Book Review: Joan Garry's Guide to Nonprofit Leadership | Beth's Blog

Book Review: Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership


I’m a huge fan of Joan Garry’s blog and podcast.    I consider the “Dear Abby” of the nonprofit world, dispensing practical and brilliant advice to nonprofits with her wonderful sense of humor.   Joan has been an executive director, board member, donor, and volunteer – so she brings to her consulting and educator practice so much perspective and wisdom.   She has packed all that into her new book, “Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership.”

I was honored to write a book blurb after reading an early draft, but my copy just arrived in the mail and wanted to share review on my blog as part of my preparation for doing an interview with her next week.   First, let me say this now – this is a MUST-READ book for nonprofit leaders and board members.  Go buy the book now because it is going to be a huge hit.

You will notice that there is a trash can on the cover of her book with the tagline, “Because Nonprofits Are Messy.”  Joan understands the messiness and accepts that nonprofits work this way.  (She know first hand).   So, you won’t get the sanitized theoretical frameworks:  she tells it straight and offers up insights that based on her real-world experience in the trenches of the nonprofit sector.

The book covers some standard leadership and managerial topics, but in an unique entertaining way that only Joan Garry can deliver. Many include her trademark “Dear Joan” notes from disguised nonprofit leaders sharing a problem and Joan giving advice.   You will learn how deliver your elevator speech, work effectively with a board chair, deal with fundraising challenges, managing tips for staff and volunteers, crisis management, and leadership transitions.

As I have done with my own books, each chapter includes a cartoon that makes you both laugh and understand what’s in the chapter.

Given the current atmosphere for nonprofits being harsh and the potential for a Twitter storm or to be easily thrust into crisis mode, I was particularly interested in taking a close read of her advice in the chapter about dealing with a crisis, aptly titled “When It Hits the Fan.”

Joan is often besieged with requests for help about a crisis that is happening and how to dig out of it, versus how to plan to mitigate one.   She suggests that is due to the optimistic mindset that many nonprofit leaders have for changing the world.   Taking time to do “scenario” planning (where you imagine all the possible ways something could wrong and come up with a plan) to prepare for a crisis is not in every nonprofit leader’s comfort zone.

Joan tells us that we must do crisis planning because leaders are expected to take the reins in the times of crises and that nonprofit leaders are fooling themselves if they think that focusing on the good work will avert the crisis.  She goes to say that if you work the nonprofit sector and have not yet had a crisis, it is because you are lucky.

Nonprofits that are working on controversial issues or with marginalized communities know that anger can easily turn on the organization – especially around decisions that stakeholders disagree with – like closing a program or accepting corporate sponsorship from a company that they feel is working against the issue.   Also, there is fact that nonprofits can’t control everything – a crisis might happen due to an act of god or bad weather.

The chapter includes a highly useful and practical guide to building a crisis management plan.  I’ll summarize her points here:

Phase 1:  What is the worst thing that could happen?
Phase 2: What is the worst headline you could see about your organization in the front page of the NY Times?
Phase 3: What assumptions will be made?
Phase 4:  Outline a Process

  • Create a crisis management team
  • Create core messaging for your worst case scenarios
  • Train your spokespersons for the world of 9/11
  • Build ally relationships with other organizations and media before you need them

She also offers a few little secrets, great real-world advice:  Even with a plan, you are never ready;  Avoid trying to please everyone; Don’t move too slowly.

The rest of the chapter shares some insights about crisis management from the inner workings of some nonprofits who lived through a crisis. She also provides advice about more common crisis such as a financial or staff layoffs and how to handle them.

Every chapter of this book is filled with humor, wisdom, real life practical advice, stories from the nonprofit trenches, and encouragement.  It is like having a one-on-one with Joan Garry and benefiting from her insights.  Whether you are a nonprofit leader with many years of experience or an emerging leader, Joan’s book should be required reading.


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  1. […] Beth Kanter reviews Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership. […]

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