In 2008, I was running the Headwaters Foundation for Justice when the stock market crashed. Our strategic plan, which was based on how the Foundation had operated in the past, became irrelevant in the wake of the recession. I realized that many of the nonprofit leadership tools I had learned in graduate school were not useful in times of societal upheaval.
In researching alternative organizing strategies, I learned about the value of nonprofits pooling resources, rather than competing. This way of thinking considered current conditions and developed a clear vision for the future.
I began to wonder how imagining the future could lead to better decision- making in the present. That is when I found the field of futurism.
Futurism helps you understand what might come next. It helped me to see our way forward. Since then I have been talking to experts in fields like human genome mapping, disaster-first response, artificial intelligence, virtual reality, and asteroid mining. I’ve studied at Singularity University, The Institute for the Future, and Oxford University to better understand the tools of futurism.
I believe organizations need to have a clear vision of the world they are working to create. I also believe women who want to effect change need to have a clear vision of their future impact.
What would the world look like if you were fully successful? Look at all of your current activities. Figure out which ones are leading towards your ideal future, and which ones are not. Adjust your activities accordingly.
When I was doing a Bush Fellowship, I had three goals:
The third goal was the hardest, because I didn’t have a set of practices that I was using to take care of myself. I developed the FutureGood Women’s Mastermind Retreats business, because it is what I personally needed — a space to take care of myself, and a caring network of support to hold me accountable for continuing those processes daily.
About Non-Linear Thinking
We spend too much time in the linear world with rationality, logic, and analytical thinking. We need more time to think creatively about solutions and use a different part of our brain. We need to use more of our imagination. Instead of thinking, for example, about how to increase participation in an after-school program by five percent each year, you could imagine what the world would look like if you didn’t need academic programs after school because kids were getting everything they needed during the school day. Then your strategy might be to increase funding for schools.
Non-linear and future-oriented solutions get you to a completely different location. When women give themselves the time and space to care for themselves and imagine their future, amazing things happen.
There are many things about the present that are absolutely terrible. Where I find my hope is in imagining what is possible. The future doesn’t just happen. We create it through the decisions that we make today.
Trista Harris is a philanthropic futurist and is nationally known as a passionate advocate for leaders in the philanthropic and nonprofit sectors. She is the author of “How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar” and “FutureGood: How to Use Futurism to Save the World” (Wise Ink Creative Publishing). She is President of FutureGood, a consultancy focused on helping visionaries build a better future.
I attended a youth organizing training with the Children’s Defense Fund. Some of the participants were young people who had aged out of the foster care system and were learning about organizing so they could reform the system. The trainer, Pakou Hang, told the group that during the next break they were going to practice the messaging and influencing skills they had just learned by calling their elected officials about healthcare reform.
One of the young women raised her hand and said, “I recently turned eighteen and have aged out of the foster care system that raised me. I have appreciated this training and have learned so many things that will help me change this broken system when I get home. During the break I will also make phone calls, but I will talk with my elected official about why the foster-care system needs to be reformed.”
I got a little teary-eyed when I heard the young woman speak and felt so proud that, even at such a young age, she would use her experience to make the system better for the kids behind her.
Suddenly, I was pulled out of my feelings when I heard the trainer say, a little harshly, “No, you are not. You are going to make the call about healthcare reform.”
I was shocked. Why would she tell this earnest young woman that she shouldn’t advocate to fix the system that had such a looming presence in her life?
Hang continued: “This is a time when healthcare reform is possible if we all push together and hold our elected officials accountable. If we all leave and do our own thing, nothing will change because there won’t be enough momentum. We have to work together to make this happen, and when it is time for foster care reform, we will line up together behind you to make that happen.”
In that moment, I realized that the way that we were funding community organizing at most foundations, was completely wrong. We were funding organizations that were working on important issues, but each of them was going their own way to solve that issue. There wasn’t any larger momentum being developed, and as funders, we were encouraging a fracturing of movements.
As a result of this new thinking, just as things were at their darkest, something amazing happened. After we talked to the nonprofits we supported about aligning, they started working together differently. They saw each other as critical allies rather than competition for scarce resources.
We adjusted our fundraising strategy to begin doing more grantmaking and program management for larger foundations that were interested in funding organizing groups, and extended our vision of who could be a donor to include young people and people of color.
As a result of all of these changes, we were able to get more grant dollars to community-led groups, and the groups were able to more successfully utilize those resources by working collaboratively.