Advice on reading

February 16, 2022

Filed under: Uncategorized — Tags: , , — jonathanpoisner @ 11:03 am

An acquaintance recently revealed to me their voracious reading habit and, in particular, their desire to read extensively on the subjects of “leadership” and “nonprofits.”

At the time, I gave them a couple specific books I recommended.

Upon reflection, here’s what else I wish I’d shared. (Then I’ll pivot to a list of books and book reviews worth your time).

Reading without practice gets you nowhere quickly. Indeed, I often find that those who spend most of their time reading about leadership get stuck as they search for the Holy Grail that will somehow transform their leadership skills.

My advice: read half as much and spend the time saved thinking about what you’ve read. The most important thing to think about: to identify and begin to implement practical changes to your behavior or activities based on what you have read.

To make this work: block out 15-30 minutes on your calendar to do this thinking. Or put “think about book X” in your to-do list. Write down the results of this thinking, with a focus on coming up with 1-5 specific new or changed behaviors or activities.

Of course, it also helps to read books that have practical value. I’ve read a lot of books on nonprofits and leadership over the years and there are some stinkers out there. In contrast, here are some books I’ve read that are particularly useful in that they are written in a way to jump-start practical thinking.

Brandraising, by Sarah Durham

Brandraising: How Nonprofits Raise Visibility and Money Through Smart Communications (2010) is a must read for Executive Directors, development staff, communications, staff, or board leaders who want to understand the connections between strategy, fundraising, and communications.  It is equally adept at providing a unifying theory by which an organization can “brandraise” and practical tips for how to put the theory into practice.      

View my full Braindraising review

The Leadership Challenge, by James Kouzes and Barry Posner

The Leadership Challenge (4th Ed. 2007) outlines 5 “practices” and ten “commitments” that anyone can use to develop their leadership skills.   The book uses a combination of case studies, anecdotes, and more than 25 years of empirical research to lay out both theory and practice on how individuals can demonstrate leadership.  

View my Leadership Challenge review

Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins

Good to Great and the Social Sectors, by Jim Collins, is a 40 page document designed to read in concert with his well-known book Good to Great. Good to Great is a staple of business school syllabi for helping students identify what separates great businesses from good businesses. But having not read the related book, I can vouch for the fact that the monograph stands on its own.

View my Good to Great and the Social Sectors review

Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, by Robert Cialdini

First released in 1984, and updated multiple times since then, Influence is a easy-to-read, chock-full-of-ideas guide to how people get other people to do things they wouldn’t automatically want to do.

Cialdini refers throughout to a “click-whirr” mental shortcuts that humans take when faced with certain stimuli.

View my Persuasion Review Part 1
View my Persuasion Review Part 2

The Secrets of Facilitation, by Michael Wilkinson)

Sometimes you know things, but don’t realize you know it. Or, more accurately, sometimes you recognize and engage in behaviors, without being able to articulate why. But then somebody comes along and articulates why and a light goes off.

View my Secrets of Facilitation Review

Are there books you recommend I read and review? Please share them in the comments!

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Check out 13 tips for email that gets results

June 14, 2017

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 9:51 am

Communications consultant Natalie Bennon recently published 13 tips for email that gets results.

If you’re just getting started in email communications for a nonprofit or if you want a quick refresher, it’s worth looking at her tips.

Email remains the most critical means of communicating with most supporters and potential supporters.  It’s worth your time to ensure you’re using best practices to get the biggest impact from your list.

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Alignment around “why” and not just “what”

October 19, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 1:30 pm

I was talking with someone recently about the struggle of getting a board and staff to stay aligned around a planned set of activities.

In the course of the conversation, I came up with a theory as to why they were having so much difficulty.

The problem is they had agreed on what to do, but they had never articulated in writing why.  Over time, those differences in why were causing some of the participants to believe a switch should now happen because circumstances had changed.

In addition, they had brought on new board and staff members who weren’t part of the original decision and were only presented with the plan for what they were going to do.  Not knowing why, they were less likely to embrace it.

That’s why it’s critical in plans not just to say what you’re going to do, but to include enough of the “why” to make agreements durable over time.  That means agreeing upon the “lay of the land” or underlying facts driving the decision.  And it means agreeing upon strategic assumptions or a theory about the way the world works to reached a shared understanding of why doing what you’re planning will have the impact you desire and expect.   Sometimes this is organization-wide as a “theory of change.”  Oftentimes it’s more granular, program by program.

This can make plans longer.  So it may be some of this is in an appendix.

Bottom line: articulating “why” along with “what” will make your plans more durable as a means of aligning staff and board.

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Strategic Planning Infographic

April 21, 2014

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 11:58 am

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A riddle about five frogs

May 22, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 12:51 pm

A riddle that I recently was told (again).  I know I’ve heard this before, but couldn’t remember where/when.  If anybody knows the original source, please let me know.

The riddle:

Five frogs are sitting on a log.  One decides to jump off.  How many frogs are left on the log?

The answer is five.  Deciding to jump off is not the same as jumping off, so all five are still on the log.

This is an especially appropriate riddle for a planning consultant.  The best made plans are meaningless unless there is a commitment to action and an ability to hold people accountable to follow through on their decisions.

As a practical matter, that means decisions shouldn’t be considered “done” until it’s very clear who will take action and by when.


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E-Book Published

May 9, 2013

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 1:57 pm

In early May 2013, I published my first book.  Why Organizations Thrive: Lessons from the Front Lines for Nonprofit Executive Directors. 

In the first week, more than 100 individuals downloaded it.

If you read it, please give me feedback.

What did you find helpful?  What did you find confusing?

Feel free to just email me at, or use the comment sections to leave a review.


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Thoughts on Engagement Organizing

November 8, 2012

Filed under: Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 1:06 pm

I recently had the opportunity to read an excellent white paper by Jon Stahl and Matt Price on the topic of Engagement Organizing.

It’s well worth the read.

Here’s the nutshell version:

Engagement Organizing in their words is a set of inter-related practices that are designed to simultaneously use the latest technology to organize and drive real-world personal one-on-one conversations that, in turn, lead to organizational supporters moving up a ladder of engagement in support of the organization’s mission.

Here are 3 points Stahl and Price make that I think are worth elaborating on:

1. You must invest in data management.  Organizations that underinvest in data management are in far worse shape than those that overinvest. And the data management system must be one that everyone in your organization can utilize — not just a database administrator.

2. You must have a culture that emphasizes personal relationships that are built in-person, with the phone a major tool as well.  I’ve seen too many organizers in the last few years who think that organizing begins and ends on the internet.  The internet makes certain things much cheaper.  But in the end of the day, the phone is a critical means of reaching people, and only in-person relationships are the type that generate true organizational buy-in.

3. You must trust your volunteer leaders if you want them to take responsibility to lead.  I like to call this my Spiderman theory of organizing: “with great power, comes great responsibility,” to quote the comic book character.  Organizations that empower individuals outside staff and board to advance their program are more likely to succeed.  And that will only happen if you give them real responsibility.  I recently heard an Executive Director justify a decision to strip away power from volunteers by saying: “we had to do that because the tail shouldn’t wag the dog.”  In my opinion, this is setting the organization up for failure, as dog is entirely the wrong metaphor for an organization.  Organizations that centralize decision-making and control at a time when the world is becoming more networked are setting themselves up for decline.  Organizations that understand Engagement Organizing will get this.

I’ll be curious to hear what other folks think about the White Paper. If you’ve had a chance to read it and have thoughts, please comment here or shoot me an email.

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Tips for being innovative

June 22, 2012

Filed under: Strategic Planning,Uncategorized — jonathanpoisner @ 4:20 pm

Lots of groups say they value innovation.

But it’s harder to say that than to do it.

If you want to encourage out-of-the-box thinking in your organization, here are some ideas I’ve gleaned over time.   I’d be curious to learn what other ideas you have.

1. Be explicit about when you’re experimenting and how to evaluate it.  If you’re trying something innovative, have clear goals and think ahead of time about how you’ll know whether the innovation was better than whatever standard practice you’re putting aside.  Of course, true A/B experiments when you can compare the results are possible in some situations (e.g. testing email formats), but not in others (testing an innovative board meeting or conference call format).

2. Set aside some professional development time to attend conferences, particularly those OUTSIDE your core field.  It’s when you get out of your core network that you’ll be most likely to be exposed to something truly new.  Or to have that flash of brilliance that somehow connects something new in one field to an opportunity in your own.

3. Set aside reading time.  This can be anything from books or blogs.   This is best if you can get a few people in your organization to read the same topic and then have a discussion about what it means for your organization.

4. Ask a funders if they’ve heard of any innovative projects from which you could learn.

5.Recognize employees who’ve done something innovative or interesting, even if it fails!  As long as you’ve learned from the failure, this should be counted as a victory.

6. Get together as a staff and watch a dozen TedX videos on subjects that are tangentially related to your organization and see what ideas come up.

7. At least once a year, make sure to set aside a true staff retreat where out-of-box thinking is encouraged, preferably in a non-corporate setting.

Of course, innovation for innovation’s sake doesn’t make sense.  If something’s working, sometimes the answer is to scale it up, not change it.

What other practical ideas do you have for how to encourage innovation withing a nonprofit organization?

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