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:

  1. Free breakfast at school so he wasn’t so hungry that he couldn’t learn
  2. Training provided to his teacher about supporting literacy
  3. Training provided to his principal that encouraged him/her to provide training to the teacher
  4. A mentor assigned to him through a mentoring organization who took him to activities focused on literacy
  5. A soccer coach who had Johnny help with taking attendance at practice
  6. A Tuesday afternoon reading session at the local library
  7. A full-time Americorps member in the classroom
  8. Some free books that were sent home with his parents
  9. An information sheet his mom picked up at the grocery store encouraging her to spend more time talking and reading with her child
  10. 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.