13 Books Social Entrepreneurs and Non-Profits Should Read in 2018

The end of the year is a great time to curl up with a good book and start scheming about your goals for the year ahead. We asked some of the people we learned the most from in 2017 to recommend their favorite books for aspiring social change-makers.

January 22, 2018

Ranging from novels to classics to new releases, these books will give you the inspiration and insight to start the new year with renewed energy and fresh perspectives.

Rocking The Boat For Social Entrepreneurs Book Cover


1. Rocking the Boat: How Tempered Radicals Effect Change Without Making Trouble

Author: Debra Meyerson

Recommended ByScott Sonenshein — Rice University, author of Stretch, and +Acumen Master Class instructor

“This book addresses the challenges and solutions to being an agent of social change in an organization’s whose values might not be consistent with that change. It’s inspiring because it invites anyone to be a social change agent, no matter where they work. Myerson does a terrific job outlining practical strategies to engage with one’s work organization to promote change, from the least intense (and risky) to the most intense. All along, she guides us through the psychological challenges of staying true to one’s values, while working in contexts that might not (at least today) share those values. The book is also peppered with stories of social change agents who made a difference in places we might not expect. When you finish the book, you feel empowered to lead social change no matter the situation.”

Do The KIND Thing Book Cover


2. Do the KIND Thing

Author: Daniel Lubetzky

Recommended ByMeradith Leebrick — Associate Director of Social Enterprise, International Planned Parenthood Federation, Western Hemisphere

“Our work as the social enterprise team at the International Planned Parenthood Federation centers around transitioning our members, who are non-profit healthcare providers, into social enterprise models. Many of these organizations, who have previously been operating for decades as donor subsidized models, grapple with the tension of achieving social impact by expanding access to health services to vulnerable populations, while also generating revenue in the process. Do the KIND Thing has an interesting angle on explaining their philosophy of “AND” – advancing both social and business objectives in unison. Although they approach this philosophy from the vantage point of a traditional business entrepreneur incorporating social values into their business model, I have found it helpful and inspiring to integrate their messaging into the work with our members as they thoughtfully make the transition into social enterprise.”

We Do Things Differently Book Cover


3. We Do Things Differently

Author: Mark Stevenson

Recommended ByTing Jiang — Principal of Global Health and Development at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, led by Dan Ariely

“We Do Things Differently provides a fresh look on unusual, ahead-of-our-time approaches, demonstrated by well-written fascinating stories of trendsetters in major social changes. It’s both for those who have the ambitions to change the world and those who want to have a glimpse into the future changes.”

Middlemarch Book Cover


4. Middlemarch

Author: George Eliot

Recommended ByEmily Esfahani Smith, author of The Power of Meaning, 2017 TED speaker, and +Acumen Master Class Instructor

“A lot of people think that the key to leading a meaningful life is changing the world in some grand way—like by curing some disease or launching the next big company. And that’s basically what Dorothea Brooke and Tertius Lydgate think, too, in this novel by George Eliot. These two young adults yearn for meaning and want to lead epic lives. But as the novel progresses, their hopes and dreams are dashed. Even so, Eliot wants us to see that a meaningful life doesn’t have to be extraordinary or epic. Ordinary lives are also full of meaning, too. She ends the novel with one of the most beautiful lines in all of literature: “[F]or the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.”

Systems Thinking for Social Change Book Cover


5. Systems Thinking for Social Change 

Author: David Stroh 

Recommended ByBecky Richeson — The Omidyar Group and a featured expert in our +Acumen Systems Practice course

“Donors, leaders of nonprofits, and public policy makers usually have the best of intentions to create positive social change. But often their solutions fall far short of what they want to accomplish and what is truly needed. Systems Thinking for Social Change enables readers to contribute more effectively to society by helping them understand what systems thinking is and why it is so important in their work. This book is an excellent complement to our Systems Practice course developed with The Omidyar Group.”

Hidden Life of Trees Book Cover



6. The Hidden Life of Trees

Author: Peter Wohlleben 

Recommended ByBecky Richeson — The Omidyar Group and a featured expert in our +Acumen Systems Practice course

“We can learn a lot about complex social systems by studying complex natural systems and learning about phenomena like biomimicry,” says Becky Richeson of The Omidyar Group. In The Hidden Life of Trees, Peter Wohlleben shares his deep love of woods and forests and explains the amazing processes of life, death and regeneration he has observed in the woodland. He uncovers the science behind the previously unknown lives of trees and their communication abilities—and may just provide you with insights from the natural world that you can apply to our own complex human systems.”

The Broken Ladder Book Cover



7. The Broken Ladder

Author: Keith Payne 

Recommended ByAndrea Dinneen — Behavioral Research and Designer for Common Cents Lab with Dan Ariely

“In The Broken Ladder, psychologist Keith Payne examines how inequality divides us not just economically, but also shapes how we think, how our cardiovascular systems respond to stress, how our immune systems function, and how we view moral ideas such as justice and fairness. If you’re looking to tackle problems of poverty or inequality, this book will help give you a more nuanced understanding of the research and the reality.”

Weapons of Math Distruction



8. Weapons of Math Destruction

Author: Cathy O’Neil 

Recommended ByAndrea Dinneen — Behavioral Research and Designer for Common Cents Lab with Dan Ariely

“Algorithms and big data are increasingly a part of our reality. They determine how decisions get made, what information we see, and whether or not we get a loan. Yet, as Cathy O’Neil reveals in this important book, the models being used today are opaque, unregulated, and uncontestable even when they're wrong. Most troublingly, they reinforce discrimination: If a poor student can't get a loan because a lending model deems him too risky (by virtue of his zip code), he's then cut off from the kind of education that could pull him out of poverty, and a vicious spiral ensues. Models are propping up the lucky and punishing the downtrodden, creating a "toxic cocktail for democracy.” If you care about issues of contemporary social justice, this book is a must-read.”

The Lean Startup Book Cover



9. The Lean Startup

Author: Eric Ries 

Recommended By Ann Mei Chang — former Chief Innovation Officer, USAID

““The same modern tools and approaches that have made Silicon Valley a hotbed of innovation can help us deliver dramatically greater social impact at scale. The Lean Startup by Eric Ries encourages a shift from the traditional mindset of design-execute to a performance driven one of build-measure-learn.”

Women Don't Ask Book Cover


10. Women Don't Ask: Negotiation and the Gender Divide

Author: Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever 

Recommended By Aline Holzwarth — Director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

“This is not a new book (it was published in 2003), but it is a very important one that is (sadly) still painfully relevant 15 years later. Understanding the social forces that underlie (and reinforce) the gender pay gap can help create more informed, more effective solutions that address the root of the problem rather than its mere symptoms. Linda Babcock and Sara Laschever not only analyze the issue, but offer practical solutions to help close the gender pay gap.”


Deep Work Book Cover


11. Deep Work

Author: Cal Newport 

Recommended ByNick Fitz — Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

“We live in age of distraction. Yet, if you’re working towards anything meaningful—whether that is launching a new program, completing a grant proposal, or documenting your social impact—you’ll likely need periods of intense focus to complete these cognitively demanding tasks. In his latest book, Cal Newport shows us that deep work is the superpower that will allow you to quickly master complicated information and produce better results in less time. If you’re aiming to work smarter in 2018, this book is for you.”


Books for Social Entrepreneurs, This Changes Everything Book Cover


12. This Changes Everything

Author: Naomi Klein 

Recommended ByNick Fitz — Research Associate at the Center for Advanced Hindsight, Duke University

“Climate change is an increasingly pressing issue that anyone working to tackle problems of poverty needs to urgently understand. In This Change Everything, Naomi Klein meticulously builds the case for how massively reducing ourgreenhouse emissions is our best chance to simultaneously reduce gaping inequalities, re-imagine our broken democracies, and rebuild our gutted local economies”


Books for Social Entrepreneurs, Team of Teams Book Cover


13. Team of Teams

Author: General Stanley McChrystal

Recommended BySasha Dichter — Chief Innovation Officer, Acumen

“What if you could combine the agility, adaptability, and cohesion of a small team with the power and resources of a giant organization? In Team of Teams, General Stanley McChrystal shows how, in an ever-changing environment, the smartest response is for the leadership of nonprofits and businesses is to invest heavily in how information flows and to empower small teams to act without relying on traditional hierarchical structures.”

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