion sense (and I’m not just saying that because several of them read this blog and/or fund my organizations)
  • Get a beer with people with similar positions as yours in other orgs. Start building those relationships. This is one of the best, cheapest, and most entertaining professional development strategies.
  • Get a beer with people you admire. Also awesome professional development.
  • Get a beer with people who look up to you. We must support and encourage the younger professionals who are entering into our field. They will be holding the torch soon.
  • Get a beer with people you normally never talk to. Remember Granovetter’s theory, that we get the most interesting and novel information from people who are not the closest to us. 

Of course, I say beer, but if you don’t drink, that’s fine. Get tea or ice cream or lunch or hot chocolate or taiyaki, the Japanese waffle that’staiyaki shaped like a fish and filled with sweetened azuki beans, or whatever. Our weak ties must be stronger if we are going to tackle the myriad challenges facing our world. In the immortal words of Kajagoogoo: “Tummy tattered shattered breath something, try a little a harder, something right last eve you must be strong…hey girl, move a little closer.”


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  • Awesome, insightful article, as always Vu. Thanks for making us think. And thanks for making my Monday “suck a little less” 🙂 Enjoy your week!

    • Thanks, Laura. Your comment made my Monday suck a little less 🙂

  • Hildie Lipson


  • Jay Seller, PhD

    Great Monday morning article, and who knew Idaho had so many great happy hours.

    • Jay, I actually didn’t get a chance to explore Idaho much. But I’m sure it has lots of great happy hour. I mean, potatoes and beer just go together.

  • I’m confused, what if we want to get a scotch with coworkers, donors, peers, people we look up to or people who look up to us? Can we do that? Or are the only choices beer or hummus?

    • Amy, Scotch is fine after 2pm.

  • Peg Richards

    Thanks Vu … I enjoyed the presentation and the article … Hope you actually got that potato in its natural environment …

    • Thanks, Peg. It was great to get a chance to chat with you and see pictures of your grandkids. I never got that potato. But, I drank some vodka, so I think that counts…

  • Edie Unland Schab

    A minor clarification…..we were not all from Boise. Yes, probably most, but we came and heard Vu’s speech from all over the state. And, HE Vu) was amazing and inspiring!!!

    • Thanks, Edie. I changed “Boisian” in the first paragraph to “Idahoan.” It was so great to meet you.

  • Lorraine Thomas

    1) Thank you for the earworm.
    2) You are right. As always.
    C) In the Sims3 part of what moves a Sim along their chosen career path is not just showing up for work but also they degree to which they develop relationships with their co-workers. So if it’s true for virtual people it must be true for actual people.

    • Lorraine, 1, 2, C, huh? There is a lot we can learn from the Sims games

  • Cynthia Wallesz

    It was wonderful to meet you very briefly in Boise and hear your inspiring presentations -thank you! I’ve been spreading the word of ED Happy Hours from Alaska to Idaho!

    • Aw, thanks Cynthia. I hope the EDHHs in Alaska and Idaho catch on!

  • bill holston

    Just caught this and love it! I’m an ED of a np in Dallas. We do free legal services for refugees (including the unaccompanied kids from Central America). I am also a big craft beer fan. I am fond of telling people that both of the local craft beer spots I like have done fundraisers for us. The staff at one have done the best toiletry drive ever for our kids. I love telling people one bar gives more than our bank every year. There’s much to be said for patronizing small local businesses and even more over getting to know each other over a cold one. Slainte! I’ll buy you one if you are ever in Dallas.