By Nancy Rosenow
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*Additional photos and graphics may be found in the pdf version of this article.
It was the early ‘70s. Social norms were threatened as more women joined the workforce; and whether it was morally acceptable for children to be cared for by someone other than their mothers was a hot topic. So how did it happen, in that climate, that a bureaucrat and a high school English teacher decided to become part of the emerging early childhood profession by launching a magazine for managers of programs? What were they thinking?
As this 250th edition of Exchange approached, I sat down with Bonnie and Roger Neugebauer for a long conversation about their work history and personal story. Much of it I already knew, but I was delighted to discover new bits of wisdom I am certain will be useful for Exchange readers. As the relatively new publisher of Exchange, I feel the great responsibility of carrying on the Neugebauers’ vision and mission, as does the rest of our editorial team.
What I was reminded of during our insightful talk is the authenticity of Exchange. It was born of a belief in education, enjoyment of children and a sincere desire to provide information and inspiration for directors, professors and educators—indeed anyone working on behalf of young children—by connecting them to each other and supporting their professional exchange. I learned that the first germ of an idea for Exchange came shortly before Bonnie and Roger were married. When the Neugebauers wrote their wedding vows in 1969, they included a promise to work together to serve others, although at the time they had no idea what that might mean.
After working for two years, they quit their jobs and headed off to spend a year traveling around Europe on $5 a day. As they journeyed through all but three European countries, they pondered how they might work together and decided to open a school.
“Why open a child care center?” I asked Roger.
He explained he had been working for the federal government’s Model Cities Program, through which he was able to see the results of multiple initiatives designed to improve quality of life. He came to realize that “the only intervention that made a long-term impact was early childhood.” At the same time, Bonnie was deeply involved in education as a high school English teacher. Working together to open a child care center became the goal.
Upon returning from Europe, Bonnie got the ball rolling by opening her own family child care program called Beginnings. Roger was in an independent study graduate program at Lesley College, working with his mentor, Gwen Morgan. Roger read books on management from Harvard Business Review because he could not find any resources specifically about managing early childhood programs. To fill the gap, he sent out questionnaires on management topics such as motivating staff and raising funds to two child care administrators in each state—a “Panel of 100” recommended by Gwen Morgan, Dana Friedman and others. Roger compiled all their ideas and returned them to responders in the form of a newsletter called, appropriately, “Child Care Information Exchange.”
After producing several issues of the newsletter with the Panel of 100 members, a friend suggested, “Why do you not sell subscriptions to this?” The idea stuck, and the goal of a school was tabled to make room for launching a magazine.
There was drama. Bonnie’s typed lists of thousands of addresses of licensed child care programs, carefully curated by Roger, were lost by the copy shop and hundreds of hours of work went poof! Shaken but not shattered, the Neugebauers invited all their friends to a mailing party where the retyped labels and, yes, physical stamps were affixed to invitations to subscribe to a magazine that would share information from director to director. Thus began a long career creating multiple resources that have shaped and supported the early childhood field in deep and meaningful ways.
Bonnie tells the story of waiting impatiently for the results of the mailing to directors, wondering if the idea for a paid magazine would have legs. Their mail carrier, Lou Bruno, was a frequent guest in the Beginnings program, and he knew all about the experimental mailing. He was as excited as anyone when he delivered a mailbag full of paid subscriptions for the first edition of Exchange. The response rate to that initial mailing was 15 percent, unheard of in the direct mail world. Everyone was thrilled, but Roger laughingly admitted that they soon learned not to expect such spectacular results with every campaign. That first mailing tapped into a deep desire for early childhood directors to find a source of information, support and respect. As the magazines were read and enjoyed, people could feel the Neugebauers’ authentic respect for the life of an early childhood professional.
“Through the first surveys, we came to see what creative, mission-driven, self-sacrificing people work in this field.”
Slowly the magazine gained momentum, with many people helping it grow. During our conversation, the Neugebauers stressed that they were sharing with me only a sampling of the invaluable support they received over the years. They told the story of Community Playthings offering to begin printing the magazine and managing its database. Bonnie’s brother, Bruce Schon, joined the effort as marketing director, and was instrumental in reaching new audiences. In addition, their children were patient and understanding about the long hours their parents dedicated to their work; they even helped pack shipments,affix labels and work (sometimes in clown costumes) at exhibit booths. And, Bonnie and Roger’s parents, while not always understanding what this was all about, provided moral, and occasionally financial, support.
“I know it is not easy to publish a magazine for so many years,” I said. “Tell me about what kept you going in the tough times.”
Roger and Bonnie’s responses contain much wisdom for any of us facing a challenge. They exemplify committed entrepreneurs who refuse to give up on an important idea just because the inevitable bumps in the road come along.
“We were motivated by connecting and making visible the great work of all those exemplary leaders,” Roger explained. “The name is Exchange because our goal was always to help people connect and share with each other.”
“We never set ourselves up as the experts,” Bonnie added. “We have only ever been connectors, relationship-builders. We have always seen ourselves as part of the profession; that belonging has nurtured us and kept us accountable.”
And then, both Neugebauers reiterated something they have lived by from the beginning: “When you know you are doing something important to people, you just have to find a way to keep it going, no matter what.” Bonnie explained that over the years, she and Roger found ways to get through the roughest spots… including a year when they were looking at a potentially large loss.
“We learned to ask for help.”
Friends like Paula Jorde, Bob Lurie, Doug Schoenberg and Kay and Perry Koulourus provided critical financial support when times were especially tight. The Neugebauers had to become comfortable embracing vulnerability as they shared honestly about both their challenges and their triumphs.
Roger talked about a time when it seemed that every large company tried to piggyback on the popularity of Exchange, announcing plans to start their own early childhood magazines. After a meeting with one organization that announced, “We are going to crush you,” both Neugebauers had to dig deep to find the resolve to continue.
“We loved what we were doing and the impact we were making, so we just couldn’t and wouldn’t give up.” This sincere approach to the work obviously resonated, since none of the six other magazines are still in business. Only Exchange has survived.
“I know you are not ones to blow your own horns,” I told Roger and Bonnie, “But I would really like to know some of the things you are most proud of about your time with Exchange.” Roger talked about innovation—about trying new ideas, such as holding Directors’ Network conferences around the United States, and starting Exchange Every Day, a way to communicate with the field, providing support and information every workday of the week.
Bonnie said she was proud of times they had to hold firm to their principles, even when it was hard, and even when no one would know what they had to sacrifice to protect their integrity. Bonnie also talked about learning when something just was not going to work, no matter how much you believed in it. For a while, they tried to publish a magazine for teachers titled “Beginnings” (named after their earlier family child care experience). Soon, though, they realized that keeping two magazines afloat would just not be possible, so they reluctantly said goodbye to “Beginnings” as a magazine and began including the Beginnings content aimed specifically at early childhood teachers in every issue of Exchange. And Bonnie is proud of her work with authors, creating many books that have been popular and important resources to the field. The book publishing arm of Exchange continues today, and in fact is growing rapidly.
One innovative idea both Roger and Bonnie are extremely proud of is starting the World Forum Foundation, now a separate nonprofit.
“We learned that there are incredibly committed early educators everywhere in the world, and we wanted to find a way for the early childhood field to make global connections.” Early supporters of this idea–Rodney and Carmel Kenner, John Rhodes of Community Playthings, David Gleason, Kevin Carnes of Lakeshore, Yasmina Vinci and Bob Manning, Ken Jaffe and so many others–helped shepherd the World Forum into being. Last year, at a gathering in Macao, China, 700 early childhood professionals from 80 nations gathered as the World Forum Foundation celebrated its 20th birthday. (See Bonnie’s “A Manner of Speaking” column in this issue to learn more about the World Forum history.)
What lies ahead for the Neugebauers?
“We are not done, and we do not think we ever will be. We are looking forward to the next leg of our journey.”
While Roger and Bonnie will be officially retired from both Exchange and the World Forum Foundation by January 2020, they will continue to serve as invaluable advisors to both organizations in their new roles as World Forum Global Impact Engineers.
“What advice do you have for Exchange readers who are working so hard to make a difference in the world in their own way?” I asked.
Bonnie replied, “Be clear in what you want to do and why. Stay true to your principles and true to yourself. Learn to ask for help. Find people to support you. And spend your life doing something that feels like it matters.”
Nancy Rosenow is executive director of Dimensions Educational Research Foundation. In this role, she serves as publisher of Exchange magazine and is also a World Forum Foundation board member. Rosenow lives in Lincoln, Nebraska.