Nonprofits Are Messy - Joan Garry

Book Review: “Nonprofits Are Messy” by Joan Garry

Joan Garry. Have you heard of her? I hadn’t until very recently. Stefanie, fellow board member and chair at Triad Ladder of Hope, had shared one of Joan’s blog posts with me. I remember thinking to myself, “This is spot-on! She’s right!” I had to know WHO this woman was! I immediately clicked over to her website, and after browsing a bit, I realized she was offering (at no charge) something I was looking for: wisdom gleaned from years in the trenches of leadership—both corporate and nonprofit.

Y’all know how much I love to learn from others, especially experts in their field, so I “liked” her Facebook page, followed her on Twitter, and soon began receiving tidbits of wisdom that were both enjoyable to read and seemed to hit the mark regarding the ups and downs of volunteer leadership. Every. Single. Time.

Following her closely afforded me a neat opportunity: I was invited to receive a pre-release copy of her new book Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy in exchange for an honest review. Sign me up! 

Nonprofits Are Messy

I’ve just finished reading Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy and my head and heart are full—overflowing with invaluable insights regarding working with volunteers; inspiring ideas to facilitate growth; practical problem-solving skills; and realistic recipes for success at everything from board meetings to annual retreats. But more than that, Nonprofits Are Messy has challenged me to remember WHY I chose to invest my time volunteering with nonprofits in the first place: I have a renewed sense of joy and gratitude for the work I am so privileged to do for my community!

Joan Garry is a compassionate truth teller who holds her wisdom with an open hand. She entered the nonprofit arena after fourteen years in executive positions in corporate entertainment (she was part of the management team who launched MTV back when I was in high school). The decision to leave corporate America and take on a leadership position at a struggling nonprofit (GLAAD) shocked many, but her passion for the cause and her amazing skills were exactly what the organization needed. Not only did she grow the organization’s bottom line from only $360 in its checking account to over $1.5 million in cash reserves and an $8 million budget—which is pretty amazing for someone who had ZERO fundraising experience—she also leveraged her leadership skills to exponentially expand the organization’s influence by effectively managing volunteer corps, leadership teams, and a paid staff of 40 employees. The organization became an internationally-recognized force to be reckoned with!

Joan currently consults with nonprofit leaders coaching them through crisis management, providing executive coaching, and building strong management teams to support the work of the CEO. She also teaches nonprofit media strategy at the University of Pennsylvania, and is a blogger for The Huffington Post.

Wisdom Gleaned from Years of Experience

Now, isn’t she someone you’d love to meet and pick her brain for ideas that might work in your own organization? To get input about a recurring conflict within your Board? To ask her how she found success as an Executive Director of a nonprofit when she’d had NO fundraising experience? To learn if she’d do anything differently? Well, guess what? You can!

Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy is Joan’s gift to the nonprofit leader (current or aspiring). It is written in such a way that you feel like you’re sitting right across the table from her having a conversation about your own organization. She anticipates your questions and answers them with candor and compassion. Offering insights from both her own personal experience and her experience as a nonprofit consultant, she will explain why certain practices work and others fail miserably. Read it with a highlighter at the ready. You’ll be highlighting nuggets like this:

  • “The board you have is the board you build.” (p. 57)
  • “A great strategy conversation should breathe life into the organization.” (p. 71)
  • “Fundraising is about an invitation to join you in the remarkable work you do.” (p. 89)
  • “Don’t ever assume that a person with capacity should give to your cause.” (p. 98)
  • “Leadership is not about making people happy—it’s about making decisions that are in clear alignment with the mission and values of your organization. And a lack of clarity can ignite a crisis.” (p. 163)

Joan’s advice to nonprofit leaders is founded on bedrock principles of integrity, respect, authenticity, transparency, and proactivity—all of which are guaranteed to move your mission forward in the most ethical manner possible. As a supplement to her book, Joan has provided a slew of free downloads on her website (referenced throughout) which will allow the reader to immediately implement many of her recommendations.

Practical, Proven Leadership Techniques

Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy an excellent resource and a “must read” for anyone who intends to step into leadership in ANY nonprofit organization (including churches)! If you’re easily offended, put on your Depends® and read it anyway—seeing life through someone else’s eyes can be beneficial and keep us humble. Joan’s authenticity and compassion shine through her writing. You can tell she lives what she believes. And what she believes is this:

It is a privilege to have a leadership role in a nonprofit. It is a joy to have the opportunity to dedicate your skills, life experience, time, energy, and passion to a cause you care deeply about…the work is tough and often thankless.

And she’s right. Joan Garry’s Guide to Nonprofit Leadership: Because Nonprofits Are Messy is the best “thank you” I’ve received in a long time because it’s filled with tips to make my leadership much more effective. I highly recommend it.

Side note: There are a few typos and formatting issues that I would recommend they fix before reprinting (and I’m positive this book will go into reprint), but none of them are obtrusive.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received one or more of the products or services mentioned above for free in the hope that I would mention it on my blog. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will be good for my readers. Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and purchase the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use personally and believe will add value to my readers. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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About the author: Laura Zielke

Laura Zielke (ZELL-key) is a deep thinker and Bible scholar. She is not afraid to question tradition and challenges people to evaluate their beliefs according to the Scriptures. Laura earned her M-Div. from Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary with an emphasis on Biblical Studies, Archaeology, and Languages. She has been blessed to serve as a lay leader in local churches for more than thirty years. Having been recognized as an outstanding leader, teacher, and entrepreneur, Laura serves as the Community Manager for the Nonprofit Leadership Lab (an organization dedicated to helping nonprofit leaders worldwide accomplish their mission), and she is on the board of directors at Shield Your Faith (an apologetics ministry). She and her husband of 21 years have one son who is in the 10th grade and homeschooled. Laura is an INTJ on the Meyers-Briggs Personality Type Indicator, and enjoys helping people discover more about themselves, the Lord, and their purpose in life. Connect with her on social media: @thezwomann (Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and Pinterest).

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