Classic Books on Social Impact

Social enterprises exist to achieve social missions and serve the common good. Succinctly put by The Good Trade’s Co-Founder, “[It’s] a cause-driven business whose primary reason for being is to improve social objectives and serve the common good.”

Chances are, if you identify as a social entrepreneur, you’re a hustling businessperson (self-funded or seed-funded) and have little extra time on your hands. But budding entrepreneurs can glean a lot from those who’ve come before them. So, whether you’re interested in building your own conscious company or are already leading a team of savvy social entrepreneurs, check out these classic books from some of the most renowned founders and thinkers.

1. Building Social Business

Author | Muhammad Yunus

The pioneer of microfinance (for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2006) Muhammad Yunus takes a reading-glasses-on, academic approach to how social enterprises can generate economic growth as they make positive ripple effects around the globe. Yunus not only advises budding social entrepreneurs (bring your highlighter!) but also points to examples of how social enterprises unlock opportunity for people living in the developing world. If you love head-in-the-clouds theory about the potential of business (or like to know where the industry is going), look no further than Yunus’ book that advocates for more inclusive capitalism that lifts everyone up. 

Reviews | “[A] reminder that capitalism can take kindlier forms: Microfinance pioneer Yunus explains how he believes social enterprise can redeem what he regards as the failed promise of free markets.” –The Spectator

Price | $16, or less secondhand

2. Ben & Jerry’s Double Dip

Authors | Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield

Since Ben & Jerry’s first opened its doors in Vermont in 1978, the ice cream company has changed the conscience and taste buds of people around the globe. If you’re a Chunky Monkey lover, double-dip your way into this classic book about running a values-led business, and how to do so with the changing times.

In this book, Ben talks about the first few days of business and the company’s commitment to supporting progressive causes and sharing its success with stakeholders (cows and suppliers included) when that wasn’t yet a sexy concept. 

If you’re a social entrepreneur thinking about scaling your company, you may also be interested in Ice Cream Social: The Struggle for the Soul of Ben & Jerry’s. This book documents the company’s “devastating fall, determined recovery, and ongoing renewal” since its sale to corporate giant Unilever—and how that deal allowed Ben & Jerry’s to pursue its mission on a larger platform. 

Reviews | “A nonfattening blend of social consciousness and practical business advice… a how-to book with a socially responsible twist… and it’s fun to read, too.” – San Francisco Chronicle

Price | $20, or less secondhand

3. Do the KIND Thing

Author | Daniel Lubetzky

It may be hard to believe now, but KIND was the original, healthy snack bar (with see-through packaging representing clean, transparent ingredients) that started a kindness movement in conjunction. In this book, founder Daniel Lubetzky shares his story from growing up with a dad who survived the Holocaust, to selling sun-dried tomato spread made by Arabs and Jews in the war-torn Middle East, to eventually starting KIND. He gives compelling points for how social businesses need to “say yes to AND”—intertwining both profit and social impact. While KIND is not a typical social enterprise, Lubetzky challenges readers to think about how “normal business” can operate with a double bottom line. 

Reviews | “Do the KIND Thing isn’t just a behind-the-scenes tour of one company’s staggering growth. It’s the story of one entrepreneur’s belief that success can be built on a foundation of empathy and, yes, kindness. By sharing the ten tenets that helped KIND grow, Daniel Lubetzky has given entrepreneurs a road map to success that includes both passion and purpose.” – Arianna Huffington

Price | $27, or less secondhand

4. The Blue Sweater

Author | Jacqueline Novogratz

Everyone has those serendipitous, “it’s a small world” moments, and that’s exactly what happened for Jacqueline Novogratz. Eleven years after donating a blue sweater to Goodwill, she spotted a young boy in Africa wearing that very sweater, proving that our actions have very real effects. As the founder of Acumen—an organization investing in social entrepreneurs and creating sustainable solutions to poverty— Novogratz shares where her journey began. This is an essential read for any social entrepreneur who wants to learn about what Novogratz calls “patient capital”—a new form of philanthropic investing.

Reviews | “Jacqueline’s book and her work represent an entirely new way to look at things, a vivid opportunity for change and most of all, an obligation to spread the word about the way the world has evolved. We need to wake up and listen to what she has to say. Hurry!” – Seth Godin

Price | $16, or less secondhand

5. Start Something That Matters

Author | Blake Mycoskie

TOMS founder Blake Mycoskie, known for catalyzing the “One for One” movement, shares how he got his start (from the dusty corners of Argentina) and founded one of the most successful social enterprises to date. In this classic book, he references researched learnings from organizations like FEED Projects and Method, and if you’re a fan of jotting notes in your book margins, you’re in for a treat. Sprinkled within this book are prompts designed to help you think through what you are passionate about and how to grow an impact-driven business.

Reviews | “A creative and open-hearted business model for our times.” – The Wall Street Journal

Price | $23, or less secondhand

6. The Responsible Company

Authors | Yvon Chouinard and Vincent Stanley

For many earth lovers, Patagonia has been somewhat of a gold standard for how socially and environmentally responsible companies operate (it was named “coolest company on the planet” by Fortune at one point). What started as a climbing gear company for some outdoor advocates quickly grew, and self-branded “reluctant businessman” Chouinard tells the good, the bad, and the ugly reflecting on the first 40 years of Patagonia. This book is filled with both humanizing tales and practical tips, showing companies how to reduce their environmental footprint (and costs!), and treat their people ethically. If you haven’t picked up Chouinard’s memoir, Let My People Go Surfing, you’ll want to ride that wave, too. Check it out from the library, stat.

Reviews | “If you have any doubt at all that doing right by the natural world is good for the bottom line, please, stop right now, wherever you are, find a seat, put the smartphone on mute, and read this freaking book.” – Brad Wieners, Bloomberg BusinessWeek

Price | $19.95, or less secondhand

7. The B Corp Handbook (Second Edition)

Author | Ryan Honeyman and Tiffany Jana

If you’re a social entrepreneur wanting to get B Corp certified, this book will help you improve your social and environmental performance so you can get that sleek B Corp stamp on your products. If you’re looking for an expert opinion, look no further: The B Corp Handbook packs in interviews, tips, and best practices from over 200 B Corp CEOs and executives about how to build a business that makes an impact and meets the rigorous standards of the B Corp. Maybe you too can join the ranks of B Corp favorites, from Patagonia to Warby Parker. Get it hot off the press: this revised edition just came out in April. 

Reviews | “The B Corp Handbook shows that an economic agenda that serves people’s needs while respecting planetary boundaries is compatible with, and ultimately even necessary for, financial success.” – Paul Polman, CEO, Unilever

Price | $22.95, or less secondhand

8. Beginner’s Pluck

Author | Liz Forkin Bohannon

In this high-spirited and funky fresh book, Liz Bohannon chronicles her learnings over the past decade building Sseko Designs, a fair-trade fashion company providing economic opportunity to women in Uganda. She urges anyone looking to build a life of purpose, passion, and impact that it’s not about beginner’s luck but about staying “plucky”— having spirited and determined courage. She throws motivational but empty clichés (like “dream big”) out the door and cuts to the chase, sharing her own life experiences with grace. Instead, Bohannon shows how passion is built, how dreaming small launches ships, and how to own your average. This bright yellow book is laugh-out-loud hilarious and bound to leave you thinking about your next steps.

Reviews | “As you flip through these pages […] you’ll want to figure out what your next steps are to release your passions, hopes, and love into a world which is in desperate need of someone just like you to engage it.” – Bob Goff

Price | $25, or less secondhand

9. Conscious Capitalism

Authors | John Mackey and Rajendra Sisodia

If you got the Amazon credit card to get your five percent back at Whole Foods, you’ll appreciate the co-founder of Whole Foods’ take on what capitalism done better for the world looks like. Pulling back the curtain on the popular health foods store, you’ll get a dive into how Whole Foods runs its ship in a way that truly aims to do it well. Written in partnership with the leader of Conscious Capitalism, this book has been described as a balanced bold defense and an insightful analysis. Mackey and Sisodia discuss how conscious companies can use four specific tenets to achieve impact goals: higher purpose, stakeholder integration, conscious leadership, and conscious culture and management.

Reviews | “I highly recommend listening to what they have to say.” – Howard Schultz, CEO, Starbucks

Price | $22, or less secondhand

The Good Trade editors endorse books we genuinely love. If you end up making a purchase through one of our affiliate links, we may earn a commission. Learn more here.


Alice is a California-grown writer thinking on the things shaping urban living, the modern woman, and living a conscious life of impact in light of a bigger world. A graduate of Northwestern University’s j-school, she spent time abroad working with a microfinance project in Peru before transitioning into a 9-5 in the global development sector. When she’s not daydreaming about opening a social impact coffee shop, you can find her traveling, plié-ing at the barre studio, or curled up with a good book. Follow her latest creative endeavors and musings on Instagram at @alice.zhng.