The Ultimate Summer Reading List From Change-Makers We Admire

Posted July 20, 2016 by +Acumen in Career,Courses,Leadership

Social change-makers are lifelong learners. They’re people constantly picking up a book or listening to a new podcast to shift their thinking, refine their approach, and get smarter. Why? Because game-changing entrepreneurs know that solving the world’s most challenging problems require ideas from across industries, sectors, and even eras. Inspiration for a new product or approach is just as likely to spring from a cookbook or an industrial design manual as it is from a short story or a research paper.

When we needed new recommendations to add to our summer reading list, we turned to some of the smartest people we know: the partners we’ve worked with to bring you+Acumen courses. These are individuals from places like, TED,, On Being, The Center for Creative Leadership, and Sama Group. They’re developing some of the most compelling ideas about how to design human-centered solutions, create smarter marketing, lead organizations, and achieve lasting social impact.

Here are the books that have fueled their own work and their recommendations for what you should read to inspire your next project. Consider this your social change making syllabus for the summer. #acumenreads



by Abhijit Banerjee and Esther Duflo.

Recommended by: Leila Janah


Leila Janah is the founder and CEO of Sama Group and a big fan of Poor Economics: A Radical Rethinking of the Way to Fight Global Poverty. Published in 2012, this book, written by two “practical visionaries” and economists, “examines global poverty and  how it affects the decision-making ability of those who struggle with it.” Ideas from this book have shaped Leila’s approach to building Sama Group – an organization that helps people lift themselves out of poverty through digital work.

If you want to hear more from Leila, check out our Social Entrepreneurship 101 course where she shares more about Sama Group, her personal journey, and advice for anyone new to the social enterprise field.


by Chris Anderson

Recommended by: +Acumen


Chris Anderson is the chief curator of TED and just published the New York Times bestseller TED Talks: The Official TED Guide to Public Speaking. In this book, you’ll find his behind-the-scenes perspective on how to deliver a great talk. It’s an increasingly valuable skill for anyone wishing to make a difference. Whether you are an an social entrepreneur pitching an investor, or a nonprofit leader delivering a critical message to a board, you want to make sure that you create a lasting impact on your audience. Our favorite  tip?   Don’t be an org bore.

You can watch Chris share his insights in our latest Master Class: Chris Anderson on Public Speaking.


by David and Tom Kelley

Recommended by: Jocelyn Wyatt


Jocelyn Wyatt, Co-Founder and Executive Director of, recommends Creative Confidence by David and Tom Kelley“It’s a powerful and compelling book on unleashing the creativity that lies within each and every one of us” Jocelyn told us.

You can unleash your own creativity and learn about’s methods in this introductory course: Design Kit: The Course for Human-Centered Design.


Cassandra Staff is the Program Director for the Global Social Benefit Institute (GSBI) at Santa Clara University’s Miller Center for Social Entrepreneurship.  Each year, she advises social entrepreneurs in GSBI’s Accelerator program and prepares them for an Investor Showcase. For those looking for inspiration along their social enterprise journey she recommends Letters to a Young Entrepreneur: Succeeding in Business Without Losing at Life. A book which she says offers “practical and caring words of wisdom from one of our most passionate mentors.”

To gain more insights from the Global Social Benefit Institute, you can register for  Business Models for Social Enterprise, a course we co-developed with the Miller Center.


by Adam Grant

Recommended by: Melanie Duppins

Melanie Duppins, VP of Human Capital & Teacher Outreach at, recommendsOriginals by Adam Grant. “Originalsprovides a fresh look on what it means to be innovative, and debunks the myth that originality needs to be be reserved for a handful of super creative people,” she says, “This book explains how producing original ideas is much more accessible than we think it is, and often requires us to do the opposite of what we’re told produces new and creative work.”

To learn more about the founding story of, check out Social Entrepreneurship 101 which features video lessons from their founder, Charles Best. And consider finding a project on their platform to support the learning of students this summer.


by Byron Sharp

Recommended by: Grant Tudor


Grant Tudor is the founder of Populist, a marketing firm that brings together marketers and social innovators to sell critical products and services to underserved populations. He recommends How Brands Grow by Byron Sharp. “It looks and feels at first like a very industry-specific book,” Grant says, “However, it’s very short and accessible, and it provides the best, most direct and brutally honest take on what exactly marketing can (and can’t) do. For any social enterprise engaged in selling a product or service, it should be required reading. Leaning on lots of data, this book unforgivingly debunks the most common marketing myths and lays out exactly how marketing can help organizations to sell.”

We love this recommendation so much that we are developing an upcoming course with Populist. Stay tuned!


by Seth Godin

Recommended by: +Acumen


Seth Godin is a longtime friend of Acumen and the author of many books. We love them all, but one that the +Acumen team has been thinking about most deeply lately isTribes: We Need You to Lead, which is an essential guide for anyone looking to grow and build communities.

In our latest collaboration, we createdSeth Godin’s Leadership Workshopwhere you can find transformative insights from this best-selling author that are also applicable for the social sector.


by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Recommended by: Amon Anderson


Amon Anderson is the Associate Director for Acumen America, our newest initiative to harness the power of entrepreneurship to tackle poverty in the United States. He just finished Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Between the World and Me, a National Book Award Winner and stirring contemplation of race in America. Amon reflects: “I was struck by the lack of hope in the picture painted by Coates, but I suspect it’s his intention to challenge us all with questions rather than preach to us with answers.” He suggests reading this book as an entry point to deeper reflection on questions of race and identity in the United States today.

We know that some conversation are difficult to have, including some of the topics raised by Ta-Nehisi Coates. We have developed a toolkit: In the Name of Identity: Violence and the Need to Belong to help you navigate these conversations.


by Krista Tippett

Recommended by: +Acumen


Krista Tippett is the award-winning host of On Being, a “social enterprise with radio show at its heart.” Over the years, Krista has hosted powerful, contemplative conversations on some of the biggest questions of our time with spiritual leaders, scientists and thinkers ranging from Brene Brown to the Dalai Lama. She draws lessons from these conversations together in her newest, luminous book Becoming Wise, which was published this spring.

Check out her course Krista Tippett on the Art of Conversation for more generous insights.


by Alan Paton

Recommended by: Chris Walker


Chris Walker is the Social Innovations Director at Mercy Corps and an alumnus of Acumen’s Fellowship program. “I would encourage anyone interested in social change to readCry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton,” says Chris. “Set in South Africa under apartheid, this novel explores themes of justice (or the lack thereof), inequality, dignity, family, and efforts to cross racial, cultural, and economic divides. It’s also one of the most beautifully written books in the English language, with prose that reads like poetry—making the story that much more unforgettable.”


Diane Reinhold is a member of the Design Faculty at the Center for Creative Leadership. She recommends Influence for Nonprofit Leaders and What Millennials Want for Work. “Millennials are a real force in many social changes,” Diane observes. “They bring new energy, new ways of working , and new challenges for the established leadership. So I think this book would also be of great interest.”

To gain more insights from the Center for Creative Leadership check out ourNetworking 101 course.


by Loïc Wacquant

Recommended by: Casey Anderson


Casey Anderson is an instructional designer at Samaschool, a nonprofit designed to help people rapidly develop new skills needed to succeed in the digital economy. She recommends Punishing the Poor, a work of non-fiction and “a fascinating look at how and why the U.S. criminal justice system has become what it is today by examining the way politicians framed ‘the poor’ over time. Thoroughly depressing but deeply fascinating.”

If you know someone looking to level up their skills through digital work, check outSamaschool, which is part of Sama Group featured in our Social Entrepreneurship 101 course.


by Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg

Recommended by: Joyce Kim


Joyce Kim, a Community Specialist at, recommends Getting Beyond Better by Roger L. Martin and Sally Osberg. “Social entrepreneurship and social enterprise are two terms that have gained a lot of popularity in recent times. However depending on who you’re speaking with, everyone seems to have a slightly different definition,” observes Joyce. “This book provides a clear framework to understand where social entrepreneurs fit in within the social sector and also shares examples of real-life social entrepreneurs who are currently shaking things up. This book will leave any aspiring change-maker inspired.”

To join the community of human-centered design facilitators catalyzed by Joyce and, sign up for Design Kit: Facilitator’s Guide starting again in September.


Still can’t get enough? Here are a few more to add to your extended list: