The best books to help you realistically understand the complex worlds of philanthropy and nonprofits

Why am I passionate about this?

The nonprofit sector is important to society and I often marvel at how many of us – which is to say all of us – have been touched by the generosity of others. With few exceptions, anyone who has graduated from college, who has been admitted to a hospital, who has attended a faith-based service, who has examined art at a gallery, who – literally, and there are no exceptions here – breathes air has benefited from the work of nonprofit organizations and the philanthropists who support them. It is therefore important to me to understand how the system works and how important charities are to society and a functioning democracy. 

I wrote...

Wounded Charity: Lessons Learned from the Wounded Warrior Project Crisis

By Doug White,

Book cover of Wounded Charity: Lessons Learned from the Wounded Warrior Project Crisis

What is my book about?

On its primary, story-telling level, Wounded Charity investigates the effort to marginalize one of America's most vital charities. Its broader level is about what it means for all charities. 

This cautionary, provocative narrative describes how Wounded Warrior Project, the nation’s largest veterans’ charity, came to be so heavily criticized, why much of the criticism was unfounded, why those ultimately in charge of the charity – the board members – failed to do their job, and how individuals and the media need to revise their thinking about what works and what doesn't work in a sector of our society whose tangible accomplishments, despite steadily increasing philanthropic support, largely remain a mystery.

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of Uncharitable: How Restraints on Nonprofits Undermine Their Potential

Doug White Why did I love this book?

In Uncharitable Dan Pallotta challenges the way most people think about charity. 

Many people have been told that the less charities spend on overhead, fundraising, and salaries, the better the charities are. But this is not a healthy way to understand a charity’s impact, and Uncharitable refutes this myth. 

Pallotta describes what he calls an “economic apartheid,” a mindset that denies charities the critical tools that the for-profit sector is allowed to use without restraint: incentives to take risks, counterproductive limits on compensation, and moral objections to the use of donated dollars for anything other than program expenditures. 

I like this book not because Pallotta has a fully fleshed-out roadmap to energize the nonprofit sector, but because he is one of the few to articulate important problems facing the sector.

By Dan Pallotta,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Uncharitable as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Uncharitable investigates how for-profit strategies could and should be used by nonprofits.

Uncharitable goes where no other book on the nonprofit sector has dared to tread. Where other texts suggest ways to optimize performance inside the existing charity paradigm, Uncharitable suggests that the paradigm itself is the problem and calls into question our fundamental canons about charity. Dan Pallotta argues that society's nonprofit ethic creates an inequality that denies the nonprofit sector critical tools and permissions that the for-profit sector is allowed to use without restraint. These double standards place the nonprofit sector at an extreme disadvantage. While the for-profit…

Book cover of Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World

Doug White Why did I love this book?

After reading Winners Take All, we might be forgiven for being worried about the role philanthropy plays in society.  Anand Giridharadas’s central argument is that donors – defined not as the average annual supporter of a charity, but as those with millions, and more, to give – do not so much change society for the better, but use their wealth to maintain the status quo. 

He says that instead of helping the poor, donations support policies, in the nonprofit arena, that uphold and even increase donors’ own wealth and status. In that regard, he reflects upon Oscar Wilde’s observation that those who do the most harm are those who try to do the most good. 

By Anand Giridharadas,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Winners Take All as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

*The International Bestseller*

'Superb, hugely enjoyable ... a spirited examination of the hubris and hypocrisy of the super-rich who claim they are helping the world' Aditya Chakrabortty, Guardian

What explains the spreading backlash against the global elite? In this revelatory investigation, Anand Giridharadas takes us into the inner sanctums of a new gilded age, showing how the elite follow a 'win-win' logic, fighting for equality and justice any way they can - except ways that threaten their position at the top.

But why should our gravest problems be solved by consultancies, technology companies and corporate-sponsored charities instead of public institutions…

Book cover of The Givers: Wealth, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age

Doug White Why did I love this book?

In The Givers David Callahan asks questions – and answers them – about the power philanthropists possess to influence public policy in America. 

He wonders how much influence donors have and what their goals are. He says that some of us are happy about the causes the wealthy promote, but are terrified about others. 

As well, he contends, the process is undemocratic. Philanthropy, he says, is a strong power center in its own right, and “is set to surpass government to shape society’s agenda.” He points out that private donors, who are accountable to no one, have more influence than the public officials who are accountable to the voters. 

Callahan is unafraid to question how much good philanthropists actually do.

By David Callahan,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked The Givers as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

An inside look at the secretive world of elite philanthropists—and how they're quietly wielding ever more power to shape American life in ways both good and bad.

While media attention focuses on famous philanthropists such as Bill Gates and Charles Koch, thousands of donors are at work below the radar promoting a wide range of causes. David Callahan charts the rise of these new power players and the ways they are converting the fortunes of a second Gilded Age into influence. He shows how this elite works behind the scenes on education, the environment, science, LGBT rights, and many other…

Book cover of Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better

Doug White Why did I love this book?

Rob Reich, a professor at Stanford University – in observing that we are living in a second gilded age – directly addresses whether the philosophy of philanthropy is in opposition to democracy. 

He answers, with several qualifications, that it very well could be.  He sets it up in the following way: Is philanthropy – the support of privately funded causes that affect society, often in profound ways – an individual act or a social policy? 

He views the question through that prism, of social policy, and concludes that philanthropy “is not just a matter of private morality,” but is “a matter of public morality.”  Just Giving appeals to me because of its comprehensive approach to an issue – the private support of our nation’s charitable organizations – that, while ubiquitous in society, has received too little attention. 

By Rob Reich,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked Just Giving as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The troubling ethics and politics of philanthropy

Is philanthropy, by its very nature, a threat to today's democracy? Though we may laud wealthy individuals who give away their money for society's benefit, Just Giving shows how such generosity not only isn't the unassailable good we think it to be but might also undermine democratic values. Big philanthropy is often an exercise of power, the conversion of private assets into public influence. And it is a form of power that is largely unaccountable and lavishly tax-advantaged. Philanthropy currently fails democracy, but Rob Reich argues that it can be redeemed. Just Giving…

Book cover of The Theory of Moral Sentiments

Doug White Why did I love this book?

Our love for humanity – which is how “philanthropy” is defined – is rooted in our sense of morality. 

Adam Smith explains that morality is not driven only by reason, but is built into us because we are social beings. To understand philanthropy, therefore, I think we need a grounding in how and why we want to help others.  This book explores that desire, or need, to empathize. 

Smith says that when we see people happy or sad, we feel happy or sad too, that we derive pleasure when people do things we approve of. Even though The Theory of Moral Sentiments is almost three centuries old, it teaches us much about why nonprofits can be successful in the modern world.

By Adam Smith,

Why should I read it?

3 authors picked The Theory of Moral Sentiments as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

The foundation for a general system of morals, this 1749 work is a landmark in the history of moral and political thought. Readers familiar with Adam Smith from The Wealth of Nations will find this earlier book a revelation. Although the author is often misrepresented as a calculating rationalist who advises the pursuit of self-interest in the marketplace, regardless of the human cost, he was also interested in the human capacity for benevolence — as The Theory of Moral Sentiments amply demonstrates.
The greatest prudence, Smith suggests, may lie in following economic self-interest in order to secure the basic necessities.…

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Book cover of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

Michael Bungay Stanier Author Of The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever

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Why am I passionate about this?

Coaching is a wonderful technology that can help people be a force for change… and is often wrapped up in mystic and woo-woo and privilege that makes it inaccessible and/or unattractive to too many. I want being more coach-like—by which I mean staying curious a little longer, and rushing to action and advice-giving—to be an everyday way of being with one another. Driven by this, I’ve written the best-selling book on coaching this century (The Coaching Habit) and have created training that’s been used around the world by more than a quarter of a million people. I’m on a mission to unweird coaching.

Michael's book list on unexpectedly useful books about coaching

What is my book about?

The coaching book that's for all of us, not just coaches.

It's the best-selling book on coaching this century, with 15k+ online reviews. Brené Brown calls it "a classic". Dan Pink said it was "essential".

It is practical, funny, and short, and "unweirds" coaching. Whether you're a parent, a teacher, a leader, or even a coach, you can stay curious longer.

By Michael Bungay Stanier,

Why should I read it?

2 authors picked The Coaching Habit as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Look for Michael's new book, The Advice Trap, which focuses on taming your Advice Monster so you can stay curious a little longer and change the way you lead forever.

In Michael Bungay Stanier's The Coaching Habit, coaching becomes a regular, informal part of your day so managers and their teams can work less hard and have more impact.

Drawing on years of experience training more than 10,000 busy managers from around the globe in practical, everyday coaching skills, Bungay Stanier reveals how to unlock your peoples' potential. He unpacks seven essential coaching questions to demonstrate how-by saying less and…

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