Joan’s Top 10 Nonprofit Leadership Books

by Joan Garry

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Over the years I have learned something wonderful about nonprofit leaders. They are hungry to learn and while they have ridiculously intense jobs, they manage to find time to enrich their leadership by reading. It’s one of the many, many things I admire about those who lead nonprofits.

I’ve also found that my own thoughts about leadership have evolved over the years — some books that were go-to’s a decade ago don’t feel as resonant for me. I find myself thinking about leading more broadly — from messaging to how you run or lead a meeting. I think about the changing workforce, and the dramatic increase in millennials and Gen Z employees. Then a global pandemic and a racial reckoning. How we are called on to lead is different.

And so it felt like time to revisit a list I created some time ago. I sought out the advice of some friends, colleagues, and clients whose thoughts about leadership inspire my own.

I also did my own research, taking a close look at the top 50 leadership books on Amazon. Amongst the 50, there were a few women authors (most notably, Brené Brown) and one woman of color (Priya Parker — see below), and all the rest? White men.

OK. So does that diminish the power of what Jim Collins, Stephen Covey, or Pat Lencioni (on my list of ten below) have to say? I thought long and hard about this question. The answer for me is that these books offer important insights and are important to include only if we acknowledge the context in which they were written and if we contrast them with the world we live in today. As we grab the important concepts in these books, we must also recognize that we have a much clearer understanding of what diverse, equitable, and inclusive leadership looks like today.

That is why you will see a very different reading list today than when I last wrote about leadership books. I strongly encourage you to consider pairing a newer book with an older one to bring that context and this new understanding of leadership front and center.

  1. Good to Great and the Social Sectors by Jim Collins

You must own this book. It captures in just 40 pages (yes… 40… so you have no excuse not to read it) the recipe for taking a good organization to the next level. Some infographics will totally stick with you as you go about your day. And I guarantee you — you will become way more intentional about the hires you make and the board members you invite to join you. It is a perfect pre-read for strategy work, retreats, staff off-sites, and more. And it speaks to everyone in your organization, calling upon them to think leadership thoughts.

2. The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters by Priya Parker

Priya is a professional facilitator and offers incredible insights on meetings. You’re thinking: of meetings? Seriously? Yes, seriously. Consider the time spent in meetings, and consider the importance of board meetings and team meetings. Think about how often you hear folks talk about wanting to get out of the meeting and back to “work.” Priya knows that first-rate, well-considered, and intentional meetings are productive work. They have to be. Investing in your ability to plan, run and facilitate meetings is a vital skill for any leader.

3. Subtle Acts of Exclusion: How to Understand, Identify, and Stop Microaggressions by Tiffany Jana and Michael Baran

Jana, a nonbinary person of color, and her white male co-author reframe how we think about microaggressions and offer a simple framework for engaging in difficult conversations. There are many wonderful resources on microaggressions and larger issues of diversity, equity, and inclusion (and you might find some further down on this list) but this one offers both the leader and the team some practical ways to navigate the challenging waters of DEI work. Focusing on creating safe spaces for the members of your team is a long overdue area of focus for nonprofit leaders who strive to be great.

4. Made to Stick by Dan and Chip Heath

This is a must-read. And an easy one. To me, the biggest takeaway for nonprofits is that leaders love their work and want everyone to love it. So they over-tell and try to cover everything. The Heath brothers talk about cutting through the clutter and “the curse of knowledge” — we know so much about our organizations that we get into detail that listeners don’t understand. They say that we can’t un-know what we know so we have to transform how we communicate to those who don’t know about our work.

5. Leading Below the Surface by LaTonya Wilkins

Like me, Wilkins is an executive coach and her approach is fresh. This is a book for a leader who understands the need to be forward-thinking and who knows that a key element of successful leadership rests in your ability to develop real and safe relationships with those who are different from you. This is a terrific resource for you as you dig deep to develop an understanding and commitment to the power of diversity (in its broadest definition) in your workplace.

6. Social Startup Success by Kathleen Kelly Janus

Every smaller nonprofit needs this book. Janus is a senior advisor on social innovation to Gavin Newsom, Governor of California, and Janus brings to this gig her expertise in philanthropy, millennial engagement, and scaling early-stage organizations. She interviewed leaders of several hundred nonprofits, new, large, and those that needed to scale but were stuck. This book features her findings from that study, detailing best practices for testing ideas, measuring impact, funding experimentation, leading collectively, and storytelling with purpose. This is the first definitive guide to solving the problem of nonprofit scale.

7. Inclusion Revolution: The Essential Guide to Dismantling Racial Inequity in the Workplace by Daisy Auger-Domínguez

Daisy has a long history in the entertainment industry as a Chief People Officer, most recently at Vice Media. She is also what I like to call a ‘serial nonprofit board member.’ On a recent podcast, we talked about the struggle leaders have to create diverse teams. We only teased the array of insights she offers in this book. She talks about why efforts fail and focuses readers on four key principles — Reflect, Visualize, Act, and Persist.

8. Difficult Conversations by Stone, Patton, and Heen

In my work as a consultant, I find myself contending with conflict. A LOT. Not just with those in opposition to the mission but within organizations themselves. Amongst staff members, between staff and board. This led me to become a certified mediator and also to this book.

First off, many of us are in the business of talking about difficult subjects (can you say Planned Parenthood or any organization that has to do with race, gender, politics, religion, sexuality, etc. — just to name a few). Secondly, I find oh so frequently that managers simply don’t have tough conversations with staff and are reluctant to hold them accountable in ways that feel difficult.

This book teases out the WHY and then helps you move into action — teasing out both the internal and the external difficult conversations far too many folks avoid because of a lack of tools. Tools await you in this book.

9. Belonging at Work by Rhodes Perry

Studies tell us that diverse teams drive innovation and revenue. Building a diverse team is just the beginning of the work. The big job is creating a true sense of belonging, building real agency in the voices of your team, and enabling them to bring their authentic selves to work. In our podcast, Rhodes talks about bold new organizational structures and other innovations that can drive the sense of belonging necessary to being a workplace of choice. Rhodes is clear that leadership and accountability are essential to the work.

Note: A portion of the profit from this book will be dedicated to expanding economic opportunities for transgender and non-binary people.

10. Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick Lencioni

I talk about great nonprofit leaders leading with their staff, especially their leadership teams. This book, written 20 years ago, is the definitive guide on team building. Combined with a few other books on this list, you can see these dysfunctions through the lens of diversity, equity, and inclusion and really dig deep into the challenges and payoffs of team building.

I leave you with a suggestion. Don’t just pick one of these books. Pair two of them together. I believe pairing will make more powerful lessons than anyone alone. Example: Read or re-read Five Dysfunctions of a Team and pair it with Rhodes Perry’s book on belonging. Or how about Social Startup Success paired with Good to Great and the Social Sectors? Or Auger-Domínguez’s book with Parker’s book on gathering. We live in a world that demands we look at our challenges in multi-dimensional ways.

I hope you find this list valuable as you build your skills as a leader and a manager in the social sector.

Disclosure of Material Connection: Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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