Skip to main content

The Future of Doing Good

A Conversation with Trista Harris

As an author, leader, and consultant, Trista Harris helps mission-driven organizations plan for the future. Chanda sat down with Trista to talk about current trends in the philanthropic sector, the tools of futurism, and her experiences working in nonprofits and foundations.

Listen to Our Episode

Souphak Kienitz  00:01

Next up, Trista Harris, Trista Harris is a philanthropic futurist and is nationally known as a passionate advocate for leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Trista’s work has been covered by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Forbes, CNN, the New York Times, and numerous social sector blogs. She is also the author of “How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar and FutureGood.” She is the President of FutureGood – a consultancy focused on helping visionaries build a better future.

You’re listening to Conversations with Chanda — a Minneapolis Foundation podcast that unpacks the community’s grittiest, most vexing problems, hosted by Chanda Smith Baker.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:14

Trista, the futurist, welcome to Conversations with Chanda, I wanted to talk to you for a while, but it feels like a good moment because you are getting ready to make a big transition. Yes, yes. Would you like to share what that is?

Trista Harris  00:27

For sure. So, a Minnesotan born and bred and I am recently an empty nester. And so we are getting out of dodge and moving to Santa Monica, California for the heat and the innovation and just a brand new vibe, and I’m really, really looking forward to it.

Chanda Smith Baker  00:44

So, is this the first time in your adult life that you have moved away from the Twin Cities?

Trista Harris  00:50

I went to Howard in DC for college, I did not expect to come back to Minnesota because I am not a fan of the cold. But we had our daughter, and it’s a great place to raise kids. And so, we decided, let’s come back. And let’s do this. And let’s see it through all the way through school, but always knew that I would be someplace else. And I think California is great for a lot of besides weather reasons. But the culture of innovation and new and stretching and trying is exactly what I want on this phase of life.

Chanda Smith Baker  01:24

Part of me thinking about you moving, thinking about what’s next. And even for me, right, like I’m almost an empty nest, so close, so close. Thinking about life and transitions. It’s been such a moment, I think many people have been thinking about what’s next with what’s happening right now. And I’m feeling a lot of angst, and many people are just stuck. Yeah. And so, were you stuck in the thought of what’s next? Or like, how did you know that it was time to make a move?

Trista Harris  01:57

Well, I’m a futurist. And so I spent a lot of time thinking about what’s next. And not just for our clients, and not just for our business, but for myself. So what does my ideal future look like? What does it look like? When I wake up in the morning? What do I do? Who am I spending time with? How are my using my gifts and talents? Who am I spending my friendship time with? How am I seeing my family, I have a picture of what that looks like. And as I was creating that picture, it’s a little bit harder to do a shared vision. So, with my husband and I it’s like okay, well, part of these visions are common, what are the things that we both want to see in this next phase of our lives? And a sense of ease was a big piece of it. We have been hustling, raising these kids growing our business is really just like, constantly moving forward. And this phase, this phase really feels like how do we make it easier? What does it look like? If everything isn’t a struggle? What does it look like if we don’t have to get up at six o’clock in the morning and shovel the driveway and clean a big ol house? That’s now empty because the kids don’t live there? Like how do we move into something that that feels different? And so I’ve been on a journey the last couple of years to figure out where is that place that feels like that ideal future? And so we’ve visited a lot of cities around the country and stayed in Airbnb so that we can be in neighborhoods and like does this feel right? Do we like this coffee shop? What’s the view like, like, just to start to get that feeling? And Santa Monica immediately just like oh, this is it? This is the this is the feeling that we want in this next phase of life. Maybe not forever, but at least for a little bit.

Chanda Smith Baker  03:34

And will you continue to run your businesses there? Are you evolving what you do as well as where you live?

Trista Harris  03:41

So for my business, our clients are around the country and some around the world. So we have already team is already virtual, we’ve built it around this idea that it is an about place, we have a lot of clients that are in on the West Coast. My husband’s business is really Minnesota based. And so he is keeping his team here. And he’s going to expand to California. And so for him, it’s about developing new relationships and understanding what that looks like. For me, it’s just I’m doing my Zoom calls from someplace else.

Chanda Smith Baker  04:11

And for me, it’s a new place to visit. And, of course,

Trista Harris  04:13

yeah, my friends are not unhappy that it’s a lovely beach town to come visit.

Chanda Smith Baker  04:18

I love it. I love it. So, we just sort of jumped in. So, I have a couple of questions. And I’m sure the listeners want to know number one, what are the businesses so yeah, what what do you do?

Trista Harris  04:26

I am the president and CEO of Future Good, which is a consulting firm that helps foundations, nonprofits and social purpose, businesses envision a more beautiful and equitable future. So sometimes that looks like strategic planning. We start with a different frame where we help organizations look 20 to 50 years in the future. If you fully met your mission, if you were completely successful, what would the community and causes that you care about look like? And then what would you have to look like organizationally to make that true? And then we work backwards and we help them figure out what do you need to do in the next three to five years to move you closer to that ideal future. And so we work with some of the largest foundations in the country. We also work with really small grassroots organizations that are doing amazing work, but all of it is really about this frame of a more beautiful and equitable future

Chanda Smith Baker  05:17

And you define yourself as a futurist. What does that mean?

Trista Harris  05:23

So, I am a philanthropic futurist, which means I’m interested in the future for people that do good for a living, and the tools of Futurism are you sort of act as an analyst, it isn’t, you know, a crystal ball and you’re looking, what do I think’s gonna happen? You look at what’s happening in this moment, and it’s giving you clues about what the future can look like. And you’re, you’re moving those trends forward and saying, What could that look like in the future? The other part of my futurism work is backcasting, where instead of saying, here’s where I think the future is going, you say, where do I want it to go? And then what do I have to do to make that possible? And so, we help organizations understand where trends look like they’re going, and if you want it to be different, here’s the way that you can change that trajectory of that work.

Chanda Smith Baker  06:08

Are there trends happening now in the philanthropic sector, that you can share with us?

Trista Harris  06:14

Yeah, the field is changing really quickly. So we are living in a time of exponential change where change gets faster and more severe. And that’s a really difficult time for people that like predictable, clear change that is over. We don’t live in that time anymore. And for the rest of our lifetime, this pace of change will be getting faster and faster. And so, for foundations and nonprofits, it means that you can no longer react to change after it happens. Instead, you have to understand what are the what’s the long-term future that you want to we want to move to? And how do you harness that volatility to be able to get there faster. So, the pandemic is a great example of this, we had a number of clients that had a really clear vision of the future. And when the pandemic happened, they said, Okay, in this moment, there’s more attention to living wage, there’s more attention to public health, there’s more attention to worker’s rights. If our foundation or nonprofit is working on one of those areas, we better dig down and figure out what to do to harness this moment to move it forward. I saw a lot of organizations struggling during this time, and they were unclear about their mission. And there were so many needs that they jumped on. And they said, normally we do small business development, but right now we’re going to be a food shelf, because it seems like people need food. Are you the right organization to be doing that? Or are there possibly things that small businesses need at this moment that maybe you should be focusing on that. But if you have a future frame, it allows you to really manage and harness that valid volatility so that you can get there a lot faster than you anticipated.

Chanda Smith Baker  07:53

So, one of the things that I’ve been thinking and exploring quite a bit about is how does the governance model need to change in order for organizations, nonprofits and philanthropic institutions to do that, right? Because, you know, that model has been so heavily on, you know, compliance and predictability, you know, and forecasting, so, so what, what would you advise a trustee that wants to really predict a future that’s quite unpredictable?

Trista Harris  08:24

Yeah, I think it’s the responsibility of organization, leadership and boards to build those futurism skills. So I go around the country and talk to organizations, what I always say is, it should not just be Trista Harris and bouncing from place to place telling you what’s coming next within your organization, you have to build this future muscle, so that you understand the future of early childhood education, the future of housing, the future, anything that you are working on, you are best positioned to notice those trends and to understand what’s coming next. And so, for, for boards, I want you to have a future committee, where you’re thinking about the very, very long term future, not just short term, but 20, 30, 40 years in the future, what’s coming, and how are we paying attention to it? I want you to judge your leadership on that long-term vision, and not the volatility that we see in this moment. There’s a possibility that we’ll enter into a recession. If all you’re keeping track of is donation numbers during this time, and you’ve got the leaders doing a terrible job, they can’t bring in this money, not paying attention to the unique moment that you’re in what it’s calling you to your organization isn’t going to meet your mission. And that’s the full responsibility of a board.

Chanda Smith Baker  09:38

And so, the practices of strategic planning, so what happens with that, right, like so when is the time to be future focused? Right. So, what I hear you saying is, build it into your practice. And the practice that we’ve lived into is one of you have a plan. You have a strategy, you work that plan, you measure that plan for sure. And then you evaluate, perhap.

Trista Harris  10:01

Yeah, I would love every one of your listeners to think about how their strategic plan served them and 2020. So you had a three to five year plan, and you were pretty sure here’s exactly what we’re going to do, here’s this incremental change that we’re going to work on, then the whole world is different. And then what do you do? And so, with, at Future Good, what we do is, we help you craft that very long term vision, we help you develop a rolling three-year plan. And so you know, what you’re doing this year. And then at the end of the year, you reassess, and you say, what did we knock out of the park that we need to set a whole new goal around because it was amazing? What completely struggled and maybe we shouldn’t be doing it at all, let’s reassess. And then you for the second and third years, you revise the plan, and then you add another year. So, the intention with our strategic planning method is not every three years come and start fresh and say, what should we be doing? It’s that every single year, you’re revising a plan that is taking you to success for your organization. And every year, you have a clearer picture of what the immediate future looks like. And so you, you take that and you adjust it. A strategic plan should not a printed-out, static thing that sits in a file cabinet and is never addressed again. Every single day, you should be working that plan and moving forward. And it should be a part of your regular ongoing practice.

Chanda Smith Baker  11:24

Have you determine sort of the archetypes of staff that live in organizations, right. Like, I think about like, I imagine that when you go into the organizations, there’s someone there that’s that’s sitting there, like I’ve been telling you all, yes, right. And then there’s someone like I don’t even understand what she’s talking about. But there’s one or two people that are sitting there, like this is what I’ve been saying. And it’s been going and it has not been heard.

Trista Harris  11:49

Yeah, within every organization, there is that future thinker that is trying to help you get in front of what’s coming next. And often they feel really lonely in that work. So a lot of what Future Good does is brings together those future thinkers from lots of different organizations to help them find their people so that they feel encouraged as they’re doing this work. And then you’ve got the naysayers, which, you know, as I talked to folks about future trends, I heard somebody in a small group once said, I’m so glad that I’m retiring. So I don’t have to deal with any of this. And I’m like, will you still be on Earth? Are you still going to need to like, address the change that’s happening around you. And, you know, I have lived through this time of transformation when things used to be more linear, and you could predict what the next year was going to look like. And so I can see how frustrating it is for people that are like, I’ve been doing this job for 20 years. And I know exactly what I’m supposed to be doing next year. The world is changing, and we as people need to change.

Chanda Smith Baker  12:48

Yeah, I mean, you could run your business that way. Yeah, yeah, you could, I mean, it’s just, it just matters, how relevant you want to be. And, you know, I was in a recent conversation and to saying that, you know, from one board meeting to the next COVID hit from one board minute to the next, George Floyd was murdered, right. And so, the world changed around us. And if your team is not ready to move, right, if you don’t have the social emotional skill sets on a team to be able to address sort of the circumstances in a way that allows for the conversations to be thoughtful, and on time, then what you think you do is you go back to what’s familiar.

Trista Harris  13:31

People are very comfortable in their expertise. And I get that and it feels good to be comfortable in your expertise. When, when the pandemic started, I had been doing trends for years that that global pandemics are much more likely because we travel around the world and we’re encroaching in natural spaces, there’s at least reasons why there should have been a pandemic, that did not mean that I was like rolled up not rolled up under my desk when the pandemic start, like, what is the speed, what’s going to happen? I think the difference in mindset is the resiliency to be able to move out of that space quickly. And to say, this is really difficult. And I have a responsibility to create the specific change in the world. How do I do it in this moment? What am I being called to do? And I’m a big believer that mindset is the most important part to understand that you actually can influence the future that it doesn’t happen to you, you create it with the decisions that you make every single day. And when you enter your work with that mindset. It’s liberating in a bunch of ways because you don’t feel like you’re just constantly fighting off the next bad thing. Instead, you are creating a different path forward.

Chanda Smith Baker  14:35

So, we’re sitting at a time where there has been a number of efforts that have moved forward in the DEI space. As a black woman, I’ve been around many intersections of black women that have been gathering and thinking about their roles, their leadership, the minimization of their leadership, the success of their leadership, all of those things, and one of the questions that I have for you very specifically is, what do you see as the future of black women in philanthropy? I

Trista Harris  15:07

Love it. I love it. I think this is a shining moment for black women in philanthropy they’ve been leading always. We have been behind the scenes, holding things together moving forward strategy and not receiving recognition credit. That work being sabotaged, sometimes within organizations. And now we have landed at a time where people realize that black woman’s ability to understand conditions and what’s coming next, because you have to, you have to be able to navigate, change and move forward. And a lot of uneasy environments is really useful for organizations in this moment. And I think on the DEI front, we’re seeing a change and philanthropy I’ve worked in the field for a really long time. And I’ve seen the sort of times of, we’re going to do a press release, something bad happens in the world, and we’re gonna send a note out about it and let people know we’re thinking about it. We have completely transformed for most organizations and moved beyond that to looking internally inside the organization and saying, what are our hiring practices? How are we spending and investing our dollars organizationally? How are we using our voices that community citizen? When do we stand up? And who do we speak up for, and it’s being baked into the organizations. And as a result of that, we’re seeing more black women that are leading and running organizations, because boards are saying, well, who’s going to help us do this? Who has the skill sets that are necessary to make this real, and often it’s black women within organizations. I think the other change that we are seeing for black women and philanthropy is the old model of work was about giving everything until you literally die at your desk, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, strokes, I can think of the entire generation before me in the field that gave up everything, to be able to create a space and to do that work. And it’s what they felt was necessary at that time. I’ve seen something so different that’s happening now, where black women are saying, how do I bring my full self to work? How do I take time for respite and for stepping back and refreshing? And how do I also create that for my entire team in a way that this work is suddenly much more sustainable? So, I think the future for black women and philanthropy is really bright, not just on the impact, but how they’re going to be able to navigate and transform themselves through that process as well.

Chanda Smith Baker  17:39

So, on that note, and there’s a lot of language that’s came through around radical self-care in terms of a care community, right, like, like, you know, not so much accountability, but just having, you know, women around you and, and caring for yourself. And we talk about it in terms of radical self-care, right, taking breaks, getting massages, doing those things. And we talk a lot about fatigue and fatigue as a result of particularly what has happened over the last several years. But we don’t really talk about mental health. Yeah, yeah. Do you think that that’s going to be more common in our language, because it’s sort of embedded in what we’re discussing. But it feels like it’s been an externalized exercise to what we’re doing, particularly in the sort of social sector, but we’re not really talking about it in terms of ourselves and our colleagues and what we need to do to care for our employees.

Trista Harris  18:33

I think that organizationally, we forget that the people that we employ have often experienced whatever issue that we’re working on. And so working with clients, or moving forward, public policy can bring back generational trauma. And people don’t notice, that’s what’s happening. And we saw a lot of that after the murder of George Floyd. And I have a network of DEI leaders that work within foundations. And what I heard consistently from them was, I am getting from my CEO, what are we going to do about this? Come on, let’s figure out a plan. Let’s get moving, are we going to do some grant making, and they’re like I’m grieving at this moment, I am trying to navigate my own feelings about safety for myself and for my children and for my community. And I cannot jump out and develop a new grant plan for you real quick, I need a moment to be able to consider. And so I think that we’re moving to a space where people can feel that that’s happening. There’s also the collective grief of the pandemic that has not been processed in any way, shape, or form. And so, what happens is there are moments of new grief that happen, new family member dies, something happens in the community. All of the built up grief from the last couple of years comes out in this moment. And we’re surprised at our response and it’s because we haven’t been able to, to process all of that collective trauma that we’ve been through. So for organizational leaders, you better make sure that your health insurance covers mental health, and you better talk to your staff about how important it is to take care of their mental health and give them time off when they need it, to care for themselves and to be able to, to navigate this really complicated world that we’re in, because I think people have not yet felt the true cost of this time that we have lived through. And our mental health is the first area that’s really suffering.

Chanda Smith Baker  20:28

So talk to me about how this girl from the south side, Southside. Southside High School, yeah, becomes a futurist. Like what is the path to that? Because I don’t remember seeing that in the career fair.

Trista Harris  20:42

It was not in the career fair. So I went to South High School, the best high school in Minneapolis.

Chanda Smith Baker  20:48

Uh, you know, I got an argument for that,

Trista Harris  20:51

For sure. And I had known since I was seven or eight that I wanted to work in the nonprofit sector was super clear that that was the path my mom had volunteered at Pillsbury House. And she was volunteering in the theater. And I just spent a lot of time there. And it was this beautiful multiservice community center that had everything, there was arts, and there was childcare, and there was food. And it just, every time I went, I was so excited. And I used to draw these pictures, people would do like their Barbie Dream Home, and I was drawing community centers, maybe I’d have a zoo, maybe there’d be a slide that goes from the first floor to the second floor. And just knew that that was the space for me. So, when I left Minneapolis and went to Howard in DC, and studied sociology and public policy, went to graduate school at Humphrey for nonprofit management and public policy and really thought that I would run a place like Pillsbury because that felt like the place that you could meet people’s basic needs. And then they could engage civically and be a vibrant part of their community because those needs were met. And I had an amazing mentor in school, Bill Diaz, who had worked at the Ford Foundation and had come to Minnesota to teach. And he had actually created a public policy program that was paying for my graduate school. And so, we had this great connection. And we sat down and did the career talk in a community center, and I wanted to do the thing. And he was like, number one, you’re a little intense. Please take a breath. And he said, you love to fix things, and you love to see the big picture. If you work in one organization, you’re going to drive everybody batty, which every staff that I’ve had since then could 100% agree. He said, People don’t want things fixed, they want them to be consistent. He said, work at a foundation, because you will be able to have this 30,000 foot view of the sector, you’ll be able to give dollars to create change. He said, you’ll still drive people nuts, but they’ll put up with it because you’re giving them money. And you will diffuse your energy over many different organizations, he said, but as a young person, and as a woman of color, it is going to be almost impossible to get that first job in the field. And so fundraise first, so that you know what it feels like to be on the other side of the table, and get to know the foundations and decide what is the sort of place that you want to work, which was hurtful advice in the moment and absolutely on track. And so, I fundraised for a number of nonprofit organizations and did some volunteer work with the St. Paul Foundation. They had a program officer position open, and one of the program officers there called and said, I think you know, you want to be in philanthropy, this is a really great opportunity. And I had just gotten my first like big girl job where it was running a department as director of advancement and communications and fundraising and had a team. And I had been there less than a year. And I said, you know, I just took this big job. And I would love to work at the St. Paul Foundation. But like maybe next year, she said, we have not had an opening in eight years. And we will not have another for eight, you want to do this you should apply. And so, I applied and made it through the process. I was probably in my mid-20s at that time and was 20 years younger than all of my co-workers.

Chanda Smith Baker  24:21

So let’s talk about that. Let’s just talk about that. Yes. So, you go, and you work for a community foundation. You go, you’re working in philanthropy, yeah. What was that like? Right? Because it’s a very different environment. So, I tell people like you can front privilege in a different way in that space. Like there’s things that you confront that you maybe don’t experience. So, did you confront things and what was that like?

Trista Harris  24:49

Yeah, I think for me, it was feeling like I deeply understood foundations from applying for grants for a number of years and so I know what you do and know how this works. What I had thought happened on the other side of the curtain was this very thoughtful, long process where we were developing deep relationships and we call each other and how are things going, girl? Tell me, how can I help? I am here for you. And my first week, brand new program officer. This was the olden days 30 gigantic file folders with grant applications dropped on my desk next week, tell us which ones are moving forward. I would like to have coffee with people and learn about what’s happening. No, I’m gonna need you to read these grants. And so just pushed into the deep end and I Googled how to be a program officer. Because there’s no training you just start and you are there I found EPIP, Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, reached out and said, Hey, you guys seem to be the ones that like tell new people what to do. Please help me. They said we don’t have a Minnesota chapter. But you should start one as less than a month in my job. And then I started Minnesota’s emerging practitioners in philanthropy chapter.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:04

Let’s just talk about me moving over to the Minneapolis Foundation in my 40s. And so everyone in effect was not in their very young, like, is there an emergent practitioners in their mid career?

Trista Harris  26:18

Yes, There are so many people that change sectors EPIP is for everybody.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:23

They did tell me that they did.

Trista Harris  26:26

But it feels like I felt like I had a very full career in the nonprofit sector. And it felt like that did not translate when I went into the philanthropic field, that the relationships and the network and what I needed to know was so different from what I learned before, that you really struggled to find your footing, I have found that affinity groups are the best place to find that footing, because it’s groups of people that are willing to help you figure out how to navigate and find your path forward. And that was really my lifeline. And those first years as a Program Officer.

Chanda Smith Baker  26:58

Yeah, I just think it’s important. I wanted to raise the point because in this moment, there are a lot of newer younger people moving into the philanthropic space or into nonprofit space, that have not been there before. Or they might be the first the only like they’re coming into new some new space. Yeah. And it’s a moment for organizations, particularly those that are being intentional about diversifying, where they have not been as diverse with their teams, to be thoughtful about how they onboard. Yeah, because it can be very difficult. And it’s one thing to attract, it’s another thing to sustain.

Trista Harris  27:40

Yeah, and train and train your staff. We just, we bring people in and just say here you go. Grant craft is an amazing resource for people that are new to philanthropy. It’s they’ve got guides on saying yes, saying no using a racial equity lens is amazing. But the reason that they created it as a tool, initially, it was a part of the Ford Foundation, and the CEO of the Ford Foundation was going to a faraway trip was like a 20 hour flight with her board chair, which is like who wants to be sitting next to their board chair for 2020 hours on a flight. And she’s like, I knew that I needed to just ask him a bunch of questions. So keep him talking and just and so he was somebody that bought companies and then raise the value and sold them and whatever. And she said, Well, how do you decide what to which ones to buy? And this is probably, you know, 10 minutes into the plane ride. And he goes, Oh, you look at the training department. That is how you know the strength and quality of an organization is the strength of their training. And she said, I sat the rest of those 19 hours terrified that he was going to ask me, what is the training function at the Ford Foundation because it didn’t exist, just like it doesn’t exist in most foundations. And so, grant craft was created out of this idea of how do we actually train our staff to do this work well, and not let them sort of bumble their way through trying to figure it out? Because there is both an art and a science to grantmaking, and you need to learn both.

Chanda Smith Baker  29:09

Well, what are the training trends in philanthropy right now?

Trista Harris  29:12

Yeah, well, one train actually training people, I think, I’ve seen a ton of improvement in training new staff on the ways that your organization does work. So if you’re a community foundation that has about deep relationship in place, and you show up at events and people know you train your staff and let them know that that is the case, if you are a private foundation that has two staff members, and you get 1000 applications and all you can do is get the checks out and that’s it, make sure that people are really clear. I’ve also seen a ton of really great training on Racial Equity and Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in these particular roles through the million different change philanthropy organizations that are all doing this great training. I’m seeing more foundations invest in that for lots of staff, not just the program staff, what does that look like for your grants managers? What does that look like for folks in communications and operations? Let’s make sure that this frame lives everywhere, not just in programs.

Chanda Smith Baker  30:09

And I think that’s where I was sort of thinking you were gonna go is that there’s a lot of training in the DEI space. I’m curious on whether or not that training is actually connected to the business. Right, like because, you know, in Minnesota, right, you’re working across the country and the globe. In Minnesota, it’s the IDI, there’s other types of training, but it’s not so much around. It’s how we’re approaching our work in our business, through an equitable lens. And what does that look like? And how do we approach it, it’s a little bit more global than unique or specific or customized to the business model.

Trista Harris  30:48

I think there is a little bit of this falling in love with like, what’s my racism score, like, there’s a lot of assessments tell you a lot about yourself as an individual and leave employees in a space, where it’s about them? What What am I going to do? Am I ready to do this sort of work, we should hold off on any equity efforts until I as an individual, I’m ready to do it. And with our clients, we do the opposite. We do not do any assessments. As we start, we start with what does an equitable future look like for this organization internally and externally? And what sort of institution do we have to be for that to be true? And then we work backwards, and we say, so what would this look like in our grants management side? What would this look like in operations? What would this look like in HR, and then suddenly, the staff in those areas have a picture of the aspirational version of their role and realize they better get it together, and they are signing up for the trainings and they are figuring out what it takes to build their skill set instead of if you start the opposite way, then people stop the progress because they’re worried about where they’re going to be on that journey. And for me, it is about the impact that the institution is having, and how do you make sure that your, your team skills up to be able to have that impact, but you have to start with the mission.

Chanda Smith Baker  32:06

I hear that so you went to a St. Paul Foundation. And then after that, did you go to Headwaters? I did. And then you led Headwaters.

Trista Harris  32:13

I led Headwaters I was 29 years old. And running a community foundation that does amazing social justice work. I was a couple months into the job, I had a post it note on my computer that said learn how endowments work. I was responsible for the endowment, I had no idea how it worked. And then the stock market collapsed. So, this was in 2008. And our our endowment lost 30 to 50% of its value. And we were trying to be a good grant maker that did multiyear grants and really invest in an organization suddenly, we didn’t have money to give away. And that is not a good place to be as a foundation. And so during that time I by happenstance ran into a book about futurism. And it was about how to use futurism during times of crisis for a competitive business advantage. And I read that book from front to back. And I was like, we’re in a time of crisis, we need an advantage. Exactly. And so the book really had flash foresight helped me to understand that we needed to bring these tools to our grantees. And we had a lot of conversations with them, where we said, this is going to be a rough ride, and it’s probably going to be a rough ride for a really long time you are doing the most important work in our community economic justice work racial justice work, they were being called to do the best work of their careers, and we did not have resources to give them. And so what we asked our grantees to do is to develop a shared vision of the future. So previously, we sort of sprinkled the 1000 seeds, as many organizations do. And the organizations felt like they were competing against each other for those resources. Suddenly, we were saying, if there’s a coalition of you working on what to do with the foreclosure crisis, we’ll fund the coalition and all the organizations will get funding. And so in the year and a half, after we started bringing in those tools, our grantees had 10 legislative wins, the most in our organization’s history, including alternative teacher certification to diversify the teaching force in Minnesota Homeowners Bill of Rights, the first in the country to deal with the mortgage foreclosure crisis, and then marriage equity in the state of Minnesota. So, I am really proud of the work that our grantees did to build a better future. And then that set me on a path to learn as much as I could about futurism tools, and then teach those tools to people that work in the sector.

Chanda Smith Baker  34:39

So, can we talk about your best friend Richard Branson, or whatever? Your BFF. So you ended up on his island how and what happened?

Trista Harris  34:49

A couple of times going again next year, so I had the pleasure of receiving a bush Fellowship, which is an amazing opportunity. My goal of the bush fellows ship was to build my futurism skills. And when we first met to sort of lay out your learning plan, they said, Who do you want to network with? And people? Oh, there’s so and so at the U of M, that’s really great. And I’d love to meet this author that lives in Boston. And I was sitting there thinking, who is the hardest person that I can think, to meet? That will show me that if I focus my attention and use the benefit of this fellowship, anything is possible. And if anything’s possible, then I need to try to start making a bigger impact in the fields. I had been a huge fan of Richard Branson’s philanthropy, he is trying to solve global crisis. He’s trying to clean the ocean. He’s trying to end incarceration, he is working on some of the biggest issues, and he leverages his 300 plus companies to be able to make that happen. And so, I was like, I want to meet with Richard Branson. And people were like, we don’t have a Richard Branson connection for you. And I give a ton of credit to Jen Ford Reedy, who is the president of the Bush Foundation. We had dinner that night, and she said, I heard you would like to meet with Richard, but what is this about what’s going on? And I said, I think he’s got this amazing view of the future of philanthropy that I want to get to the bottom of. But I don’t know how to meet with him. And she said, Well, have you thought about it at all? And I said, he does this conference on his island, that he charges like $50,000 for three days as a fundraiser for for his foundation. But that’s the only way and that’s ridiculous. And she goes well, you have $100,000 Because that’s how much the bush fellowship is. And I was like, if you think I’m spending $50,000 For three days to meet this man, you’ve lost your mind. She said, I didn’t say you had to I said you could, which is literally the cruelest thing that you can say to somebody is like this is actually on you; you have to decide if you want decision. Yeah, if you want to do this, do this. And I was like, I cannot the cheapness in me will not allow me to do this. And so the cohort and my friends knew that this was a goal. And I was trying to figure out a way and a couple months later, he was speaking at the Council on foundations conference. And I had great relationships with the Council on Foundations, I was running the Minnesota Council on foundations then. And I got all these emails that were like, Girl, your guys come into the thing. You got to figure it out. And so I reached out to the CEO that that I knew. And I said, I am planning on interviewing Richard Branson at your conference, you let me know the best time to do that. And she said, Okay, cool. And she sent me to the communications person who was doing more of the day-to-day stuff. And we talked and within five minutes, he knew that I actually had no real plan to make this happen. And he had wanted to talk to me because he was having trouble getting stuff scheduled and thought I had some sort of in and I’m like, Well, I talked to somebody at the foundation. And he was like, that has not who does the scheduling. And I’m like, No, but I know, let’s just figure out when I’m gonna sit down. So I was really embarrassed and defeated. Because it’s like, these are my like, professional contacts. And they know that I’m completely full of it. And I had a great coach that does thought leadership work that I was working with, and like this embarrassing thing happened. And she said, Richard Branson is on social media, like, make the case that you should interview him, like, lay out, here’s all the other people that I’ve interviewed, here’s what I’m going to do with this information, figure out what his in is to try to talk to philanthropy. And what I had realized is that everybody that interviews Richard Branson wants to know how to get so rich. That’s like, that’s all they want to talk about. Oh, I heard you got a cool Island. And you know, you’d like to kiteboard tell us about that. Nobody asked him about his philanthropy. And that’s how he spends about 70% of his time. And so I did not put it on social media, because that would have been too embarrassing. But I created this two-pager that said, here’s who I am. Here’s the audience that I work with, through my blog and through other places. Here’s the networks that I’m a part of, here’s how I’m going to use this information to try to influence the future philanthropy. Can I have 15 minutes of your time? Well, you are here for this conference. And I sent it to the person that knew that I was full of it. And his boss who did not know us full of it, who then forwarded it to the scheduling person at Virgin, who was like, Cool. 15 minutes is fine. And so was able to sit down with him. The interview was amazing, and a really great opportunity. But the end of it, I felt really disappointed. And I couldn’t figure out why.

Chanda Smith Baker  39:20

With yourself or with like, it wasn’t enough time, like what was disappointing?

Trista Harris  39:23

It wasn’t what I thought it was going to be. And when as I was digging into it, what I finally realized is that when I was 16, I saw Mariah Carey on cribs where she was at Necker Island. When I had in my head, what this conversation was going to look like it was not in a conference room in DC. It was on Necker Island. And so I was like, you that’s like the first test of first-world problems to be disappointed that you didn’t get to have this great conversation in that way, like let go of that. But it just kind of kept on sitting there nine and a couple months later, one of the features of networks that I’m a part of said, Hey, we’re here Having a convening on Necker Island, we’re talking about the future of doing good. Are you interested in going? And I was like, yes. And I speak on that. Can I be a speaker? So then they discounted my rate. I went to the island.

Chanda Smith Baker  40:13

I actually think I had the opportunity to attend that I did not go, did I? That was that was probably a mistake.

Trista Harris  40:21

Yeah,it was a mistake. But it is a it’s a great place. And I’ve been back, I’ve been there twice. So far, I’m bringing a group of black and brown entrepreneurs there.

Chanda Smith Baker  40:30

Am I an entrepreneur?

Trista Harris  40:32

You could be, we can talk, we can talk about that offline. But it is, it’s an amazing place. And it’s an amazing time to just get to spend with him and learn how he operates and works in the world. And I’ve learned a ton about his philanthropy and the change that he’s trying to create and how he is a human being can like sit in a hammock and run 300 companies that are all doing great change in the world. It’s a great model for lots of us.

Chanda Smith Baker  41:00

I mean, what I love about this story is, I mean, there’s so many of us that think, you know, this is what I want to get done, right? Like, it’s sort of the permission to dream big. Like, I mean, I think that we sort of center our own dreams back. Right. And we’re often just a couple of people away from getting to where we want to get to, and or even from an organizational perspective. I mean, we’ve ran organizations, and we’ve been inside of organizations, and we’ve been in new spaces, and we’ve had to, you know, make introductions to people and figure out how to get crafty around it. And I think that, you know, there’s lots of folks sitting in very different seats, listening to this trying to figure out how do they make their next move? And sometimes you just got to make it.

Trista Harris  41:45

Yeah, you we don’t dream big enough. And I the advice that I really hold close as if somebody said, you know, this weekend, you can get a free trip to Cincinnati, I’d be like, okay, but I was gonna go grocery shopping, I don’t know. But if somebody said free trip to San Diego, suddenly I’m cleaning my schedule, I’m making things work. And I think it’s the same with our goals. If you set little easy-to-reach incremental goals for yourself, fine. If you set big, hairy audacious goals, you are going to do what it takes to get there. And it’s going to be worth the effort. So, you have had this platform of Conversations with Chanda, what are you hoping to see, as a result of these conversations? What’s the change that you want to see in the world as a result of this?

Chanda Smith Baker  42:32

Well? That’s a good question. You know, it’s very funny, because the way that these conversations evolved, was through my curiosity, right through my love of learning through my intention of wanting to be as proximate and as close to the issues that I can. Because it’s incredibly important in the role that I have, right, and we talked about sort of being in the balcony and being able to see what’s happening in the sector, that you can get really caught up in meetings, you can get very caught up in the process and forget sort of the humanity, the stories, the practice of learning, and being intentional. So really, part of it was deeply personal and my commitment to staying a student while leading. So that is the first and foremost. The other and I say this often is that there are some real issues that we need to wrestle with in our world and in our state, in our communities. And we often are doing them in our own head, we are doing those in communities of comfort, right, I can talk about race with other black women. And I struggled to do so with a level of comfort with people that are outside of my identities. And so what does it look like for us to have deeper conversations, meaning have meaningful conversations outside of our own communities of comfort? Right, because we need to begin to do that in our workplaces. And in philanthropy, in particular, where we are making a lot of decisions, and little a lot of yield a lot of influence, that if we are uncomfortable personally having difficult conversations, and how can we get into difficult places to make the type of change that’s necessary. And so in my wildest imagination, we have created more space where those conversations are happening so that we are getting to the issues of race, we’re getting to the issues around gender, we are creating space for people to lead fully so that we can have more impact in our community members can do better, right, that we can stop talking about disparities, but we can talk about how do we make more people’s dreams come true in our community, right that we can start talking about people and communities by deficit. Yeah. Because that’s exhausting. And it’s not it’s not helpful. Yeah, right. And there’s way too many possibilities for to be dragged down.

Trista Harris  45:03

Yeah, we spend so much time loving the problem where we just let me describe the gap is this big and it is so terrible. And the the trick in the social sector is doing that feels like you’re actually doing something, but you’re not accomplishing anything. So you’ve used up all of your energy and your mental strength to describe current conditions, and you put none of that effort towards making them different. And so I think, what these sorts of conversations create as a space where people can get out of that loving the problem space, and start to radically imagine something different, we have to build our radical imagination as people. Because that’s the only way to create change.

Chanda Smith Baker  45:41

Yeah, I was thinking about what is the guy from the Manchester guild?

Trista Harris  45:45

Oh, yeah, um, Bill Strickland.

Chanda Smith Baker  45:48

Yep. So, he has a saying where he would say the only thing wrong with four people is that they don’t have any money. Yeah. Right, like, period. That’s it. And so we often talk about people that don’t have resources as though they have all these other problems.

Trista Harris  46:06

Right, Money solves most of those problems.

Chanda Smith Baker  46:09

Money, money can be helpful. And like, we can talk about class, but it doesn’t mean that there’s not a groundedness around values. Like, I mean, there’s there’s just so many things, but I think that what, what it does, when he says that is it has you examine the assumptions that you make about people that lack resources? Yes. Right. It has you examine what communities that have been under-invested in? deserve? Yeah. Right. Like, why don’t they deserve this fountain, right. Like what he would say, right? And, and why don’t they deserve to have a park? Or why don’t these kids deserve to have safe space? And so I appreciate the framing when it is about what’s possible. And I think, you know, the more that we can talk about that. And, you know, one of the other conversations that, you know, I would hear quite often interested was, you know, I, we’re doing this talk, and we need to get to action. And I’m like, Yeah, but are we really talking about the right things? Are we really getting to the question that we need to solve? And are we really being honest? Yeah, right, we can have a very dishonest conversation, and we can move to action, and we’re solving the wrong problem. And so, what does it mean for us to create the courage? Right, and the discipline to stay in the space?

Trista Harris  47:30

Yeah. There, there’s a book called how we show up by me at Birdsong, that is about connection and relationship and why As humans, we crave that so much. And we’ve been missing it, because in the United States, everybody’s on their own, and we’re so independent, we don’t need anybody, we need people. And especially when you’re creating change, none of us can do it alone, there’s not a foundation in the world, no matter how large it is, that can solve the issues that they’re working on alone. It is through connection and shared purpose and deep, deep relationships and trust, that change happens. And I think what the pandemic has brought us is a period of disconnection. And we’ve lost a lot of relationships and connections during this time. How do we rebuild that? What does that look like as we move forward? And how are we thoughtful in the rebuilding about getting outside of your comfort zone? Who’s somebody that thinks of the world differently than I do? How do I make sure that I’m pulling them into my network? Richard Branson does not look at the world like I do. He has an entirely different perspective. But to spend a teeny bit of time seeing how he sees the world. It makes my vision a little bit bigger about what’s possible. And I think, in our own networking, built network building, how do we make sure that we’ve got those unusual perspectives?

Chanda Smith Baker  48:49

Isn’t that true? I mean, I’ve never had a problem sitting across from someone that disagrees with my opinion. I’ve never had a problem. Right.

Trista Harris  48:56

Yeah, right. Yeah. I have a good friend that you know, Sara Lueben, then she’ll go tell me more people will say the craziest thing in the world. She’s just curious. And we went to the state fair once, and we went by one of the booths and there was a black man that was in front of the Republican booth wearing a head-to-toe Trump outfit. And I said, don’t we are we’re here for corndogs and we’re here for do not go ask don’t go and be lined right over there. Tell me about what you’re doing here. Tell me what you think. Tell me why you’re a supporter. Tell, you know, tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more. Tell me more. And we learned an interesting story about his life and his perspective. And I would have never had that perspective if she hadn’t had been willing to push both of us outside of our comfort zone. So to sit across from somebody that looks at the world differently, to understand why and to suddenly have a little bit bigger view of what’s possible. And what’s uncommon, I think is an import thing for us.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:01

It’s a gift, it really is a gift. So, as we close tell me do you have like, what was your best leadership advice? Can you boil that down?

Trista Harris  50:11

That’s a good one. I think it is about living in the intersection of what you love, and what you’re great at and what the world needs. And if you can sit in that intersection, anything is possible. But you have to take the time to deeply understand yourself to know what those skills are and to understand what the world needs and to know what you love. What are the things that you just do? Because you’re used to doing it? What are the things that bring you absolute joy as you are doing that work, do a lot more of that the world just they need more people that are lit up doing the things that they need to do. We don’t all need to be doing the same thing.

Chanda Smith Baker  50:51

More people that are lit up. Thank you, Trista Harris. Absolutely.

Souphak Kienitz  50:58

If you enjoy this show and want to learn more about what we do here at the Minneapolis Foundation, please visit us online at And of course, if you want to follow Chanda or the Minneapolis Foundation on Twitter or Instagram, that’s ChandaSBaker or MPLSFoundation.

Close Transcript -
About Our Guest

Trista Harris

Trista Harris is a philanthropic futurist and is nationally known as a passionate advocate for leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. Trista’s work has been covered by the Chronicle of Philanthropy, Forbes, CNN, the New York Times, and numerous social sector blogs. She is also the author of “How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar and FutureGood.” She is the President of FutureGood – a consultancy focused on helping visionaries build a better future. 

She has spent her whole career dedicated to the social sector, starting with a job as a summer parks assistant at the age of 15. Before starting FutureGood, Trista was President of the Minnesota Council on Foundations, a vibrant community of grantmakers who award more than $1.5 billion annually. Prior to joining MCF in 2013, she was executive director of the Headwaters Foundation for Justice in Minneapolis, and she previously served as a program officer at the St. Paul Foundation.

Trista has been certified in strategic foresight by Oxford University, earned her Master of Public Policy degree from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs, University of Minnesota, and her Bachelor of Arts from Howard University. She is a board member for the Association of Black Foundation Executives. Trista served on the Minnesota Super Bowl Host Committee and the Governor’s Council on Law Enforcement and Community Relations, which was convened after the shooting of Philando Castile. She is a passionate national advocate for the social sector, using the tools of futurism to solve our communities’ most pressing challenges.