I owe my interest in mission-driven literature to the fact that I spent the first 15 years of my career working for nonprofit organizations in the UK and the US. At 35, I took a career break to return to my first love—literature—and write a novel, but when I had finished it and decided to launch my own writing and editing business, my first thought was, How can I use my skills to help nonprofits? Old habits die hard, for sure. This led to my creating the Embark Editorial Agency, which for two years (until major life stuff took over) helped new copyeditors build their professional experience by doing pro-bono work for nonprofits.
My enduring affinity with the nonprofit sector is why this post is a tip of the hat to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook’s current chief operating officer (although, in light of the recent Cambridge Analytica revelations, perhaps not for much longer ... ) and author of not one but TWO books that spawned nonprofit organizations that further her books' respective missions.
Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will To Lead
Lean In is essentially the story of how Sandberg came to understand workplace gender politics. It is less of a memoir, more of a treatise, and her central thesis is this: The world would be better with more women in power. But women can only attain this power by first changing their attitudes towards themselves. She states: “We move closer to the larger goal of true equality with each woman who leans in.”
This message alone and the justification for it that Sandberg provides would have been sufficient to admit Lean In to the canon of books with spine. But what makes the book even more exceptional is the author’s commitment to her mission post publication.
While many authors might write their book and move on to the next one, Sandberg set up a 501c(3), www.leanin.org, to support a global movement helping women achieve their ambitions. One of the main activities of the nonprofit is to support the 35,000 so-called Lean In Circles that have sprouted up worldwide. These are actual meetings of women, not online communities (ironic for the COO of the biggest social networking site on the planet). Many circles now exist within male-dominated corporations with the aim of enabling more women to be heard and move up the hierarchy. The nonprofit also engages in further research to discover the barriers for women and ways of overcoming them.
Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding Joy
Published in 2017, this second book is not about business. Sandberg was compelled to write Option B when her husband died suddenly and she had to deal with her loss while also helping her children through theirs. Sandberg offers her personal insights, while her cowriter on this project, Adam Grant, provides the research about resilience that makes this book more than a memoir of grief.
The success of the Lean In movement has clearly inspired Sandberg to go further. Her second book, Option B, adopts the same nonprofit strategy as the first (www.optionb.org) that offers readers three ways to take what they learned in the book and get involved:
1. Share their story of resilience with others
2. Connect with people who understand
3. Learn how to build resilience
If a reader has been affected by a book, they may wonder what to do next. Obviously, not every author will have Sandberg’s considerable resources and influence to be able to set up a global nonprofit to further the mission of their books and donate all the sales revenue to the mission. Nevertheless, authors of books with spine could—and arguably should—consider how they can enable readers to take meaningful action if they have been inspired or moved by what they’ve read. This can be something simple, such as directing readers to a donation page of a relevant established charity, or creating a social media space where readers can form a community around the issue and develop ways of addressing it in their local area.
I admire Sandberg for the commitment to her missions. She did not treat either book as the ultimate expression of her dedication to the causes she cares about: they were launchpads.
So, if you’re considering writing a mission-driven book, ask yourself whether the book is an end in itself or the means to an end. Does the power of your book lie solely within its pages? Or might there be a way its power can ripple outwards into the real world to create meaningful and lasting change?