Here’s the story of Johnny: Poor Johnny didn’t know how to read. And now he does.
Here are the things that helped him:
- Free breakfast at school so he wasn’t so hungry that he couldn’t learn
- Training provided to his teacher about supporting literacy
- Training provided to his principal that encouraged him/her to provide training to the teacher
- A mentor assigned to him through a mentoring organization who took him to activities focused on literacy
- A soccer coach who had Johnny help with taking attendance at practice
- A Tuesday afternoon reading session at the local library
- A full-time Americorps member in the classroom
- Some free books that were sent home with his parents
- An information sheet his mom picked up at the grocery store encouraging her to spend more time talking and reading with her child
- Interactive iPad apps provided by a local corporate partner of the school district
And here’s the challenge that I find endlessly amusing and frustrating. Little Johnny was paraded out at four different fundraising dinners, included in 7 different organizational brochures, and described as a success story in 5 different grant reports. And meanwhile, Maria, Billy, and Aiden still don’t know how to get themselves through a book on their own. And let’s not forget Johnny himself or his parents, who may have played a small role in this reading miracle story.
The organizations, employees, board members, and donors behind each of these 10 interventions believe that it was their intervention that made the biggest difference. And I get it. Who wants to work at an organization that represents 10% of the solution? People want to work at organizations that are making a difference, solving problems, and identifying the “magic pill” to social ills.
Instead of celebrating collaboration, we pretend it doesn’t exist. We don’t find the time or resources to make it intentional, and push through the muddiness. And we don’t appreciate those who help make our work possible if they are outside of our network or system.
Unlike other ecosystems that are designed to be self-sustaining, the nonprofit ecosystem needs to be designed to constantly evolve to solve new and more nuanced problems. Which means that certain species are going to be useful for a period of time, and then go out of business. It means that that donors, board members, and employees need to be willing to attach themselves to the core issue itself, not just one part of the solution. It also means that the there necessarily has to be multiple parts and players and organizations that keep the ecosystem going.
We all want Johnny to read by third grade. We can all celebrate the contribution we’ve made to his literacy while still acknowledging that others played an important role as well. And even more, maybe if we intentionally aligned ourselves around the ultimate goal instead of our small piece of the solution, we could have all of the Johnnys reading in no time.
I’m pretty sure no one out in the “real world” thinks one after-school program or one literacy drive is the cure-all for something as massive as the cycle of poverty and underperforming schools. Rather all of these strategies — and more — are needed to help people get the skills and education and support they need to succeed. The best nonprofits know this, too, and do, or should, seek and promote collaboration, as you advocate in your essay.
My frustration isn’t with the multiple organizations all trying to make a difference. It’s with our public policies and legislation and political attitudes that turn away from building a true social safety net, a War on Poverty, family-friendly laws, and other systemic changes that could help lift our fellow citizens up and give struggling folks a better life. I will never understand why we have abandoned these goals as a nation, leaving it to unevenly-effective nonprofits and under-resourced schools to try to solve what Congress and other leaders cannot or will not tackle.