10 Books Every Nonprofit Leader Should Read

by Joan Garry

You're in to leadership development, eh? You'll want to check out my free workshop: The 5 Practices of Outstanding Nonprofit Leaders.

My idea to publish a list of very useful nonprofit leadership books came from the class I teach at U Penn’s Annenberg School on Nonprofit Communications Strategy. Every year, I say to my students during the last class, “If nonprofit leaders – board and staff – read the same material you did this spring, the nonprofit sector would be infinitely more civil, impactful and effective.”

And so here you will find two lists. First, my top five nonprofit leadership books. Then what I’m calling “Honorable Mention.” I asked a few friends and clients to suggest a leadership book to me that was instrumental in helping them to become more effective nonprofit leaders.

Even if you grab only one of these and read it in its entirety, it will be a real investment in your professional growth and will help make the work you do even more remarkable.

And with no further ado…


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. There are infographics that 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.

2. Give and Take by Adam Grant

This is bigger than just your role as a leader. It’s a book about who you want to be in the world. Grant identifies three kinds of people – ‘givers,’ ‘ takers,’ and ‘matchers.’ Those who give generously and freely of their time and expertise may not start out as the most successful but they end up at the top. They learn by solving others’ problems and they develop extraordinary social capital. This one is a great staff offsite read or a gift for your senior team or board chair.

3. Changing Minds by Howard Gardner

Gardner is a groundbreaking educator who teaches us that we each have multiple intelligences that lead to different learning styles and a diversity of skills across society. He understands how the mind works and thus what it takes to change a mind. This is the work of the nonprofit sector – to move someone to consider something differently so that it matters in a new way to them. Don’t be daunted by how long ago it was written. Trust me – like all good leadership books should be – this one is evergreen.

4. 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, homosexuality – 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 but then also is very actionable for 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.

5. 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.


A quick survey unearthed five more leadership books you should know about. Heck, some of them are new to ME. I’m ordering them on Amazon right now.

6. Start with Why by Simon Sinek

Most leaders start by talking about what their organization does. But Sinek argues it’s not the what or the how that drives great staff candidates, five star board prospects or donors. It’s the why. Sinek gave a great TED talk if you don’t have time to read the full book.

Recommended by Dana Weeks at Germantown Friends School in Philadelphia.

7. It’s Your Ship by Mike Abrashoff

I’ve actually never heard of this one, written by the former US Navy captain of the USS Benfold. His practical recipe? Lead by example; listen aggressively; communicate purpose and meaning; create a climate of trust; look for results, not salutes; take calculated risks; go beyond standard procedure; build up your people; generate unity; and improve your people’s quality of life. Sounds like a great nonprofit leader to me.

Recommended by Kevin Jennings, CEO of the Arcus Foundation.

8. Getting Things Done by David Allen

One of the biggest productivity books of the last two decades, I’ve added this to the list. That said, I haven’t read it and feel skeptical simply because the subhead reads: The Art of Stress Free Productivity. It may seem unattainable in a nonprofit setting, but my oh my, isn’t it worth a shot?

Recommended by Mark Pelavin at the Union for Reform Judaism.

9. How the Way We Talk Can Change the Way We Work by Kegan and Lahey

I am so ordering this book, which tackles the inherent human resistance to change. One reader wrote, “Most of the time, when confronted to change, a little voice inside us will tell us why not to change.” The authors write that this voice speaks with 7 tongues. One could even say that these “voices” make us immune to change. Luckily, for each of the 7 languages, this book offers a powerful antidote.” I’m totally intrigued.

Recommended by Parisa Parsa, the E.D. of The Public Conversations Project in Boston.

10. Tribal Leadership: Leveraging Natural Groups to Build a Thriving Organization by Logan, King, and Fisher-Wright

A 10-year study of 24,000 people in two-dozen organizations revealed that within these organizations exist separate tribes. That’s certainly been my experience. This book is a unique look at high-performance organizational cultures. 

Recommended by Glennda Testone, ED of the LGBT Center in NYC


Ok, so this wasn’t in my original list. But I’d be remiss to not mention MY new book. 🙂

11. Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy by Joan Garry

I wrote the book I wish I could have read with my board chair in my first ED job at a very messy nonprofit. It’s written for all nonprofit leaders – staff and board. It’s funny, honest, intensely actionable, and based on my own decades of experience working in the nonprofit sector as an Executive Director, a board leader, a volunteer, and a donor.

I hope you find it worthy of being on this list…


Thanks to my pals for their suggestions. I’d love to know if you’ve read any of these. Please share your own reviews, good or bad, in the comments below. And if you have anything you’d like to add, please do so!

I know many of you can’t imagine having time to read. But be honest. Smart people are out there and have resources for you that can make your work more effective. It’s critical to make the time.

80 thoughts on “10 Books Every Nonprofit Leader Should Read”

  1. Personally wouldn’t support a recommendation for #9 but feel there should be a place for Lencioni’s title, The Advantage—although business sector focused, keeping a pulse on organizational health is so important but often overlooked. My two cents.

  2. I’ve only read one of these, Getting Things Done, but it has changed the way I process everything that is coming at me and has made my life at least a lot less stressful, if not stress free!

  3. I just placed holds on a few of these at my local library. Would you recommend that people read “Good to Great” before the social sector version?
    I just finished “Getting Things Done.” I am cautiously optimistic that adopting some but not all of the techniques could help my efficiency. And I am reading “Switch” by the Heath brothers now. Really enjoy their style.

  4. Michele. I’m delighted to hear this. I really hope they are of value to you. And nope, no reason to read the biz version of the Collins book before the social sector monograph. It stands alone.

  5. Start With Why and Leaders Eat Last are amazing. I also love the audio versions because of Simon’s great accent, I have to admit.
    I LOVE the Fierce series by Susan Scott. I was immediately drawn to her when in the forward to Fierce Leadership she quoted my favorite fiction author, Christopher Moore. Susan has a great newsletter as well. I’m a bit of a wimp about conflict at times, but I know it’s healthy and important for a functional workplace. Coming into an org next month as a new ED, my team (and my board) will all be reading these to get off on the right (no passive aggressiveness allowed) foot!

  6. Carrie. You are funny. Have you considered writing a blog? 🙂 Thanks for the suggestions. I’ve not read the other book by Sinek but almost made this list!

  7. I had a blog, in the vein of Nonprofit With Balls, but Bluehost ate it a few months back. I am hoping to get excited to write again in my new job!

  8. The Answer to How is Yes, by Peter Block and his earlier book, Stewardship: Choosing Service Over Self-Interest are on my list. While not just written with NPO’s in mind, they truly speak to the sector. I also like Robert Putnam’s book: Better Together: Restoring the American Community.

  9. Two other books I have enjoyed
    Toxic Charity: How Churches and Charities Hurt Those They Help (and How to Reverse it) by Robert D. Lupton
    Forces For Good: The Six Practices of High-Impact Nonprofits by Leslie R. Crutchfield

  10. I can’t emphasize enough the book Seven Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen Covey.

  11. I’d endorse the Heaths’ other book, Switch, for the sections on focussing on the “bright spots” rather than on all the things that are/go wrong. Working in a nonprofit, you can get really bogged down in the stuff that’s not working and that echoes through out the org. Looking at what is working and analyzing why can be a good conversation-changer internally and inform communications.
    And, I’m really intrigued by John Stepper’s “Working Out Loud” thing right now.

  12. I do like Good to Great, and I would recommend reading the full book first before the monograph! I also like all of the Heath brothers books, and Decisive is on my to-read list. Other (older) recommended readings: Social Profit Handbook – David Grant; What Would Google Do? – Jeff Jarvis; The Networked Nonprofit – Beth Kanter & Alison Fine; Robin Hood Marketing – Katya Andressen; All help think about your nonprofit in a different/better way!

  13. Craig. What a GREAT list!!!!! Thank you for taking the time to weigh in. Hope readers are looking at these comments! I love Beth Kanter’s book and have used it in my Nonprofit Comm Strategy class at UPenn.

  14. Allison. Switch almost made the list. Almost did the top 12 and then it would have!!! And my goodness you are SO right. We are all so invested in getting it right that challenges just infuriate us. And can paralyze us. And lead us to forget the ‘bright spots.” Thanks!

  15. Hannah. Many of the books are not specifically for non-profits. There are so many universal object lessons in all of these books. Thanks for your comment!

  16. Daniel Kahneman’s work covers a lot of the neuropsychology ground that is the basis for other books (including some on this list) so I recommend his ‘Thinking, Fast and Slow’. ‘Antifragile’ by Nassim Nicholas Taleb is really helpful in constructing an organization that can handle and even seek out and embrace change.

  17. Thanks for this list, Joan – I’m interested in several of these titles and will check them out! As a voracious reader, I can say without exaggeration that Getting Things Done has made more difference in my daily life than any other book. I share it with everyone I know!

  18. Boundaries for Leaders and Necessary Endings by Henry Cloud; Innovative Leadership Workbook for Nonprofit Executives Paperback by Maureen Metcalf and Dani Robbins; The Five Dysfunctions of a Team by Patrick M. Lencioni and, for fun :), The Life-Changing Magic of Not Giving a F*ck: How to Stop Spending Time You Don’t Have with People You Don’t Like Doing Things You Don’t Want to Do by Sarah Knight.

  19. I had to go look at my actual stash of books. I have been trying to read more leadership books since becoming our org’s ED 2 years ago. Start with Why is great; Overcoming the Five Dysfunctions of a Team Field Guide (companion to The Five Dysfunctions of a Team); How to Be A Positive Leader by Jane Dutton and Gretchen Spreitzer; Crucial Conversations; Integrity by Henry Cloud (I am a big fan!). 🙂

  20. I know that Dan Pallotta is considered a controversial and polarizing figure in the nonprofit community. But I’m #teamPallotta after his presentation based upon his book “Uncharitable” revolutionized my thinking about nonprofit management and spending. Especially as it relates to your recent post about budgeting, the idea that nonprofits cut and cut and cut the expenses related to generating revenue to achieve low overhead numbers, and forgo working with the most talented people and innovative approaches out of fear of the optics, with the impact that you can only raise a fraction of the revenue that would be possible otherwise, is absolutely ludicrous. If you can watch Dan’s Uncharitable presentation or TED talks and NOT want to buy all his books, I’m not sure how….even if you don’t agree with all of his strongly held beliefs, his work will inspire your own creative thinking about how nonprofits can do a better job achieving their mission.

  21. I haven’t read a ton of books, but did read the original Good to Great (and heard Jim Collins speak), read It’s Your Ship (and heard Mike speak as well) – both at for-profit industrial trade shows. They really impacted my views and I would highly recommend them. Loooooved Making Ideas Stick and recommend it to everyone I talk to.
    I would also recommend anything by Tom Ahern – but more for fundraising than anything else.
    I guess it’s time to dig out that library card…

  22. I think you have captured the benefit of Dan’s thinking really well. He is polarizing AND his ideas are thought provoking and provocative…

  23. Love the list, and also appreciate the many recs in the comments. I wonder if it would be possible to do a future list that focuses on books by women authors? I ask because I feel like we often “default” to male leadership voices, and then we can sometimes fall into the male (white) leadership echo chamber. (Even this great list is 70% male authors only, with the 30% where women are co-authors.) With a nonprofit industry filled with so many amazing women (Joan included!), I wonder how we can better bring a lens to highlight their voices. (This same lens could also be brought to other overlooked areas in nonprofit leadership, like spotlighting leaders of color, LGBTQ voices, etc.) I see some cool recs for Leslie Crutchfield, Beth Kanter, Sarah Knight, and others in the comments. Thanks for sharing those!

  24. I love this list, so many great titles. For me I often seek books about the issues I care about so I am always learning.
    As far as titles I recommend:
    Leadership and self-deception- Its a short and easy read but it will help any reader understand how the view they have of themselves affects how they interact with others.
    I highly recommend Toxic Charity if your work in anyway interacts with a faith community.
    Silos, Politics and Turf Wars, This is great read. It helps us understand how to build an organization that doesn’t compete with itself for resources.
    Daring Greatly: Vulnerability, something every leader should have more of, in my opinion.
    I could go on, but I think reading books that inspire you, and help you refill your tank are necessary. As nonprofit leaders we are constantly pouring ourselves out, and we need to ensure we stay in it for the long run.

  25. GREAT list.I have Good To Great started. I’ll add Difficult Conversations.
    I would highly recommend Greenleaf’s Servant Leadership and Druckers Managing the Non Profit Corporation.

  26. The Fifth Discipline by Peter Senge. It’s long, but well-worth it. Huge fan of Difficult Conversations, by the way – I reread it regularly.

  27. I have to second and really highly recommend Getting Things Done. It had a powerful impact on my stress levels, and as I continue to implement the GTD system I get better and better at my work. I’m not entirely stress free, but I’m definitely less stressed than ever before!

  28. I thought “The Generosity Network: New Transformational Tools for Successful Fundraising”, by Jeffrey Walker and Jennifer McRea, was quite good also.

  29. Although she doesn’t run a non-profit (but rather Popeye’s Chicken!), “Servant Leadership,” by Cheryl Bachelder is inspiring and good for any leader to read! The audiobook is great, too.

  30. Don’t Miss “The Missing Link” by Sydney Banks!!! Must read for anyone wanting to understand the Mind.

  31. Melissa. Sorry for the delay in responding. I see a blog post title in this one! What Nonprofit Leaders Can Learn From Popeye’s Chicken! 🙂 Thanks for adding to the list

  32. You got me. I have not read these… as a communicator, I promise i will pick a few and add to my long list of “next up.”

  33. Hi Joan,
    Your recommendations are my summer reading. Thank you. I’ve been stimulated and blessed by your recommendations. It’s encouraging to have reinforced, and proven, what you believe to be true.
    Equally inspiring is Grit by Angela Duckworth, which has been published since you created your list.

  34. Great list Joan. I actually just released a book about nonprofit management that is meant to explain nonprofits simply, but also to get people to think about orgs more holistically. I’d love to send you a free copy. If you’re interested, send me your address. You can DM me on Twitter @RachelBinLA.

  35. over sensitizationalism…I work in a women’s world, and we have nothing over what women do with power and possession… just go be the leader and stop lending to the stigmas that you say may exist…

  36. 1. Flight of the Buffalo, James Belasco
    2. The Five Dysfunctions of a team, by Lencioni
    3. Good to great, Jim Cllins
    4. the Making of a Leader, by J. Robert Clinton
    5. a book is coming out by Aaron Hunnel called, “Upward”, living with passion, purpose, and positivity…
    6. Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, Richard Carlson

  37. is the writer writing from experiences of being in churches or charities, or just information gathering??
    can make a huge difference
    having been in the Church setting for 30 years, the only thing toxic about it is when leaders forget about serving, not directing…

  38. Thanks for your reply, Craig. I think we may “agree to disagree” on this one. There’s a lot of room for growth in the “leadership expertise” field. Even as you say, there are *many* woman in the nonprofit sector, yet somehow the books we often recommend are written by men. In a woman-dominated field, this is an interesting quandary, and it’s okay to point to patterns and want to explore them, and see how traditional power-structures (“men as the default view of leaders”) can show up in various areas of the np sector.

  39. Pollyanna Principals, Hildy Gottlieb. The reengineering process works. Unchartiable, Dan Panatta, Begging for Change, Robert Egger and I read ALL of Tim Delaney’s articles, honest, ethical, committed and actionable. And, Joan, I read YOU!

  40. The followup to Toxic Charity is Charity Detox by Robert Lupton. The first book described the problem, and the second has more practical applications. Charity Detox also discusses the need to preserve the dignity of the person you are giving to and ways to accomplish it.

  41. Effective Altruism is changing what donors look for in a charity. The focus will shift from who has the lowest operating costs – to rewarding charities doing the most effective work. http://www.givewell.org/ is evaluating charities using this method.
    These books on Effective Altruism are reshaping priorities in charitable work and giving. I found them fascinating and wanted to share.
    Doing Good Better by William MacAskill. https://www.amazon.com/Doing-Good-Better-Effective-Altruism/dp/1592409660
    The Life You Can Save by Peter Singer. https://www.amazon.com/Life-You-Can-Save-Poverty/dp/0812981561/
    The Most Good You Can Do by Peter Singer.

  42. Nice list, but reading outside the nonprofit world is critically important. Adam Smith The Wealth of Nations is often quoted but misunderstood, actually a very progressive book (note the discussion of regulation of banks). And Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinkers Creek will provide context for all that you do.
    Toxic Charity is a dangerous book, a fair amount of bootstrapping / worthy poor philosophy masquerading as reform. A very conservative philosophy, it manages to do a lot of good for a select group of people, but leaves the rest for others to pick up and assist.
    Thanks for the discussion.

  43. “Between Parent and Child,” by Haim Ginott. While this might seem strictly like a parenting book on face value, it explores interpersonal communication and has taught me so much about how I speak to my colleagues, friends and partner.

  44. Jordan Flaherty’s “No More Heroes: Grassroots Challenges to the Savior Mentality” and “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Nonprofit Industrial Complex” are both important for nonprofit leaders, particular those working on behalf of communities that they are not from.

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