• Thomas Coombes

Seven books that make the case for hope

Updated: Oct 2, 2019

At my workshops and talks, people often ask me for books they can read to dive deeper into hope-based communications. Here are some of the books that most influenced my thinking.

1. Kathryn Sikkink , Evidence for Hope: Making Human Rights Work in the 21st Century


Kathryn Sikkink has written perhaps the most important book on human rights in the 21st century so far.


It certainly was for me. Hope-based communications was born when I read the introduction. She quotes an Egyptian human rights activist saying there is no hope in Egypt after the Arab Spring.


It was in that moment that I realised that, though people on the frontline may not always see it, history shows us that even in the very darkest moments a glimmer of hope remains. It occurred to me that what people who feel despair need from human rights groups was not more information about the despair, but hope: some courage and belief that things can get better again. Sikkink writes convincingly about the human right movement’s self-defeating defeatism.


2. Martha Nussbaum – The Monarchy of Fear


This is a wonderful, inspiring work of political philosophy about the impact of emotions on our politics and society.



In the aftermath of Trump’s election, Nussbaum writes about the damage fear does to political institutions and the power of hope. It is also a manifesto for a practical hope-based politics to counter fear:


“Hope swells outward, fear shrinks back.”

Hope, Nussbaum says, is a choice and a practical habit. She also sheds light on why we sometimes avoid hope, because it involves vulnerability and unpredictability about the future, whereas fear offers a certain self-protective certainty. Above all, movements need to embrace hope to bring people out of isolation and into community around a set of goals.


You can read a short introduction to her approach to political emotions in this interview, where she cites Dr. Martin Luther King as a model for seeking to purify anger and channel it towards different emotions “such as hope, faith in the possibility of justice and, above all, love”.


3. Jonah Sachs, Winning the Story Wars

In the original storytelling manual, Jonah Sachs makes a case for an approach to marketing that empowers audiences rather than triggering guilt that could just as easily be applied to NGOs. Inadequacy marketing relies on making people feel bad: guilt, anxiety, insecurity.


Empowerment marketing, by contrast, invites audiences to be better humans, appealing to their desire for wholeness, justice, simplicity beauty and truth.


It is achieved through authenticity, creativity and playfulness. It helps “audiences see themselves as the emerging heroes of the story”. The old approach offers people things they do not have, the new one appeals to what we already have within.


Tom Crompton has made a similar case for appealing to intrinsic rather than extrinsic values.






4. Hahrie Hahn, How Organizations Develop Activists: Civic Associations and Leadership in the 21st Century


Hahrie Hann talks about the difference between mobilizing and organizing activists.



Mobilizing supporters gives them specific tasks, whereas successful movements distribute power, allowing greater autonomy to supporters to arrange their own activities based on shared values. Crucially, she cites research that shows how building communities that inculcate values: meaning that often the organizing comes before the cause, not the other way around.


I believe that hope-based communications goes hand in hand with the organizing approach. With anger you can drive short-term campaigns like petitions and generate sign-ups, but long-term that approach will exhaust your audience. To build a sustainable movement where your supporters take the initiative you need more positive drivers.


Anger mobilizes, hope organizes.

5. Rutger Bregman - Utopia for Realists


Famous for confronting the World Economic Forum in Davos with its own bullshit, Bregman here not only makes the case for bold visions for the future.



He urges us to shift from always talking about problems to making people believe in possibilities and alternatives. We can do this with humility and a sense of humour, using utopias to “Fling open the windows of our minds”.

He also takes progressives to task for being solely “anti” their opponents and “always accepting the premise on which the debate takes place”.


“Anti-privatization, anti-establishment, anti-austerity. Given everything that they’re against, one is left to wonder, what are underdog socialists actually for?”

Pushing, for example, an ambitious policy of Universal Basic Income, he says that “the story of the left ought to be a narrative of hope and progress.”


6. Simon Sinek, Leaders Eat Last


In Leaders Eat Last, Simon Sinek makes the case that good leadership is about making your teams feel safe.



By doing so, you encourage them to innovate. Staff who feel under pressure from old-school leaders are more likely to play it safe and resort to blame-game politics. Hope, not fear, drives a thriving workplace, meaning there is also need for hope-based internal communications. Simon Sinek’s Find your why provides a practical workshop-based tool for identifying the core vision of an organization. It is a great tool for finding your organisational values and vision.


7. Matthew Taylor - Twenty-First Century Enlightenment


An essay from 2010 neatly threads together research on psychology with politics to create a powerful call for a new focus on empathy and humanity as a new end and means of progress. Tackling the world's problems relies on greater empathy between human beings, particularly those we disagree with:


"Empathic capacity is also a core competency for twenty-first century citizens.”



Even within NGOs, the 20th century way of working is inadvertently sapping our own capacity for understanding and community, even at the level of the brain. He calls for “mature, substantive and ethical discourse” and “an enlightenment politics of human ends”.


These are just a few of the books that make the case for hope. Let me know which books inspire you to think differently about the world.