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Becoming a Philanthropic Futurist: A Q&A with Trista Harris

Publication date: 
Tuesday, September 3, 2019

In preparation for our upcoming annual conference, Christine Essel, President & CEO of SCG, spoke with Trista Harris, our keynote plenary speaker and philanthropic futurist who inspired our conference theme, Foresight Philanthropy. Chris and Trista discussed everything from what a philanthropy futurist looks like to what trends should be on philanthropists’ horizons. Read the full interview below and join the SCG community for a day designed to help you become a future-focused grantmaker.


Q: Hello Trista, thank you for joining us today. Let’s start at the very beginning. For grantmakers who aren’t familiar with futurism, could you tell us what you mean by having a future-focused lens in philanthropy?

We’ve gotten to this place in society where we act like the future is something that happens to us, rather than something that we actively create with the decision we make every day. I believe one of the reasons this happens is because we have lost the future lens we carried as children. When you are young, you spend a lot of time imagining what is possible for yourself, for the things you care about, for those around you. Being future-focused means just that: not being afraid to dream big and envision all the possibilities for yourself, your organization, and your community. 


Q: Where do you see the philanthropic sector today?

Philanthropy continues to be slow to change and is still reliant on yesterday’s data to make decisions about our future work. While philanthropy will always exist, the real question is whether it will remain relevant. We’re already seeing it become irrelevant in some modern-day movements. Take students who are organizing for gun reform who have largely not pursued support from traditional philanthropy because it doesn’t engage in their timelines. Our collective pace of life is accelerating every day; if we don’t begin looking forward intentionality, we will never meet the needs of the future. 


Q: How can the sector become more future-focused?

If philanthropy is to remain relevant, it will need to predict the needs of our communities and have the courage to imagine the best possible future for ourselves and our world. We need to shift away from the mindset that the future is something that happens to us, and reclaim the reality that we can shape what happens to us. Imagine what a clear point of success can look like and begin to work backward from those goals.


Q: Which trends in philanthropy should funders be paying attention to?

In our cross-sector work, there are a plethora of trends that we can gain insight from and will explore at Foresight Philanthropy. Until then, here are some key trends I believe to be significant in 2019:

  • Investing in Equitable Technology: This is a key role for funders. Tech developers are eager to implement but don’t generally consider incorporating equity into their initiatives. Philanthropy needs to collaborate with the tech industry to position equity front and center, even if it feels outside their comfort zone.
  • Cities as a Unit of Change: As the need to create more connected cities designed around people’s well-being increases, foundations need to learn how to influence city-scale development projects. By harnessing the power of collective impact tables, more flexible resources are available for authentic community input, global idea exchanges, and the engagement citizen-focused design experts.
  • Board Demographics Shift: Because of increased transparency and better cultural competency, foundation and nonprofit boards need to prioritize shifting their board demographics to reflect the populations that they serve. As a result of these shifts in representation, there will be lasting impacts on foundation strategy and selection of more CEOs of color in the future by these boards. 


Q: What’s the first step of becoming a philanthropy futurist?

Attend Foresight Philanthropy! This is where we can collectively take our first steps to become more future-focused funders. Aside from that, I would recommend that everyone spend some time learning about other worlds in order to imagine dramatically different futures. Would looking at the early childhood system in Sweden give you lessons in St. Louis? Would looking at how birds migrate give you ideas on how to manage traffic on highways? I would also encourage you to make time for the future in the present. Set aside 5% of your time to think about your organization or the issues you care about 5-50 years in the future. What is just beyond the horizon that you need to pay attention to? What steps can you take today to build that equitable tomorrow?


We hope that you’ll join us at our 2019 Annual Conference on Monday, September 9th. If you haven’t registered yet, do so now and start building your conference schedule via our Foresight Philanthropy app!



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