Trista Harris is the author of Future Good and president of the Future Good consultancy. As a philanthropic futurist, she helps nonprofit leaders envision and build a better future in their work.
We had a fun and wide-ranging conversation about:
- How she built a platform to do good in the world
- Having the courage to reach out and make the business case for yourself
- Why it’s good to be famous in the smallest of small networks
- How she eventually ended up presenting at a philanthropy conference on Richard Branson’s private island
Listen below, or read the transcript that follows.
Anne: Can you start by explaining to me your role as a futurist in the social sector?
Trista: I’ve been a philanthropic futurist for the last 10 years or so. That means that I help foundations and nonprofits, and some social purpose businesses, understand the trends that are coming that will impact their work. I help them both learn how to predict and shape the future.
Anne: How did you get into this? I’ve read a bit about it in your wonderful book Future Good. Can you share a little of that story? Because it’s an unusual role to be in.
Trista: Sure. I was running a community foundation and I had a post-it note on my computer once I got the job that said, “Learn how endowments work.” Foundations have these endowments that dollars come out it and that’s how they give grants. I had no idea how endowments worked, but I was responsible for it. It was one of the things I needed to learn about. Just a couple months into the job, the stock market collapsed. Our endowment lost between 30 to 50 percent of its value. Suddenly we had to figure out what to do when our grantees desperately needed us but we didn’t have the money to do it. I looked near and far and could not find any resources. Then I found futurism as a tool to understand what’s coming next so we could help our grantees harness those trends. As a result of that pivot, in probably a year or two our grantees got ten huge legislative wins on things like marriage equity and the first homeowner’s bill of rights in the country. That wouldn’t have happened if we didn’t have a future lens.
Anne: The idea of applying futurism— you talk about it as something that’s used a lot in the military and it’s used a lot in big business—but taking that long-term horizon view. What you’ve done that is different in your area of expertise is saying, let’s take this and apply it to philanthropic organizations and institutions and objectives.
Trista: It’s a very powerful tool, normally used to figure out what color shoes you’re going to want to buy next year or what country’s going to hate us next. I think that for people who are trying to make the world a better place, they need to have every single tool at their disposal possible. So I act as that bridge between futurists who are doing amazing work but don’t know much about nonprofits and foundations, and foundations and nonprofits that are doing phenomenal work but don’t have a view into what’s coming next.
Anne: This is a wonderful area of expertise, a wonderful niche that you have identified and owned. One of the stories you tell in your book is the work you did to build your platform and expertise—specifically, chasing down Richard Branson. That’s such a fun story. It’s a great idea of what’s possible. Do you want to share the highlights of that?
Trista: Yes, I had a fellowship that really was an open study of what do you need to develop as a leader. They asked us: Who do you want to get to know and bring into your network during this fellowship? People were like, Oh, there’s this professor at the university I want to learn from or somebody in a different state that works in an organization like mine. I knew that the fellowship was really a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and I was already really good at building networks. So I wanted to set a hard goal, so I knew during this time period I have resources and support, let me try to do something that I couldn’t do on my own. So my goal was to connect with Richard Branson because he has an amazing view on philanthropy. Everybody obviously only wants to ask him how did he become so rich. But he’s doing things to clean the ocean. He helped to develop a Marshall Plan around the Caribbean after Hurricane Maria to rebuild in a way that can be much more climate resilient. He’s working on really big things, and that’s often rare for philanthropy. So I wanted to connect with him.
So I told this fellowship network: that’s my person. If you have a connection, let me know. They all said, we don’t have a Richard Branson connection for you. But he came to speak at a philanthropy conference, probably about six to eight months later. I can’t tell you the number of emails I got from people in my networking saying, “He’s going to speak at a thing that’s connected to an organization that you know well, and I know you want to talk with him.” I think one of the pieces is to tell people in your network what you want and what you need and what you’re looking for, because there are extra sets of eyes. I hadn’t initially seen that opportunity.
I reached out to the organization, which I had a great relationship with, and I reached out to their CEO and said, “I am planning on interviewing Richard Branson during your conference. I want to make sure it doesn’t interfere with anything that you have scheduled, so let’s coordinate.” Because I have a strong brand and we had a good relationships, she didn’t question whether I actually had an interview scheduled. She sent me to the communications person, who quickly realized that I did not have a plan, nor a good connection, and said, Call me back when you figure it out.
I had a great branding coach, Denise Brousseau, who I was working with. She suggested that I write a blog post to Richard Branson explaining to him why he should let me interview him. I though, that’s a little embarrassing. I don’t know. I decided instead to write up a case of why I wanted to do the interview, what I was going to ask, other interviews I had done previously, because I was working on my Future Good Book so had been talking to people that were in his network that he had heard of. So I added that I had interviewed those people and I sent it to the person who knew that I didn’t have a plan, and his boss. His boss didn’t know that I didn’t’ have a plan. So he forwarded it to the Virgin Communications Team, that said, “Oh sure, it sounds like she’s got a good platform. She’s interviewed these other people that we know that he knows and trusts. You can get 15 minutes.” So it was fantastic. If I hadn’t done the platform work beforehand, I wouldn’t have had the relationships with the national organizations, I wouldn’t have had other things to point to, and I couldn’t have leveraged that platform and that expertise to have that experience.
Anne: It’s the hard work you do building the platform from the ground. But also, it’s not just building the platform and waiting for things to happen. It’s building the platform and using it—having the courage to ask. Having the courage to reach out and make a strong business case for yourself. That’s a great story.
Trista: One other piece that I’ll say about that: Because I knew it was an important platform moment, I hired a film crew to come and do the interview instead of doing it on my phone, as I normally would, and really index the dollars into creating a piece that I have now on my blog, at TristaHarris.com, and I have it on my LinkedIn page. It brings a lot of credibility for other things. After that interview, I received an invite from his team to present at a conference on his island about the future of doing good. So, when you reach out and pull people into your networks, it adds to your platform, but you don’t know how big that reach is going to go.
Anne: it’s such a wonderful story that you ended up doing that. Was this the impetus for your book? You have a book called Future Good, which is wonderful. There’s a lot of great advice in there about moving to the future you want. You write compellingly about the pull of a future vision. This applies to philanthropic goals, but I think it also probably applied in your sense to your pull of your vision of what you wanted to do with your career.
Trista: For sure. Future Good is a great resource for your organization, as it’s thinking about how to lay out your idea future. What is it we want this to look like, and what are the steps we have to take to get there, and what are the future trends that we can start to pay attention to and harness to get there. But I found time after time that those same tools are so useful on the personal side as you’re considering what the challenges are that you might be facing in the future, and what the opportunities are. I’ve heard from a lot of friends as we’re going through all this Coronavirus crisis that I have been able to bounce back a lot quicker. In the beginning, it was very panicked: what happened and how is this going to work. But then very quickly they moved to: how do I leverage this moment to create the most good. This is an opportunity for things like universal basic income and universal healthcare and paying an affordable wage and paid sick time to minimum wage workers. It shines a bright light on a lot of things that are possible. If you are able to understand that these moments are opportunities because it fits into the larger picture you want to create, then you actually know what work to do in times of crisis where it can get really easy to get stuck in the muck.
Anne: That’s great. This is so timely. With a future vision, you can see a way through what we’re in now, and see how this can be an opportunity or actually an unexpected step on that path towards these other things. You have a phrase in the book that resonated so much with me, which is very appropriate to the moment, which is being persistently adaptable.
Trista: That’s kind of what we’re all living in at this very moment.
Anne: That’s exactly what we need.
Trista: It’s not about adapting once. I was telling some friends, for the last couple years I’ve been saying that the pace of change is exponential and we’re right at the knee of that curve where it really starts to shoot up and change happens faster than you can imagine. But we have really felt that curve over the last couple weeks, and will continue to feel it. I wrote a blog post at the beginning of March laying out some scenario-planning opportunities for people in the social sector around Coronavirus, and thinking about your role as an employer or somebody who provides programming or grant-making. Then what do you do in those roles if Coronavirus doesn’t actually impact your local community but there’s fear about it, or what if it expands greatly, and developing your strategies for each of those things. I was looking at that with a client last week and we were laughing at how naïve it seems. Oh yeah, if it doesn’t spread. That’s adorable!
Now we’ve changed it to “if quarantine lasts for less than six weeks or more than six weeks.” It’s an opportunity to double down on scenario planning as you have more and more information, those scenarios come to life in a different way. When things are uncertain, it gives you clarity about what the possibilities are.
Anne: Scenario planning being such an important way to deal with things. We don’t thrive in uncertainty, and scenario planning gives us a way to create some narratives, some plans that work.
Trista: It narrows those futures. Instead of a million possible futures, it’s what are the four possible futures, and what would my plan be in each of them. As it gets clearer, you do those things. Often what I find is there’s similar strategies that exist in each of those scenarios, and you need to start doing that stuff.
Anne: Tell me a little bit about the Future Good Society.
Trista: I have a couple ways for folks to connect. I host these things that are called Field Trips to the Future, where you can see the future in action. There’s a saying the future already exists, but it’s not evenly distributed. I’ve take groups to Sweden to see the future of early childhood education—a beautiful system of supporting families and kids that’s one of the best in the world. So I brought a group of funders and nonprofit leaders and elected officials from the United States to Sweden to see what it looked like in action and envision what would be possible in our local communities. I’ve done a field trip to the future to Brazil to see the future of racial equity, and really think about lessons learned from around the world when it comes to ending disparities across different things. I’ll be hosting one next year to South Africa that is also going to have an equity theme, and I think we’re going to have an environmental piece tied to that. Cape Town almost ran out of water last year. There’s a lot of work happening there to think about how to be more climate resilient that I think will be really useful for funders and nonprofits in the United States. I want to create these spaces and networks where people together can imagine what the future looks like and see examples of that future being successful.
Anne: Wow. You are doing work that is clearly very meaningful to you. It is very meaningful to the world at large. So it’s cool to see. What advice would you give to someone who was trying to find their own place doing meaningful work, living their purpose.
Trista: I think one of the pieces is to imagine the legacy you want to leave behind. Some people do that through brainstorming. There’s an activity I encourage people to think about which is the Lottery Imagination exercise. You shouldn’t play the lottery, it’s a “poor people” tax, but when you see those signs that say $400 million, you start to imagine what your life might look like and how you might feel. It isn’t about all the bucket-list stuff: I’d go here and I’d buy my parents a home, and all that stuff. It’s what do you do two years later and what do you do five years later when money isn’t an issue but you still have time to fill. Once you start to dig deeper in that space of how would you fill your time and how would you live out your purpose if you didn’t have these outside constraints, that can give you a vision of the work you’re doing now. It can give you clarity about what that platform is you’re trying to build. Who are the supporters and people in your network that you would need to make that vision possible? How are you connecting with them? Is it through a blog, a podcast, social media? Where are the places that those people congregate and how can you become visible in those spaces.
Anne: It’s not, as you have so clearly demonstrated, it’s not a matter of the size of your audience. It’s a matter of who’s in them, who you’re reaching. And, in fact, you don’t necessarily need that lottery ticket to start making the human connections that make this all possible.
Trista: I had a funny experience. I was with my son, who is a teenager. We were out getting grilled cheese sandwiches. Somebody walked up to me and said, “Oh, I read your book, it’s so fantastic. I work at this local nonprofit organization. “ She said to my son, “How does it feel to have a mom that’s so famous?”
He was like, “Ah, she is not.” I’m for sure not famous, but in the smallest of small networks, I am very well known. It’s that piece of who are your people. It’s not about your whole world knowing you. For me, it’s people who do good for a living are my core audience, and people that I care deeply about and give good content to and good resources because I want to see them be successful. So they stay connected to me because they want access to those networks and relationships and resources. In building a platform, you can really give back to people you care about because you’re providing them with the resources that are built exactly for them. When people get into that space of “I just want everybody to know who I am and I have two million followers on Twitter” and those sorts of things, I think you’re probably not getting your message across, because everybody isn’t your person. Who are your people?
Anne: That’s the thing people have to keep their eye on, and you demonstrate so beautifully with your story. Thank you for sharing that. I’m going to encourage people to look at your book Future Good, particularly if you’re working in a philanthropic organization or nonprofit. I also encourage people to apply your lesson of looking at the future and let the vision of a strong future pull you forward through generosity. Thank you.
Trista: Thank you, Anne. I’m so glad you’re doing this great work to help people build those platforms. I’m always so surprised when you see social media reality show stars that have this big public relations machine behind them. I’m like, why am I hearing what you’re doing today? That’s not interesting me. I get excited when I find people that are in their sphere of influence and using those same tools, but to make the world a better place. Thank you for helping people do that.