Dreaming in Technicolor: Books to Spark Big-Picture Thinking


“Be the change you wish to see in the world.” But with so many things that need changing, it can be difficult to picture the path to progress. Strategic planning in times like these may leave many nonprofit leaders feeling as if everything is being drained of color. That’s why it’s a good idea to step back, take a clear-eyed look at the world, and then re-imagine it in Technicolor, the process that transformed dull black-and-white films into vivid color epics perfect for the big screen. To help you spark big-picture thinking and envision a brighter future, we’ve compiled a collection of summer must-reads.

Let’s start out with some books that will help you widen your perspective, moving beyond black-and-white thinking to see the world as it is. These books look at contemporary issues from a fresh point of view.

For nonprofit leaders interested in exploring a wide range of topics, 21 Lessons for the 21st Century is a good place to start. From the author of the bestsellers Sapiens and Homo Deus, which examined human’s past and future, this book delves into such current issues as immigration, nationalism, equality, and big data. As the author points out, “In a world deluged by irrelevant information, clarity is power.” Perhaps this is why Bill Gates included it in his list of five favorite books of last year. Gates writes, “If 2018 has left you overwhelmed by the state of the world, 21 Lessons offers a helpful framework for processing the news and thinking about the challenges we face.”

Zeroing in on the charitable giving sector, there has never been a better time to examine traditional notions of philanthropy with a critical eye. In fact, there has been a spate of recent books focused on this topic. Just Giving: Why Philanthropy Is Failing Democracy and How It Can Do Better, by Rob Reich, offers a critique of modern-day philanthropy, examining the ways in which charity-related tax subsidies benefit the wealthy while enabling them to exercise unchecked power. Another such book is David Callahan’s The Givers: Money, Power, and Philanthropy in a New Gilded Age, which investigates the rise of a new philanthropic elite and how they are using their wealth to wield influence over various facets of American society. To round out this collection, Winners Take All: The Elite Charade of Changing the World, by Anand Giridharadas, analyzes “how the global elite's efforts to ‘change the world’ preserve the status quo and obscure their role in causing the problems they later seek to solve.”

Now that you have taken stock of the current state of affairs, you can go about picturing the world as it should be: in Technicolor.

Two recent books look at how specific groups might lead us towards a more vibrant future. A new release by Melinda Gates, The Moment of Lift: How Empowering Women Changes the World, draws on her personal experiences and philanthropic work with the Gates Foundation to make the case that women’s empowerment is the key to global progress. She poses the question, “How can we summon a moment of lift for human beings – and especially for women? Because when you lift up women, you lift up humanity.”

Returning to the realm of philanthropy, Decolonizing Wealth: Indigenous Wisdom to Heal Divides and Restore Balance, by Edgar Villanueva, looks at this topic from the perspective of indigenous peoples. It examines how philanthropy today closely resembles the hierarchical structures of the colonial past, and outlines Seven Steps for Healing based on Native traditions. One Amazon reviewer, who works as a fundraiser, writes, “[The book] named ways in which I’ve at times felt uneasy with the implications of my work. It let me imagine a future in which we didn’t need fundraisers, or at least could get by with fewer of us, because we would head off the crises of tomorrow by solving the problems of today.”

Another guide for improving charitable giving is Money Well Spent: A Strategic Plan for Smart Philanthropy, by Paul Brest and Hal Harvey. This book advises foundations and nonprofit organizations on how to maximize the impact of philanthropic donations. Now in its second edition, this revised version also covers current trends such as impact investing and the emergence of mega-donors.

The final two books in this collection take a global perspective on solving pressing challenges. The first one tackles the issue of global poverty. The Prosperity Paradox: How Innovation Can Lift Nations Out of Poverty argues that current poverty solutions are ineffective and uses company and country case studies to propose a new framework for building prosperity by fostering innovation. Finally, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World--and How to Make It Work for You, by Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms, is billed as “the definitive guide to spreading ideas, building movements, and leaping ahead in our chaotic, connected age.” Ideal reading for nonprofit leaders, this book unlocks the secrets behind modern-day movements and organizations, such as Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Airbnb, and TED, and illustrates how to harness new power to create change.

Action steps you can take today
  • Click on the links above to learn more about the books mentioned in this article.
  • If you are looking for additional inspiration, check out last year’s reading list, “Motivational Summer Reads for Nonprofit Leaders.”
  • Visit GrantStation’s PathFinder website to discover additional books and resources curated exclusively for nonprofit and grant professionals.