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Minnesotan "philanthropic futurist" sees social media and race changing the scope of charitable giving

ST. PAUL -- Trista Harris is a "philanthropic futurist." The 38-year-old president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations was included in The Chronicle of Philanthropy's inaugural list published Jan. 5 of "40 Under 40."In the words of the nation...

ST. PAUL -- Trista Harris is a “philanthropic futurist.” The 38-year-old president of the Minnesota Council on Foundations was included in The Chronicle of Philanthropy’s inaugural list published Jan. 5 of “40 Under 40.”
In the words of the national publication, they are “trailblazers crafting innovative new approaches to entrenched problems.”
A graduate of South High School in Minneapolis, Harris attended the historically black Howard University in Washington, D.C., and earned a masters from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. She’s worked at various nonprofit organizations and foundations and currently oversees the Minnesota Council on Foundations, whose members give out about
$1 billion annually, three quarters of those grants given in Minnesota.
In an recent interview, she spoke about efforts to promote racial equity in philanthropy and her predictions for 2016.

When did you become interested in working in the nonprofit sector?
Since I was 8 years old. When other kids were drawing pictures of their Barbie Dream House, I was drawing my dream community center. I grew up in South Minneapolis, and I spent a lot of time at Pillsbury House. There used to be a theater company called Teatro Latino de Minnesota, and my mom had friends who were running it. She volunteered as a costume designer. All their practices and shows were at Pillsbury House and I had a lot of time to wander around. It was a wonderful place, with childcare, a food shelf, other services and a strong arts program. It built community in so many ways.

You recently received a Bush Fellowship to think about how the study of trends and “futurism” can inform philanthropy. Why is this a focus for you?
I think we’ve gotten into this place whatever we think whatever happens to us, just happens. There seems to be this idea of the future as being a dystopian, “Hunger Games” thing, so let’s just hunker down. Or we look longingly at the past. The future used to be something we were excited about. I want us to move back to that place where we can imagine what a better future would look like for our community. The future isn’t something that happens to you. It’s something you create by the decisions you make.
One of the frustrations I have when it comes to futurism is it can turn into “what color the new Nikes should be?” But I think if we understand trends, we can learn things that are helpful for foundations and nonprofits in solving social problems.

What are your predictions for philanthropy in 2016?
We can see signals of the future in the way people are giving money, like Mark Zuckerberg’s decision to give in the form of an LCC (limited liability company) instead of through a traditional foundation. I think we will see more of that. We’re also seeing examples of people giving directly through their cell phones, individuals texting money to someone in a third world country. Those are both hints of the way giving is changing.
As technology gets faster and cheaper, information is also becoming more available to the public. Social media is giving the broad community almost the same reach as trusted news organizations. We have seen this with Arab Spring and now Black Lives Matter and I think we’ll see more of it. It means people’s voices can be heard that weren’t heard a generation ago.

In a blog post you predict that conversations on racial equity in philanthropy will reach a “tipping point” in 2016. What do you mean?
Whether we’re looking at education or criminal justice or housing or health, we have huge racial disparities in Minnesota. And, it’s only in the last couple of years that there has been a really dedicated conversation outside of communities of color about these racial disparities. I think we’ll see continued focus in foundations and nonprofits on achieving racial equity, both in hiring and in their grants.

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Why is it important for foundations to hire more people of color?
I think you need a diversity of perspectives to make good decisions. You need to have people at the table who don’t just understand these gaps theoretically but live them every day. One of the things I’ve heard from foundations’ staff of color in last couple months is that the conversations around Black Lives Matter for them aren’t hypothetical. That’s not always the case with their white colleagues. Foundation staff of color have moved into positions of privilege and are more financially stable than they may have been in the past, but that isn’t necessarily the case with their family members. So, they’re living closer to poverty. They’re seeing it in their personal lives and it brings a different urgency and perspective to their work. I think urgency is important when it come to grant making.

You’ve tried to diversify philanthropy through a professional development program called the Ron McKinley Philanthropy Fellowship. How does it work?
There hasn’t been a strong pipeline of people of color moving into positions at foundations. These fellowships are intended to give people of color experience working in a foundation for three years. The Bush Foundation started it in 2013 and I talked to Bush about moving it here to the Minnesota Council of Foundations so it could expand.
It’s for people of color who don’t have philanthropy experience. Most people have 5 to 10 years experience in another career and want to make this pivot into philanthropy. We talk to foundations throughout the state to figure out who has capacity to bring on a fellow and pay for a position. This year, we had more than 100 applicants for eight spaces at seven foundations. We interview and play matchmaker, and once fellows are placed, we provide training.
One thing we talk about is the change in the power dynamic. In philanthropy, there’s a saying that once you get a job at a foundation, you’ve had the last lunch you’ve had to pay for, and your last real conversation. For people of color, who have often been marginalized, suddenly being on an undeserved pedestal can be really disconcerting. You’re suddenly like, wait a second, why are people listening to what I have to say? It’s because you now have access to resources, access to the money.
Some will stay in philanthropy. Or they might go on into the nonprofit sector and have a better understanding of how money flows to nonprofits. What excites me is that these fellowships are changing the face of who is making decisions at foundations. One of our fellows was in the position for four months and then hired by the Minneapolis Foundation. They were interviewing for the open position and through the process they realized she was a better fit than anyone else they were looking at.

Other predictions for 2016?
I think we’re going to continue to see more socially responsible businesses and B Corps. Locally, Finnegans beer is a great signal of the future. They’re a company, but their profits are going to food insecurity issues. Twenty years ago, would there have been a beer company sitting around the table with nonprofits?

Are you seeing trends in what kinds of nonprofits are receiving grant money?
There are usually two opposite trends happening at the same time. So one trend we’ve seen is more support going to big organizations. The Chronicle of Philanthropy released its list of the largest 400 nonprofits and some of the biggest have grown really, really big in the last 10 years.
Then there is this opposite trend of very tiny organizations, with budgets even under $10,000. I’d call them passion projects created by people interested in addressing a particular problem. These very small organizations have an authenticity and connectedness, and when foundations can find ways to support them, it’s a great thing. The Saint Paul Schools Foundation, for example, is a bigger organization providing support throughout St. Paul Public Schools. It receives large outside grants and then spreads the money around. One of their partners is New Lens Urban Mentoring, which is a very small program that supports mentors for African American young men to increase graduation rates.
For more online, go to: https://philanthropy.com/interactives/fortyunder40 .

The Pioneer Press is a media partner with Forum News Service.

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