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May 18, 2022
Rethinking How, What They Do Offers a Path Forward for Nonprofits
Book Think Again

While the coronavirus pandemic has forced many nonprofits to rethink their approach to key functions—how to deliver services, recruit and retain employees and volunteers, raise funds—it also may have set the stage for integrating the ability to rethink into everyday work, for which Think Again offers expert guidance.

“Intelligence is traditionally viewed as the ability to think and learn,” writes Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist, author, and speaker, who is recognized as one of today’s most influential management thinkers. “Yet in a turbulent world, there’s another set of cognitive skills that might matter more: the ability to rethink and unlearn.”

In a word, rethinking fundamental assumptions and ways of working creates flexibility, perhaps the most important trait that nonprofit leaders and managers can cultivate to ensure continued viability.

Training oneself to rethink is tough, especially for smart people, because, according to Grant, “The brighter you are, the harder it can be to see your own limitations. Being good at thinking can make you worse at rethinking.”

The good news is that Think Again offers a comprehensive, detailed, accessible guide to developing the ability to rethink – as an individual, one-on-one with others, and as a community.

Maintaining what Grant calls confident humility is key to developing the ability to question assumptions, instincts, and habits.

He notes that college and graduate school students who are willing to revise their beliefs get higher grades than those who don’t. And adults who are confident enough to acknowledge what they don’t know pay more attention to the strength of evidence and spend more time reading material that contradicts their opinion. All have faith in their own strengths, but are aware of their weakness. Therefore, they push themselves to learn more about what they don’t know.

Nonprofit leaders, even before the pandemic, have always had to figure out how to conduct difficult conversations – discussions on issues that drive organizational change and adaptation. For them, the goal is to have productive, vs. unproductive, conversations.

“In a productive conversation, people treat their feelings as a rough draft. Like art, emotions are works in progress. It rarely serves us well to frame our first sketch. As we gain perspective, we revise what we feel. Sometimes we even start over from scratch,” Grant writes, noting that while difficult conversations are usually complex in nature, complexity offers new opportunities for understanding and for progress.

New understanding, of course, can come to all participants in the conversation, and provide the basis for nonprofit organizations to forge new paths and create more fulfilling engagement for staff, volunteers, board members, and other stakeholders.

Cultivating rethinking skills takes effort, no question about it. In addition to writing a definitive book, Grant concludes by offering practical tips, explaining how to move forward on each. Included are those relating to individual thinking (Think like a scientist. Define your identity in terms of values, not opinions), how to ask better questions (Practice the art of persuasive listening. Question how rather than why.), and how to create learning organizations (Abandon best practices. Throw out the ten-year plan).

The quest for knowledge is universal, but many people want something more. As Grant observes, “If knowledge is power, knowing what we don’t know is wisdom.”

Think Again: The Power of Knowing What You Don't Know is available from Penguin Random House.

Reviewed by Peter Lowy
January 2022

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