Leadership in Social Change Trista Harris

Trista Harris on How Futurism Holds the Keys to Deep Social Change

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?