Trying to change the world for the better is a difficult task.
Nonprofits face various challenges. They battle regulations and struggle to find the money to achieve their missions. They fight to get the word out about what they do and juggle donor and shareholder expectations, to name but a few.
In such a challenging environment, learning is essential. Knowing the right resources to turn to is an important part of being a resilient nonprofit professional.
Here are the top 10 nonprofit books to inform & inspire you:
1. Start with Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action
Author: Simon Sinek
Author of the third most popular TED talk of all times, Simon Sinek is a British/American author, motivational speaker, and a marketing consultant. His somewhat unconventional and innovative views on business and leadership have attracted international attention.
In Start with Why, Sinek argues that organizations should put their “why” at the forefront of their communications and strategy. He believes that it’s not the “what” or the “how” that motivate and retain talent, drive sales, or attract outstanding board prospects.
When most organizations or people think, act or communicate they do so from the outside in, from WHAT to WHY. They go from the tangible to the intangible. Sinek suggests that the most successful organizations are the ones that manage to communicate from the inside out.
If you have already seen his TED talk, the book can become a little repetitive.
However, it contains valuable insights for the nonprofit world, especially in regards to how nonprofits can communicate what they do to the outside world. Start with Why definitely makes it to our top nonprofit books list.
“All organizations start with WHY, but only the great ones keep their WHY clear year after year. Those who forget WHY they were founded show up to the race every day to outdo someone else instead of to outdo themselves. The pursuit, for those who lose sight of WHY they are running the race, is for the medal or to beat someone else.”
2. The Promise of a Pencil: How an Ordinary Person Can Create Extraordinary Change
Author: Adam Braun
Adam Braun is an American entrepreneur, bestselling author, and philanthropist. After having attended Brown University, Adam traveled to over 50 countries. He asked local kids around the world what they wanted most in the world. In India, a young boy begging on the streets told Adam that he wanted a pencil. Adam gave the boy his own pencil, but this story served as the inspiration for Braun and finally led him to start his own organization: Pencils of Promise.
He started the organization with just $25 and has since built more than 200 schools around the world.
Each chapter in The Promise of a Pencil, which many believe is one of the best nonprofit books out there, explains one clear step that every person can take to turn their biggest ambitions into reality, even with as little as $25.
Braun has received some criticism for calling himself ‘an ordinary person’, having had a very privileged upbringing.
However, the lessons from the book can be used as an inspiration for anyone. Adam himself shows that he’s well aware of his background, expressing multiple times his gratitude. This is a touching nonprofit book for all of you out there seeking some inspiration.
“Most of all, I’ll remind them each morning that we make a choice to bring positivity or negativity into the world, and that within every single person lies an extraordinary story waiting to unfold.”
3. Forces for Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits
Authors: Leslie Crutchfield and Heather McLeod Grant
Leslie R. Crutchfield is a managing director of Ashoka and research grantee of the Aspen Institute. Heather McLeod Grant is a nonprofit consultant and advisor to Duke University’s Center for the Advancement of Social Entrepreneurship and the Stanford Center for Social Innovation.
The two authors studied 12 large and global nonprofits such as Habitat for Humanity, Teach for America, and the Environmental Defense Fund. They then uncovered 6 key practices that high-impact nonprofits employ to achieve extraordinary impact.
In 2012, the book was updated to include how the six practices could be applied to local and smaller nonprofits.
This book has lessons for all readers interested in creating significant social change, including nonprofit managers, donors, and volunteers.
It’s a must-read, and an evidence-based nonprofit book, for anyone thinking about any aspect of nonprofit organizations – from working for one to starting one. It addresses fundraising, boards, setup, and groundwork.
“What we found surprised us – and flew in the face of the perceived wisdom in the field. Achieving large-scale social change is not just about building an organization and then scaling it up site by site. Many of these groups are not perfectly managed. Nor are they all well marketed. And at least half don’t score well on conventional ratings because they care more about having an impact than having low-overhead budgets. They do what it takes to get results.”
4. The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World
Author: Jacqueline Novogratz
Jacqueline Novogratz is an American entrepreneur and author. She is the founder and CEO of Acumen, an organization that seeks to solve the toughest issues of poverty.
In 2009, Novogratz published the New York Times bestseller The Blue Sweater: Bridging the Gap Between Rich and Poor in an Interconnected World. The book is a firsthand account of her journey from an international banker to a social entrepreneur and founder of Acumen.
Novogratz was inspired to write The Blue sweater when she met a boy in Rwanda. He was wearing a sweater, with her name still on the tag inside, that she had donated to Goodwill 11 years ago.
This book, in the end, is more autobiographical than practical, but it is an inspirational and raw read for anyone who has been playing with the thought of going into advocacy, development and social work.
The Blue Sweater is essentially a guidebook for what not to do in global aid. What’s particularly beautiful about this nonprofit book is that the lessons don’t come out of a place of superiority, but a profound humility.
“Solutions to poverty must be driven by discipline, accountability, and market-strength, not easy sentimentality. It is about building solutions from the perspective of the poor people themselves rather than imposing grand theories and plans upon them.”
5. The Tipping Point
Author: Malcolm Gladwell
Malcolm Gladwell has been a staff writer for The New Yorker since 1996. He’s an English/Canadian journalist, author, and speaker. He has written five books so far, and all of them have been on the The New York Times Best Seller list.
The Tipping Point was inspired by a sudden drop in crime in New York City. Gladwell sought to explain this and other similar phenomena through epidemiology.
The Tipping Point explains the phenomenon of why some products, businesses, and authors become hugely successful (“tip”) while others never seem to break apart from the masses as anything special.
Gladwell wrote it before social media became so ever pervasive and omnipresent, but it draws on a variety of universal concepts from psychology and sociology to explain why some things ‘catch fire’, and others don’t.
Gladwell is a storyteller, so the book is written in such a way that it can be readily understood by most people.
The Tipping Point is one of the best nonprofit books for communicators.
“Look at the world around you. It may seem like an immovable, implacable place. It is not. With the slightest push—in just the right place—it can be tipped.”
6. The Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change
Authors: Beth Kanter and Allison Fine
Beth Kanter is a nonprofit expert and has been presenting her writing online for years on how nonprofits and technology merge in the 21st century. Allison Fine is an award-winning author, a co-editor and writes about the intersection of social media and social change on her blog.
The Networked Nonprofit is a guide for nonprofits looking to incorporate social media into their activities. Practical examples from the field and success stories that are easy to emulate fill the book. It’s structured as a how-to manual but doesn’t come across as preachy.
Nowadays, being a successful nonprofit today requires capitalizing on the possibilities of the new social media technologies.
Although The Networked Nonprofit is likely to be most relevant to nonprofit organizations who are just starting to use social media to encourage social change, this book’s strength lies in providing a clear framework for how nonprofits can think about social media.
This is a groundbreaking nonprofit book when it was written in 2010. It’s now a bit outdated since social media has become more integrated into our personal and professional lives. Despite this, it remains one of the most helpful nonprofit books.
“Networked nonprofits are simple and transparent organizations. They are easy for outsiders to get in and insiders to get out. They engage people in shaping and sharing their work in order to raise awareness of social issues, organize communities to provide services, or advocate for legislation… Networked nonprofits don’t work harder or longer than other organizations, they work differently.”
7. The Lean Startup
Author: Eric Ries
Eric Ries is an American entrepreneur, blogger, and author.
The Lean Startup prefaces that too many startups begin with an idea for a product that they think people want. They then spend months, sometimes years, perfecting that product without ever showing the product to the prospective customer. A core component of Lean Startup methodology is the “build-measure-learn” feedback loop. The loop is based on an idea of building an MVP (Minimum Viable Product) and testing it as soon as possible.
This approach can be transformational for nonprofits. It allows nonprofits to invest as little as possible in early, often faulty attempts at solving problems. This provides a massive opportunity to expand the impact and efficiency of the social sector.
The Lean Startup challenges the nonprofit sector to get smarter and more nimble with strategy, program design and implementation.
“We must learn what customers really want, not what they say they want or what we think they should want.”
8. Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard
Authors: Dan and Chip Heath
Chip Heath is a professor at Stanford Graduate School of Business, teaching courses on business strategy and organization. Dan Heath is a Senior Fellow at Duke University’s CASE center, which supports social entrepreneurs.
The two brothers co-authored three New York Times bestsellers: Decisive, Switch, and Made to Stick.
Switch talks about how difficult it is to implement change in our companies, careers, and lives, why change is so hard, and how to overcome resistance. Switch identifies the crucial factors in effecting lasting changes for both individuals and organizations.
The book talks about three components of change – the rational side (the Rider), the emotional side (the Elephant), and the situational world (the Path). The Heath brothers focus on how to improve each of these three components with simple guidelines and real-life suggestions.
Switch is particularly helpful when thinking about how to implement change in your nonprofit.
This is why this Switch makes it to our ‘best nonprofit books’ list!
“Knowledge does not change behavior,” he said. “We have all encountered crazy shrinks and obese doctors and divorced marriage counselors.”
9. Charity Case: How the Nonprofit Community Can Stand Up for Itself and Really Change the World
Author: Dan Pallotta
Dan Pallotta is an American entrepreneur, author, and humanitarian activist. In the last five years alone, Dan has given over 275 talks on philanthropy and innovation in 34 states and eight countries.
Dan’s first bestseller Uncharitable explored how the nonprofit sector evolved. Charity Case takes the next big step and discusses ways to start changing the status quo.
Charity Case established various ways for charities to be accountable. It suggests a lot of immediate action steps. All re-educate people about what makes a nonprofit effective.
Dan Pallotta is a voice worth listening to. You may not agree with every word, but his nonprofit book will absolutely make you think differently about the nonprofit sector.
“If you put these five things together – you can’t use money to attract talent, you can’t advertise, you can’t take risks, you can’t invest in long-term results, and you don’t have a stock market – then we have just put the humanitarian sector at the most extreme disadvantage to the for-profit sector on every level, and then we call the whole system charity, as if there is something incredibly sweet about it.”
10. Do the KIND Thing: Think Boundlessly, Work Purposefully, Live Passionately
Author: Daniel Lubetzky
Daniel Lubetzky is a social entrepreneur, the CEO and founder of KIND Healthy Snacks and the KIND Movement. He is the founder of PeaceWorks and OneVoice and co-founder of the apparel company Maiyet.
While Lubetzky didn’t build a nonprofit, he talks in depth about his focus to impact the world and other companies by implementing a “not-only-for-profit” model.
The book is actually about the KIND corporation’s history and mission. Lubetzky takes a straightforward approach to learning how to run a rewarding business you are passionate about. The message in this book is to be kind to yourself, kind to others, and to stay focused on your passion.
This is one of the nonprofit books that will inspire you and motivate you to keep working for the mission of your nonprofit!
“I’m conscious of my role as KIND’s founder and CEO and my responsibility to hold myself to the highest possible standard of ethics and human behavior.”
From smaller nonprofits to grassroots movements and the big established organizations, strong leadership is vital. And great leadership can be difficult to cultivate. Keeping up to date and investing in one’s own personal and professional growth can help acquire the necessary leadership qualities.
From inspiring The Promise of a Pencil, Do the Kind Thing and The Blue Sweater to the practical Forces for Good, The Networked Nonprofit and Switch, to the thought-provoking The Tipping Point, Start with the Why, The Lean Startup and Charity Case, these books offer great solutions.