Sally Ann Zoll of United Through Reading: “Passion is key”

Passion is key. Passion is key for all successful ventures, I believe, but particularly within a nonprofit, one needs to have a driven, consuming passion for the mission. That passion will shine through to the beneficiaries receiving the benefits of the organization, it will ensure the program delivery is the very best it can possibly […]

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Passion is key. Passion is key for all successful ventures, I believe, but particularly within a nonprofit, one needs to have a driven, consuming passion for the mission. That passion will shine through to the beneficiaries receiving the benefits of the organization, it will ensure the program delivery is the very best it can possibly be, and it will influence others to become a part of the mission, whether it be volunteers, employees, or donors.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Sally Ann Zoll.

As the multifaceted leader of United Through Reading, Sally serves as the chief guardian and spokesperson for the organization’s vision and mission, builds and sustains relationships with stakeholders and partners, and leads programs, finances, and internal team. In her distinguished career, Sally’s values for education are always evident.

Sally has a doctorate in educational leadership and management, a master’s degree in special education from the University of San Diego, and a BA in elementary education from Purdue University. From her first position as an elementary school teacher to her present leadership role, Sally has integrated her knowledge of education and educational technology with her talents for building and leading organizations of all sizes in the public, private, and nonprofit sectors. Sally is an Army spouse of more than 30 years and her son, an Army reservist, has served in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Thank you so much for doing this with us. Before we begin our readers would like to get to know you a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about your “backstory”?

I began my career as an elementary special education teacher. I was particularly interested in the new computer software coming out in the 1980s for personal computers. I thought it had great potential to teach children with learning disabilities and attention deficits. I became an assistant principal at a large private high school, responsible for integrating technology into the business administration and instructional components of the school. This was in the very early days of educational technology and it was an exciting time exploring what others were doing in this field (without the benefit of the internet)!

While working on my doctorate in education leadership with an emphasis in technology, I was hired by a small, startup company creating an integrated learning system for K-6 education. This was also an exciting, cutting-edge concept, and this company was on the forefront of pushing technology to its limit. We grew that company to a multi-million-dollar corporation with installations in hundreds of thousands of schools across the county. I was fortunate to serve that corporation, in a leadership capacity, in a variety of areas including customer service, professional development, mergers/acquisitions, product development, and print resources. It was an incredible learning experience which I fall back on to this day.

Following that, I was a leading principle/part owner in beginning another education software company, which was not as successful. However, the learning experience from that venture was equally important to my growth as a CEO. Despite the less than successful outcome for this company, I received a couple of awards (state and national) for outstanding leadership in technology for which I am very proud. Leadership during tough times is not nearly as easy as leadership during successful times!

I was approached by a Board member of United Through Reading in 2006 to consider taking the helm when the founder retired in 2007. I was fairly certain that my 20 years of corporate experience would not serve me well in a non-profit environment (despite my service on a number of non-profit boards). However, with continued conversation with the organization over the period of a few months, it appeared that this might be the perfect fit for me. The Board was interested in programmatic growth at a national level, including moving the Board of Trustees from a local entity to a national group. Growing companies is what I had done for 20 years so I began to pay attention. In addition, the program was delivered via a technology platform needed upgrading. Again, something I had been doing for many years. And finally, United Through Reading provided the opportunity for service members to be video recorded reading books to their children during separations, and the video and books were sent home to the family. This was in perfect alignment with my education background and my service as a military spouse and mother of an Army soldier! It suddenly went from “probably not a possibility” to a “meant to be” opportunity that could not be passed up!

The last 15 years leading United Through Reading have been the most rewarding experience of my life!

Can you tell us the story behind why you decided to start your non nonprofit? (Obviously, she didn’t start.)

United Through Reading was founded in 1989 by the wife of a Naval flight surgeon. When her husband had deployed to Vietnam years before, he left his infant daughter at home and when the surgeon returned home, his little girl didn’t know him and he had to re-enter her life as a stranger.

When the Gulf War began, our founder began to see more and more Sailors leaving from the docks of San Diego. She was a reading specialist and knew firsthand the importance of exposing children to literature from birth. Thus, a powerful concept emerged. She went to the docks in San Diego with books, VHS tapes, and a video camera to record Sailors before they boarded the ships for deployment, leaving behind the tapes and books with their families. And it made a difference.

Now, 30 years later, technology has changed and we’ve used DVDs, SD cards, and now an app to continue the work and continue connecting military families through shared storytime.

Can you describe how you or your organization aims to make a significant social impact?

Since 1989, United Through Reading has helped more than 2.4 million military family members stay connected through deployments and other separations. Military members and their families experience a wide range of service-related separations including deployments, training commitments, and irregular work hours. These factors and increased military operations since the events of 9/11 mean service members and their families are under constant stress. This continuous cycle of upheaval can lead to increased anxiety, behavioral problems, and academic difficulties for military children. The cumulative effects contribute to a reduction in military family readiness. Our program helps families maintain connections, reinforce family routines, provide reliable communication, and promote daily reading. All of these ensure that military families are supported but also help the education of our military children.

Military children face many unique challenges due to the nature of military life, including regular moves across the country and world on top of regular periods of separation from a parent. Add in the additional stress of the last year with COVID-19, military children need our support. United Through Reading offers reading as a tool to build resilience and important literacy skills in our military children.

Without saying any names, can you share a story about an individual who was helped by your idea so far?

There are many stories that show the impact of our work. A Marine Corps spouse/mom called to say they were experiencing her husband’s first deployment and their daughter was 2 years old. Several weeks after he left, she received an envelope in the mail with a book and a DVD. Not knowing what it was, she put the DVD in the player and she and her daughter sat down to watch. She was thrilled to see her husband on the screen reading a book to their daughter. She said she cried as she watched him, knowing he had been thinking about them at home. Her daughter slid off of her lap, ran to the TV, turned around with her back to the TV, and wriggled. She ran back to her mama and, again, sat on her lap to watch her daddy read. Soon, she again slid off of mama’s lap, ran to the TV, turned around, and wriggled. After doing this several times, the mother said she figured out that her daughter was trying to sit on her daddy’s lap — because that is where she always sat when daddy read her a story — and that is how real the experience was to her. Daddy was in that room, reading to her like he did every single day!

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. We as a community and a nation need to make time to sit down and read together. Even just one book a day makes a difference and we know that our program makes a difference in the lives of our military children facing a separation from a loved one.
  2. Reading aloud to children is the most important activity we can do to help build knowledge for lifelong literacy. Focusing on reading aloud with children should be a national focus to build literacy and resiliency skills of all children, including military children.
  3. Do not let the recent (and important!) focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) overshadow the importance of early literacy. Early reading positively impacts success in STEM subjects.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

The study of leadership is fascinating and the body of knowledge through the years continues to form and reform the conversation. I am a great fan of Warren Bennis, often called the “dean of leadership gurus.” I believe a leader sees what needs to be done and can transform that vision into action, employing others to follow that leader with equal passion and vision. Equally important, is the ability to sustain the action over a period of time. Most critical, to me, is the leader’s constant assessment of his or her followers, to ensure they are still seeing the same vision, exhibiting the same passion, and working to accomplish the common goal.

Based on your experience, what are the “5 things a person should know before they decide to start a nonprofit”. Please share a story or example for each.

Passion is key. Passion is key for all successful ventures, I believe, but particularly within a nonprofit, one needs to have a driven, consuming passion for the mission. That passion will shine through to the beneficiaries receiving the benefits of the organization, it will ensure the program delivery is the very best it can possibly be, and it will influence others to become a part of the mission, whether it be volunteers, employees, or donors.

Our team members all demonstrate a passion for the military and for literacy, and it shows in everything they do, whether they are trying to be creative in the midst of COVID lockdown to continue program delivery, or going above and beyond to bring the program to a single individual, regardless of the time and energy it takes.

Hire smart people and get out of their way! That is true for all businesses but, in particular, non profits who have tight budgets and smaller staffs than for profit organizations. Making the most of a good hire will pay off, guaranteed. I like to hire people who are much smarter than I! Bringing so much goodness to the team can only make it better and better. Letting these smart people do what they do best, without inference or micro managing, has yielded extremely positive results for me, over and over again.

Run the nonprofit like a for profit business. Put in place all of the processes and procedures you would expect to see in a for profit business. Stay disciplined in the management of all aspects of the operations. Focus on the bottom line, just as a for profit would, understanding that the bottom line is successful program delivery! Don’t cut corners in areas of marketing, finance, and other support mechanisms. And constantly survey the landscape for competition, just as a for profit would do. Understanding the competition and how it could possibly impact your nonprofit, positively or negatively, will allow for creating proactive strategies to address said competition when the time comes.

Always, always, always keep your beneficiaries front and center. If you are focused on them and their needs, it will be more difficult for mission drift to occur. It will also resonate with those who support your mission to see you constantly focused on the beneficiaries and the void you fill. Our Board has a Trustee read a testimony from a beneficiary at the beginning of every Board meeting to remind us as to why we are at the table and to help frame the discussions that follow.

And speaking of Boards, create strong relationships with your Trustees. Encourage them to network with each other. Provide opportunities for them to socialize with each other, aside from the Board work in committees and Board meetings. Never, ever forget that they are volunteers and that their giving of time, talent, and treasure is an immeasurable gift to the organization. Celebrate their differences and use their talent in ways that benefit the organization, which will also make them feel useful and appreciated.

We are very blessed that very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world who you would like to talk to, to share the idea behind your non profit? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Like it or not, military families are always in some sense affected by politics. Military families always have strong support from the top levels of our government, but to have someone like Dr. Jill Biden, an educator, a mother, grandmother, a military mom in the White House makes a huge difference when it comes to advocacy for military families. We are looking forward to working with Dr. Biden and the entire White House team to serve military families, and particularly the literacy and educational development of military children.

Can you share your favorite “Life Lesson” Quote? How is that relevant to you in your life?

Oh my, what a question! There are so many wonderful quotes that lend support during different phases in life. Author C. S. Lewis is a favorite of mine, and his quotes always seem to apply at some time or another. I often rely on this one: “You can’t go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending.”

Although looking back to learn from mistakes is helpful in correcting courses, if one obsesses on what could have/should have been, the learning from the mistake is lost in the futility of mourning the past. In addition, the regret can negatively influence moving forward in a different way, which may be necessary to change the ending. Essentially, this quote speaks to optimism in leading others and living life. It gives me solace in all parts of my life!

How can our readers follow you online?

Visit our website at We are on Facebook at United Through Reading, Instagram and Twitter @utr4military

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