About This Episode
As a champion for nonprofits, Futurist and author, Trista Harris, helps organizations reimagine the future. In this conversation about leadership and philanthropy, Trista talks about the necessity for more organizations to embrace futurism as a way to solve social issues in the most impactful ways possible.
Trista Harris is a passionate advocate for leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Her work has been covered by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, CNN, Forbes, The New York Times, and numerous social sector blogs. She is also the co-author of the book How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar and the upcoming book FutureGood, released today, October 24, 2018.
In FutureGood, Trista explores the increasing rate of change making the already challenging business of doing good, even more difficult. Small nonprofits, national service agencies, foundations, think tanks, and social entrepreneurs all are trying to make the world a better place but are using yesterday’s information to do so. What if the social sector could predict the future and prepare for the trends and coming realities that will impact their work? They can, using the tools found in FutureGood. Written in Trista Harris’ accessible style, this book will become a must-read for savvy social sector executives, thought leaders, journalists, and philanthropists.
Trista has worked in nonprofits since she was 13 years old. Her last job was the president of a community of grantmakers that gave away $1.5 billion a year. She is now the President of FutureGood, a consultancy focused on growing a movement of visionaries dedicated to building a better future.
To develop her futurism skills she learned about scenario planning at Oxford University, hung out with the technologists at Singularity U, went to Amy Webb’s Future History Festival, and trained with the team at the Institute for the Future.
Learn more about the FutureGood movement and book at www.TristaHarris.org.
In her words…
“I think the people closest to problems are closest to solutions, and foundations are built on privilege. Foundations are excess wealth that has built up over time, all of that’s about privilege. And so, often our staffing decisions are very closely tied to that privilege. I think foundations are really starting to realize that diversity of thought around decision making tables gives you better decision making, and that people closest to community can really help you understand new solutions that otherwise wouldn’t make sense.”
“As I look at many nonprofit organizations that have been around for 10, 20, 50 years, the conditions that they’re working in are actually getting worse. We can’t be a sector where we’re not solving problems, but the challenges that we’re facing are too great and I think we’ve built a space both in philanthropy and nonprofits where we spend all of our time loving the problem. Where we sort of describe how big the gaps are and how terrible things are- that’s how you get foundation funding- you write a statement that describes how terrible things are, and you hope that your description is worse than the next person that’s applying.”
“We’ve got to get to this place where we start to talk about ‘what would the world look like if the problem you’re working on was completely fixed?’ Many organizations haven’t spent the time and energy to envision what success looks like. If you do that work and then you start to work backwards, many organizations very quickly learn that the activities they’re doing won’t actually get them to that preferred future. They’re doing incremental changes that will never get them to that transformational place. And it’s only through the process of envisioning what the world looks like if the problem is fixed that you start to get some new ideas and new solutions.”
Questions Answered on this Episode
- You recently transitioned from your role as President of the Minnesota Council of Foundations. In that role, I’m assuming you had a considerable amount of interactions with leaders from various organizations. What do you think it takes to be an effective leader in the philanthropy space today?
- You are a philanthropic futurist. Can you describe that to our listeners?
- Looking at leadership in the sector through the eyes of a futurist, what should we be thinking about now?
- I think the philanthropy sector is long overdue to embrace futurism. Do you think futurism can help address any of the issues that we see in the grantmaking process? What about leadership – is there any role for futurism in helping us to create a stronger, more inclusive leadership pipeline?
- Do you think institutional philanthropy has a role in shaping the leadership of nonprofit organizations?
- How would you describe your leadership style?
- Any insider secrets you can share with listeners about what donors (institutional and individual) are looking for in leadership of the organizations they are looking to support?
Vanessa Wakeman: Welcome the Social Change Diaries, the show that looks behind the curtain at everything you want to know about the social justice and nonprofit landscape. I’m your host Vanessa Wakeman.
Vanessa Wakeman: Hello, and welcome to the Social Change Diaries. I am your host Vanessa Wakeman, and today I have a special guest Trista Harris joining me. Trista is a passionate advocate for leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Her work has been covered by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, CNN, Forbes, The New York Times, and numerous social sector blogs. She is also the co-author of the book How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar, and the upcoming book Future Good. She speaks internationally about using the tools of futurism in the social sector. I am also a futurist so I’m really excited about this conversation, and being able to hear some of Trista’s thinking about social change, and how we can apply futurism, and some of the framework of exploring the future and what steps need to be taken to get there.
Vanessa Wakeman: So, I am joined by futurist Trista Harris, and I’m really excited to have this conversation. I too am a futurist and so I always like to sort of hear the insights of others who are using this approach to help solve problems. So, welcome Trista.
Trista Harris: Thanks so much for having me Vanessa, I appreciate it.
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you, thank you. You recently transitioned from your role as President of the Minnesota Council on Foundations and I would guess that during your time there you had considerable time, opportunity to interact with leaders from various organizations. Talk to me a little bit about what you think it takes to be an effective leader in the philanthropy space today.
Trista Harris: For sure. So, Minnesota Council on Foundations was a network of about 180 foundations that give away a billion and a half dollars a year, so I had a lot of time to spend with great leaders in the field. And I think the best philanthropic leaders are future focused, so they’re thinking about what’s coming next for their organization, and for the issues, and causes that they care about. They listen really deeply to community and have good relationships with community so that they’re not just sort of deciding what should happen, they’re really hearing from residents and from nonprofits what’s needed. And then they’re really flexible. I think this is not a time where we can sort of get stuck in our ways of doing things. We have to be flexible as conditions are changing really quickly on the ground.
Vanessa Wakeman: So you’re a philanthropic futurist, can you describe what exactly that is to our listeners? I always love people’s faces when the word futurist or futurism comes up, and so share with us sort of how you define what you do.
Trista Harris: Yep. So, as a philanthropic futurist I help that do good for a living, both predict the future and then shape the future. The future isn’t something that happens to us, it’s something that we create by the decisions that we make every single day. And so, I really help people that are in the space think about what’s coming next. My frustration with futurism has been government and business have been using these tools for a really long time, so businesses to kind of figure out what consumers will want to buy in the future, government to figure out who’s going to be angry at us next. And I just wish that people that were working on society’s greatest challenges, nonprofits are in this space where we’re trying to fix problems that both government and business haven’t been able to fix with a lot more time and a lot more money. I want people in the sectors to be able to use all the tools at their disposal. And so, futurism allows you to have access to those same tools.
Trista Harris: I have a new book called Future Good that’s coming out October 16th, and that’s really a guide to help people learn how to use the tools of futurism. I think people get a little nervous when you talk about futurism, they think it’s complicated and too hard, and maybe that you have a magic eight ball in your office, and you’re trying to predict what’s coming next. But it’s really easy to learn tools that I think are best used in the hands of people that are making our communities better places every single day.
Vanessa Wakeman: I couldn’t agree more. When we’re talking about futurism in our work at the agency I’m often asking people to think about that future state that they want to achieve, and particular in the nonprofit sector we’re addressing social issues. One of the questions that I often lead with is, how do we put your organization out of business? How do we solve the problem? And I almost feel that people are struck by like, “No, what do you mean?” It feels sometimes too big, and so, I do think that we are poised to have some changes in the way we are approaching problems, and I think that the futurism framework is definitely valuable. And I find it interesting and sometimes disappointing that there is not enough support for nonprofit organizations to look at problems differently. Sometimes it’s sort of having to check the boxes on what a funder’s willing to fund and the way they want to see it funded, and what needs to happen. So, I wish we had some more flexibility and wiggle room to try different things in the sector.
Vanessa Wakeman: In sort of your observations in leadership and what you see, and in particularly working with institutional philanthropists do you think that we’re sort of laying the groundwork yet or that it’s coming where we could have this more fluid space for organizations to embrace new ways of doing things?
Trista Harris: I think we’re going to have to, because as I look at many nonprofit organizations that have been around for 10, 20, 50 years. The conditions that they’re working on are actually getting worse. And so, we can’t be a sector where we’re not solving problems, but the challenge that we’re facing are too great and I think we’ve built a space both in philanthropy and nonprofits where we spend all of our time loving the problem. Where we sort of describe how big the gaps are and how terrible things are, that’s how you get foundation funding is you write a statement that describes how terrible things are, and you hope that your description is worse than the next person that’s applying.
Trista Harris: And I think to your point we’ve gotta get to this place where we start to talk about, what would the world look like if the problem that you were working on was completely fixed? And once we have clarity about that vision, which many, many organizations haven’t spent the time and energy to envision what success looks like. So, if you do that work and then you start to work backwards, for many organizations that I work with they very quickly learn that the activities that they’re doing won’t actually get them to that preferred future. They’re doing incremental changes that will never get them to that transformational place. And it’s only through the process of envisioning what the world looks like if the problem is fixed that you start to get some new ideas and new solutions.
Trista Harris: So, for example if you were an after school program, and your traditional goals are next year we want to serve five percent more students, you develop your work, and your strategies to meet that goal, but if you started with this idea of what would the world look like is this problem was fixed? You’d probably come up with a vision of kids getting all of the academic support that they need during the school day, so that there wasn’t a need for additional academic support after school. That individual learners were really getting the lessons and support that they need to be successful, and then you might develop a new strategy that’s about working with the school district or training teachers or developing new models of curriculum, or ways of educating that’s really different than let’s add an extra teacher, and let’s serve a few more students. So, I think we’re getting to the place in the nonprofit sector, we’re all feeling these pinches and pressure about the outcomes that we want to have, and our actual results that we’re really desperate for new solutions. And I think having a future focus and future vision helps you get there a lot faster.
Vanessa Wakeman: So clearly, I think we’re about seven minutes into this interview and you and I are kindred sisters because …
Trista Harris: I love it.
Vanessa Wakeman: I’ve been preaching the same gospel, it’s so good to know that there is someone else in the churches, and together we will get some changes happening.
Trista Harris: For sure.
Vanessa Wakeman: Tell me a little bit, looking at leadership in the sector through the eyes of a futurist, what should we be thinking about right now?
Trista Harris: Yeah, we’re hitting this time of exponential change. And forever humans have been on this sort of path where your life is like your parent’s life, is like their parent’s life. So, our brains weren’t made for that sort of change. So, if you grew up a farmer it was likely that you would be a farmer. And back when we were hunters and gatherers we lived in small villages and there were just 100 people that were there, and everything was very consistent, and very predictable, and our panic response was set off if something was unusual, because our lives were really predictable. So if something was unusual it probably meant something was trying to eat us, so you’d paid good attention to that.
Trista Harris: The time period that we’re entering into now, my life looks nothing like it did even when I was in college, let alone what my parent’s lives look like. And my children’s live will be even more different because we’re on this exponential trajectory, and that fast pace of change is not what people are made for. And we sort of sit in this panic mode as we see transition and change because we think it’s dangerous. And so, we try to sort of step away from it, and that’s why you see sort of the longing for the olden days. How can we go back to the way things used to be? And that isn’t going to happen.
Trista Harris: And so, I think what leaders need to do now is to understand that we actually are in this period of transition, so this uncertainty that we feel and the sort of overwhelm is not an unusual thing. That every single person in society is feeling this same sort of feeling of anxiousness, and that means as leaders of organizations we need to be really thoughtful about what that means for our staff. We need to be really thoughtful about what it means for participants if you’re a nonprofit organization working in community, how do we help people learn how to step back and to take good care of themselves in this time of transition, and to set times where you’re setting down the cell phone, and you’re not so constantly connected? How do we create the time and space to think deeply about the work that we do instead of just constantly reacting and responding to what’s coming to us? Cause we don’t make our best decisions in that way.
Trista Harris: I had a really interesting experience a couple years ago as I was doing a fellowship to sort of deepen my futurism practice, and so I had three goals. One was, learn more of the hard skills of futurism, learn how to do foresight and those sort of things. The second goal is to make those tools more approachable for other people, so how to clarify it make it easier. And my last goal of the fellowship was to not die at my desk. And the foundation that was supporting the fellowship I’d report every month and sort of describe my progress. And they’d go, you’re doing really great on the first two goals, we see no progress on the third. Cause you know you get in that space where you are just sort of go, go, go.
Trista Harris: And so out of that process I ended up building for myself a mastermind retreat, and I took a group of seven women to California, and rented a beautiful house on the beach and used that time to think about our future impact. So, how do we create the sort of vision for our own personal future? This isn’t just about your organization, but what do you want your own life to look like, 10, 20, 50 years down the road? And how do you make sure you that you’re more aligned with that vision? And so, since then I’ve been hosting women’s mastermind retreats to create those space. And what I’ve realized in this process of doing that is that we know exactly what we should be doing, but we haven’t given ourselves the time and space to actually think about it, because we’re so frantic and we’re so sort of reactionary. And I think for all of us we have to find those spaces and places where we can be reflective, where we can take good care of ourselves, we can sort of understand what that big vision is, [inaudible 00:12:48] otherwise we’re going to have a whole sector of people that are completely burnt out and can’t do good work in the long-term.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yeah.
Vanessa Wakeman: The agency offers a thought leadership program called She Roars, which focuses on building thought leadership, helping women in the sector build thought leadership platforms. And one of the things that I’ve found, particularly with women in the sector is this is hard work, and women are often not thinking about how do they take care of themselves. And I’m not saying that men don’t either, but I just see it more frequently with women, not taking care of themselves and sort of sacrificing for the organizations and not thinking about the value and importance of self care. And even again, just going back to this whole framework of leadership is you don’t want to be burnt out. Part of being a good leader is taking care of myself so that I can continue to help. And so, I think that this sort of idea of what leadership needs to look like to address current problems, it’s always sort of externally face, like we have to help these people, but we also have to help ourselves. And I’m wondering is, terms like self care and work life balance become sort of more common speak if you will that people will begin to embrace this culture of, “I want to be a healthy leader. I want to be able to contribute.”
Vanessa Wakeman: And then the other part that’s really important to me is I want people to thinking about their agenda, and so even approaching your leadership from a futurism slant, from a standpoint of what is the future that you see for yourself, and how can this sort of role help you to build that agenda? I don’t think that there’s anything wrong with sort of taking that larger view and thinking about how this work can help you to advance your agenda and your career goals, and sort of position yourself for those opportunities to be able to do more great work.
Trista Harris: Yeah, I think that we’ve setup a vision in the nonprofit sector of what success has to look like. And so, you sort of work in an organization, you run an organization, you run a larger organization, it’s sort of measured by budget size and how busy your calendar is. And I think for all of us we have to step back and say, actually where am I going to have the biggest impact? What is the unique skillset and value, and where’s the place that only I can add that value? I think too many of us, especially as you grow in your leadership you learn how to do a lot of things. And just because you can do a lot of things doesn’t mean you should do a lot of things. And so, how do you sort of give the space for other people to lead in things that you may actually know how to do, and then where do you spend all of your time and energy on the things that just you can do?
Trista Harris: And as I think of my transition out of the Minnesota Council on Foundations I’ve left to start Future Good, which is a consultancy focused on the future of doing good, and I’ve gotten a ton of questions from colleagues that are like, how could you possibly leave this fancy job where you’ve got a cushy seat, and a nice title, and you can create this impact? Why would you do that? And I think once you get to the place where your purpose is super clear and you understand where you’re going then it doesn’t matter what the structure is that’s supporting you. Maybe it doesn’t have to be the big organization, maybe you don’t actually have to be the boss to be a leader in a thing that’s important. How do you create the space to make that vision come to life? And I think that doesn’t happen unless you sort of listen to your inner voice as opposed to all of the external signs of what success is, salary, position, title, all of those sort of things. It really comes down to your gut about what the right thing is to do.
Vanessa Wakeman: I couldn’t agree more. I hope that people begin to think about it differently. And I feel like there’s so much information available about burn out in the sector and what’s happening, people not capitalizing or feeling like there’s opportunities for them. I feel like we’re ripe for a change, and I’m looking forward to seeing it.
Vanessa Wakeman: So, let’s switch gears a little bit here and let’s talk about philanthropy and futurism. Do you think that futurism can help address any of the issues that we see in grant making?
Trista Harris: For sure. I love philanthropy. I think the sort of human urge to give and to support others is one of the most beautiful things about people, but foundations as systems we have sure created a lot of bureaucracy and hard processes that often make it impossible for foundations to have the impact that they want to have in the world. Training about this future of nonprofits, and one of the questions that one of the futurists that was leading it described was, they said the question isn’t that will foundations exist in 10 years? Of course they will, because endowments last until perpetuity and that is the way that the philanthropic sector works, but the real question is, will foundations be relevant in 10 years for the issues, causes, and communities that they care about? And that is a real question, and foundations are not used to thinking about relevancy, they’re used to being the most important partner in the world that everybody’s very concerned about what they think, and the diction that they’re going.
Trista Harris: But what I hear from emerging movements like Black Lives Matter, and the Parkland Students, what they’re saying is philanthropy is too slow, and they are requiring too much process for us to engage, and so we raise money from individuals and from celebrities, we sell goods, and we built social enterprises, you do all these things to really step away from the traditional foundation process. And foundations are starting to ask, “Hey, wait a second. How come we didn’t get an ask about that thing that’s really important and making a difference?” And it’s because they’re not structured in a way that can move that forward.
Trista Harris: And so, a couple years ago I worked with the institute for the future to develop a model of what the future of philanthropy will look like. And it’s got two curves that intersect with each other. And the first curve is the way that philanthropy has always worked, the way that Andrew Carnegie did it is the way that it looks in many of our institutions right now, with a board of directors that does top down decision making, sort of small scale of supporting one organization at a time, very explicit metrics if you invest x you know y will happen, and incremental impact that’s really disappointing to both the nonprofits being supported and the foundation doing the supporting. And then a slow process, I mean it could take a year to a year and a half from application to funding, and with the world changing so quickly that’s just too long.
Trista Harris: And at the same time we have signals of what the future of philanthropy is going to look like. So, I’m seeing a lot more participatory governance where people impacted by problems are making decisions. So, foundations have committees of community members that are providing advice and sometimes decision making about where those dollars go. I think Mark Zuckerberg giving his gift to an LLC instead of a traditional 501C3 is a big sign that the structures of philanthropy are changing quite a bit. And now we’re seeing a huge growth in both giving directly and crowd fundings, so now there are technological tools that we can use that really change the way that philanthropy looks and works, and suddenly a lot of small donors are rolled up into a huge impact. So, as we sort of move to what’s coming next in the field I think we’re going to have very flexible processes on the foundation side.
Trista Harris: When I started as a program officer different grant rounds were different color folders, and you sort of moved the folders around [crosstalk 00:20:52]. And now we have electronic systems that we can manage those things, and you could have a grant round for organizations that you support for five years with general operating grants, where you don’t actually need a repeat application because you have a deep relationship and trust with the organization. You could have a really quick fund that’s about an emergency need or something new that’s happening in the community. You could have a venture fund that’s trying new ideas and maybe there’s more reporting tied to that so that you’re learning. Just a lot of flexibility’s available in the tools.
Trista Harris: And I’m seeing a huge growth in collective impact tables, foundation supporting many nonprofits coming together, and trying to align their work around big issues. And I think that we’re going to move to the place where there’s a lot quicker speed, more transformative impact where we’re actually solving the problems that we’re working on, and then more flexible metrics. So, if I’m a foundation and I’m supporting a collective impact table who knows what’s going to come out of that. If I went in with a grant and I said, “You should have three meetings, and you should move forward a policy on x, y, and z.” You know that result would probably happen, but I bet it’s a lot smaller of an impact than what would happen if I got out of the way. And so, I think we’ll see more foundations that are learning the process of getting out of the way.
Trista Harris: And the piece that I really appreciate about this model is often it’s sort of here’s the old thing and here’s the new thing. Philanthropy has existed forever because there’s some things about it that are amazing, and so we’re going to keep those things as we move into the future, things like donor intent, really skilled staff with deep relationships in the community, those things stay as we move forward, but we’ve gotta change some of our structures to move to that place where we can be more flexible and have a larger impact.
Vanessa Wakeman: And then what about futurism in helping to creating stronger more inclusive leadership pipeline? What do you think the role is there?
Trista Harris: For sure. I think always the people closest to problems are closest to solutions, and foundations are built on privilege. Foundations are excess wealth that has built up over time, all of that’s about privilege. And so, often our staffing decisions are very closely tied to that privilege. I think foundations are really starting to realize that diversity of thought around decision making tables gives you better decision making, and that people closest to community can really help you understand new solutions that otherwise wouldn’t make sense. And I think one of the examples that I’m most proud of in my work is the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship Program, which is intended to diversify foundations.
Trista Harris: So, Minnesota Council on Foundations recruits people of color for positions in philanthropy, three year positions as program staff. And in that process the first sort of pushback as foundations think about how to diversify their staff is, “We just can’t find any qualified candidates of color. We would love to but we can’t find them anywhere.” And what we found in the process is our first year we had four positions open, we had 150 applicants and we could have hired half of them and they would have been amazing. And so, that excuse very quickly disappeared. And what foundations in Minnesota started to realize is that the way that they did their hiring and their networks were actually the issue. It wasn’t a pipeline problem where you have to develop people and change them so that they are ready to work in philanthropy, it’s sort of an aqueduct issue where there is a resource some place else, it is not connected to where you need the resource, and so how do you connect those two things? And I think that good fellowship programs and good recruitment programs, or good recruitment policies within foundations can bridge that gap between where there are resources and where there’s needs.
Vanessa Wakeman: In my last podcast I interviewed Sean Thomas-Breitfeld from the Building Movement Project about the race to lead report that the organization issued back in 2016. And one of the things that we talked about was based on the responses and the data in the report. Did funders and institutional philanthropy organizations feel like they had a role to play in ensuring that nonprofits did have leadership that was diverse and inclusive? And he said they did have some of those conversations, and some of the feedback was that the philanthropy organizations felt that they had their own challenges and issues to deal with, that they were trying to diversify their own boards, or trying to sort of fulfill their own pipeline.
Trista Harris: Yeah.
Vanessa Wakeman: And so, I wonder what your thoughts are about the role of institutional philanthropy and shaping the leadership of nonprofits.
Trista Harris: Yeah, I think it’s a both and. So, I think it’s easy for foundations to say, “We have no role in that because we have our own work to do.” That we are not doing at this moment. And so, I don’t think that they sort of get off that easy by saying that they have that work to do. On the other hand foundations need to align all of their systems and process around what their mission is. And so, if your mission is about strengthening marginalized communities your HR practices better match that mission as well, and your spending policies better match that mission, and your investment policies need to match that mission. And so, how are you structuring your entire institution so that’s moving that mission forward? I think in the philanthropic sector the rule is that you have to spend five percent of your endowment moving your grant making forward in mission and that sort of thing. I think it’s ridiculous that 95% of foundation assets aren’t actually moving towards the mission, and it isn’t until that place where organizations align everything that they’re doing around that broader purpose that real change happens.
Trista Harris: I think when it comes to philanthropy having a role in shaping the leadership of nonprofit organizations I don’t know if they should. I don’t think that foundations should be deciding who sits at those tables, but I know that they definitely do have influence over those roles. And so, in many cases foundations are deciding which organization thrives and which ones are scrambling for resources. And then the processes of foundations can make it really hard for nonprofit leaders. So, if foundations can decrease their bureaucracy and increase their transparency about decision making then I think really great things happen. But if we sit in this place where we’re sort of deciding who the winners and losers are and we’re not supporting the leadership within the institutions both existing and potential future leadership, we’re really losing out.
Trista Harris: Back to our earlier conversation I think that foundations should invest in the people that are leading those organizations. So, if that’s paying for training to help them become more future focused, I think that would pay huge dividends over time. If it’s about paying for retreats or sabbaticals, I think that, that insures organizational stability and insures that you creating the space for fresh leaders within an organization, and that’s a responsibility of the philanthropic sector.
Vanessa Wakeman: Trista lets talk about you for a second. How would you describe your personal leadership style?
Trista Harris: Yeah, I’m a very collaborative leader and I also understand that we need lots of strong leaders both in the sector and within individual organizations. So, with my own teams I want to make sure that the staff that I’m supervising have areas that they’re leading. I should not be leading everything in an organization. If you are the expert in communications you should be leading that work, and my job as President or CEO is to support you in those efforts, but you really are the leader in that area. And I think the best leaders have two or three people that are able to replace them. So, how are you creating a real pipeline? And I’ve seen some leaders that sort of stop investing in their staff because they’re worried about competition, or they’re worried about this idea of it you’re administrative staff, and we’re providing training for you, and we don’t have a position open the next level up you might go someplace else. Well that’s fantastic, please invest in your staff, so they can go to another organization, and another organization can be investing in the leadership of their staff, and then those people are available to you. I think we’ve created this zero sum game when it comes to leadership where these problems are hard enough, we need lots of leaders around the table trying to figure out how to do that.
Trista Harris: And I think the other piece that’s been critical for my own leadership journey is to create really strong networks of support. So, I have a ton of mastermind groups that I’m a part of. I have different CEO retreats that I host that is about building your own network of leaders that can support you, because it is very lonely at the top. And you can’t really talk through challenges that you’re facing with your staff, you can’t talk that through with your board, it’s only in the spaces where you’re talking with other leaders that you can really dig to the bottom of what it takes for both you to be successful as a leader and what your organization needs out of you. And I think that we’ve really short changed ourselves as leaders with this idea of, “I’m strong enough and smart enough to do this all on my own.” Nobody is strong enough to pull a whole organization on their back, you’ve gotta really build your network of support to do that work.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yes, yes, yes, yes, yes, yes. My very last question for you, although I have many more in my head, but I want to be aware of the time, any insider secrets or tips that you can share with listeners about what donors are looking for in leadership of the organizations they look to support? One of the things that I hear frequently from some of the nonprofit leaders I know is about the challenges that they face in trying to establish relationships, and become a grantee for organizations, so I’m wondering if there are any particular specific things that you can speak to about what organizations are looking for.
Trista Harris: Yeah, I think that both foundations and individual donors are looking for leaders that have a really clear vision of where an organization is going, and that they can describe that vision in an [inaudible 00:31:31], here’s where we’re going and here’s why it’s important. Foundation dollars can really encourage nonprofits to bend that mission in a million different ways, so if a foundation says, “I’m super into collective impact.”
Trista Harris: Then nonprofits are like, “Hey, so are we.” And it’s a bend and twist and make it work. And I think what that creates is a sort of franken nonprofits that are a little bit of this, and a little bit of that, and a little bit of this, and the core mission withers in that process because they’re trying to be everything to everybody. And that is so detrimental to the sector.
Trista Harris: I’m a former fundraiser, I understand that sort of bending. When I was fundraising for Girl Scouts we had a foundation that reached out to us for an environmental grant but they really wanted to give to us and we didn’t have a good program. And I was as a grant writer developing a program that was about girls doing worm bucket compositing at camp where they were learning how the composting program worked. It was one of our lowest rated programs, nobody was interested in bringing home a bucket full of worms to eat their garbage in their kitchen. Parents were not happy and girls were not happy. But we were trying to bend and to fit into what this foundation needed. So I think when a foundation or a donor finds that leader that says exactly where they’re going and why it’s important to the success and the community, and really makes a huge difference.
Vanessa Wakeman: Yeah, and I think what you just described reinforces some of what we talk about with our clients and networks about the importance of positioning, just do that one thing or two things really well and to not as you said bend to the temptation of what other grants and funding is available. I think that if you sort of build that reputation to be like, “Oh my gosh, if you’re looking for support for girls or support for homeless this is the organization you should be working with.” I think that building that expertise is much more valuable in the long game versus trying to be attractive to every grant maker that looks at you.
Trista Harris: And you know what, foundations bend to excellence. That’s the piece that I think people miss in that process. When I was a program officer at a foundation we had an outsider evaluator that looked at all of our grants and found that the most successful grant was to an intermediary that was doing housing work in St. Paul, and they are an excellent organization that has a huge impact. At that time the foundation did not fund intermediaries and it did not fund housing, and yet our most successful grant was the intermediary that was doing housing. And they were funded because everybody knew they were doing a great job, and they knew that the work was important, and so exceptions were made so that, that funding happened. And that is an organization that is changing its mission every five minutes, they do the thing that they do and they do it well. And I think for grant seekers really dig deep on that place where you can make a difference, and where there’s community need, that’s the other piece as well. If a nonprofit doesn’t have deep relationships in community you may be creating a product or a solution that nobody actually wants or needs, so make sure that you are well connected to community as you’re developing those solutions because that’s where wonderful things happen.
Vanessa Wakeman: Trista this conversation has been very insightful and I think our listeners will really learn a lot and have a lot to take away and think about for their organizations, and their own future career opportunities, and agenda. Is there anything else you’d like to share? I know that your book is coming out soon and you are starting this exciting new consulting business, so do you want to provide a website or give me more information about the book?
Trista Harris: Yeah for sure. My book Future Good comes out October 16th, and if you want to connect with me and learn more about any of the retreats or consulting that I do to help organizations understand and shape the future, you can find me at tristaharris.org.
Vanessa Wakeman: Thank you so much Trista it was an absolute pleasure to have you today.
Trista Harris: Thanks Vanessa I appreciate it.
Vanessa Wakeman: Well, as I suspected this conversation with Trista was really valuable as someone who has lead a philanthropy organization, I think that her insights around leadership and also futurism is really valuable to our listeners, and I look forward to seeing what Trista does next. Good luck to her on her upcoming book and I look forward to chatting with her again. Thank you so much for tuning in and I will see you next week.