Effective entrepreneurs must know how to build a team, delegate and take a step back when necessary.
Tara DePorte founded the Human Impacts Institute in 2010, recognizing a need for creative approaches to sustainability and global coalition building. Before starting the Human Impacts Institute, Tara worked for nine years as Director of Environmental Education and as Program Director for a NYC community-based organization, developing opportunities for inner-city youth to learn about, and develop responsibility for, their local environment. She has also served as a global representative of The Climate Reality Project since 2006, presenting to thousands of people worldwide about climate change.
With a BA in Human Impacts on Ecosystems from the University of Virginia and a MA in Climate and Society from Columbia University, Tara’s formal education has focused on issues of sustainable development, society, and the environment. Professionally, her international experience includes work throughout Latin America, the Caribbean and Europe, working with colleagues throughout the world on creative community development, environmental education, social justice, policy and networking.
Tara is also an adjunct professor at Webster University in the Netherlands and has developed and led courses in Environmental Studies, Policy, Sustainable Development and Visual Arts at the New School, Syracuse University, and Columbia University.
As a visual artist, Tara has exhibited and performed her work in galleries and museums in six countries. Her personal website is TaraDeporte.com
Where did the idea for Humans Impact Institute come from?
I have always been an environmentalist and artist and have built my career around communicating and engaging communities in environmental issues. I also have a unique background in both the policy and science of environmental issues, as well as the visual arts, and have also developed and led educational programming for nearly 20 years.
Through my diverse experience in the environmental space, I started to see a disconnect between those who care and the countless solutions that exist in our communities—from grassroots efforts and activism to large-scale policy and tech-centered actions. This is particularly true with the climate crisis: Most of us care deeply and there are countless ways to engage effectively, but we aren’t even close to addressing the problem(s). In addition to this, I was seeing a lot of burnout in the environmental and social justice space—affecting those who are most engaged on these issues. And when we are dealing with a crisis, we need “all hands on deck” and also need to support those who are on the frontlines and doing the hard work more. So, I started to see the climate crisis as a communications and community-building issue: we need to understand how we can make a difference and be inspire to be a part of a greater community who are doing it too.
This is where the Human Impacts Institute was born—out of the goal to inspire us to do more, better. We use arts and culture (the things that inspire us the most!) to build diverse communities and connect you to environmental action. This means bringing together policymakers with performance artists and designers with green energy specialists. It also means experimenting with new ways to connect people to ways to give more and to have greater impact—no matter what their experience-level.
What does your typical day look like and how do you make it productive?
I don’t think any social entrepreneurs have a ‘typical day’. Some days I’m on the computer, answering emails, writing proposals, coordinating with my team, but other days I could be leading a workshop for middle school students or speaking at the UN or event curating events, like our recent Climate’s A Drag where we challenged NYC drag queens to communicate climate change.
As far as productivity goes, there are many ways to be productive. As an organization, productivity comes from building and investing in our community and growing strategic partnerships. I’ve found that a lot of our growth as an organization has come from creating opportunities to highlight the great work of other groups (often specialists) to new audiences. We have been very lucky in the last year to get two new spaces—one at the second largest library in Brooklyn and also a house on Governors Island. We are using these spaces to really experiment with the idea of building community through residencies, leadership workshops, and sharing space with like-minded, fabulous groups. In this way, we are not only amplifying the work of great initiatives, but we are also curating really diverse opportunities for action for our public, without having to become specialists in everything climate.
As an individual, I’m very fortunate that I have an amazing team (of mostly volunteers) who are passionate and creative. I’ve found that productivity as a manager comes with being able to communicate clearly with our team and to also be able to let go—which means practicing delegation and letting others take the lead on projects. This also makes our organization stronger in that we end up having much more diverse approaches to our work, rather than having me at the center of all of our organizational programming. Each volunteer and staff member brings their own, unique story to the table and really seeing that as an important asset to the work we do has been one of the most important things I’ve learned. All that being said, sometimes personal productivity can also take the shape of taking a day to myself, turning off the phone, and just hunkering down and getting my to do list done.
How do you bring ideas to life?
I often say that I’ve always been good at getting people to play with me. I see the world in terms of connections—how one group could really help another, how a certain resource could be used for something else, how one person’s strengths can amplify another’s and so on.
It all comes back to communication and connections, both of which can help bring your ideas to life. We’re strong as individuals, but nothing beats the power of collaboration.
When approaching new partners, I think it’s important to pay attention to your audience and to always have a ‘give’ to contribute to their work. For a larger government organization, show a track record of how you’ve tackled projects—big and small—to demonstrate what you’re capable of and give yourself some leverage. In addition to this, you also need to show what value added your partnership has for them. If you’re approaching a community partner, it’s a different audience, so you need a different method. In this instance, I think it’s most important to show that you’re listening. You want to hear from them. Then you need to be sure to communicate clearly what you have to offer. No matter who you are talking with, it’s important to know who you are talking with, where they might be coming from, and to educate yourself as much as possible about their work, community, and the ways you think that you might connect. As one of my mentors astutely pointed out, “You don’t show up to a job interview and say, ‘tell me about the place’. You do your homework.”
In essence, you have to listen, listen, listen and then follow up with creative thinking and a practical plan of how to get there.
What’s one trend that excites you?
I am very excited to see how the climate crisis is finally getting broad-scale media attention and is becoming a more inclusive, diverse community. We are no longer a small group of specialists talking about it. That ‘s really exciting to see.
That being said, I am also concerned with a lot of the messaging around climate. We are currently walking this fine line between needing to wake us all up to dire emergency we are facing, while also not scaring people so much that they feel like there’s nothing to be done. If we are paralyzed by the scope and scale of the climate crisis, then how do we take the action we need? Even for me—someone who has a strong background in climate science and policy, as well as activism— it’s terrifying and I often don’t want to read the latest study or news article. It also doesn’t compute if we say ‘human civilization is threatened and we have to act now, so change a lightbulb.’ It also isn’t helpful for many to simply say ‘we need to change all of our social and economic systems’. Even if these are true statements, we need to both activate on a massive scale and break down actions so that they are personal and impactful for each of us. And this doesn’t mean just placing the burden on individuals, but also emphasizing larger-scale movements and how we can push for reform in industry and politically.
Our communication is at odds with the result we want to achieve and that’s what the Human Impacts Institute seeks to change: we are shifting the narrative to getting people excited about what we can do and how we can do it, not just talking about the problem.
What is one habit of yours that makes you more productive as an entrepreneur?
Learning how to say ‘no’. I think saying ‘no’ is really hard for entrepreneurs, and it’s particularly difficult for social entrepreneurs who thrive on collaboration, connection and working with others.
My job is really never done. I could work twenty-four hours a day and there’s no finish line. Learning how to say ‘no’ sets myself, my team and our audience up for wins, and keeps us motivated and feeling accomplished. As an entrepreneur you need to strategize and plan how to stay motivated and effective, and part of that is setting boundaries and compartmentalizing tasks to establish goals. By the way, I’m still practicing!
What advice would you give your younger self?
This is an interesting question because the advice I’d give my younger self is actually advice that I did take and would re-take and encourage others to do the same.
I’ve worked with a lot of specialists over the years, many of whom said you have to pick what you want to focus on, and that’s a very valuable piece of advice to ponder. Not everyone can be a generalist—we need experts. That said, there is an increasing need for people who can navigate between specialties and expertise and connect different communities. And I think it’s important to know how to do that effectively. Having an in-depth understand or specialty is incredible useful, but to get the point across and engage with others outside your scope of focus, you also need to have a generalist understanding of what’s going on around you.
Tell us something that’s true that almost nobody agrees with you on.
This is more so a fact that a lot of people aren’t aware of, rather than one they don’t agree on.
There’s historically an idea that certain communities are our most vulnerable communities, often referred to as ‘frontline communities’, and that they need to be helped with resources and services. This may be true, but simultaneously we need to acknowledge and amplify the wealth of knowledge, expertise and solutions that these communities hold.
Lower income communities and POC communities, for example, are highlighted as feeling the impact of the climate crisis very heavily, but they’re seldom acknowledged as solutions experts and leaders. They know their communities more than anyone and they’ve dealt with these issues more than anyone, while also facing grave impacts.
We need to check ourselves and realize that there’s a lot of listening we need to do. Communities that don’t have the same resources or as many resources as others are figuring out how to address problem with less. They are the true holders of solutions and are leaders in showing the rest of us how we can adapt to the consequences of the climate crisis. Moving forward we need to learn to listen and learn, but also be mindful not burden these communities with the task of teaching us. Like I said before, it’s up to those with more to do their ‘homework’ and then listen, learn, and support, when wanted.
As an entrepreneur, what is the one thing you do over and over and recommend everyone else do?
I think you need to make sure that you check in with yourself about work-life balance. Like I said before, as an entrepreneur, whatever you created is one of your babies and the work doesn’t end. If you stop then other things stop—there’s a lot riding on you.
To help ease the pressure, I think you need to be able to step away. Gather perspective on your work and what you’re doing, and take breaks so that you can be in it for the long haul. Burnout is a very real thing, but it’s also preventable by making sure you maintain a sense of curiosity and room for growth and thinking. We have to acknowledge that this is part of the work—it’s not being selfish or lazy—it’s being strategic and smart.
What is one strategy that has helped you grow your business?
Not being afraid to ask. I think a lot of people assume a ‘no’ answer for big partnerships and ideas, but I’ve gone to a lot of big organizations with barters and suggestions for collaborations, and they’ve said yes.
It’s not about coming to the table with nothing to offer, though. You need to have a point of view and you need to show that you have something that they want, need or could make use of, such as your network, expertise, team or knowledge. You always have something to offer.
One caveat here: you need to know when you’re ready to ask. Timing is everything, so make it work to your advantage when possible. Some doors only open once, so waiting for the right moment to approach a partner or funder can really make a difference.
What is one failure you had as an entrepreneur, and how did you overcome it?
There are a lot of failures. Fundraising in particular is tough. I’ve had a million ‘no’s’ when it comes to fundraising.
However, I think it’s important to be strategic when it comes to ROI and recognizing the gravity and scope of your failures, as some while be bigger/smaller than others. Grants, for instance, have a low ROI. Now I’m not saying they’re unimportant at they are truly necessary in nonprofits, but they don’t have the same impact that other initiatives do.
In light of this, over the past few years I’ve asked my team, board members and advisors to think more strategically about fundraising and our targets so that we can get what we need now and grow how we want to grow in the future, without relying solely on grants.
This has encouraged us to become pretty creative and proves to be an exciting challenge. It’s very easy to get stuck in the nonprofit box, but there are many ways a nonprofit can exist outside of the typical norms. When we started to think creatively about the Human Impacts Institute as a business, not just a nonprofit, we were able to make forward-looking changes to our strategy and operations. It’s definitely a work in progress.
What is one business idea that you’re willing to give away to our readers?
I think we really need people to start coming up with innovative businesses—nonprofit, B Corp and for profit—that transform how we think about the nonprofit sector. There are misconceptions about nonprofits, like you can’t make money or have money, or that the funds you’re raising are going to a nebulous cause. The fact of the matter is that trying to get someone to donate $50 to make the world a better place is more difficult than getting someone to buy a $50 dinner. The amount of proving that nonprofits have to do is a lot, especially compared to the for-profit sector. I think we need people to get more creative about how we can make nonprofits work, what philanthropy looks like, and to communicate that to those outside the nonprofit world.
What is the best $100 you recently spent? What and why?
I just got back from vacation and something I did to break up a long drive for my 2-year-old was find and rent a cabin in the middle of the Pennsylvania forest for my toddler, friend and I to stay in. It was magical.
The people who built it paid so much care and attention to details to make it a special haven. It felt like a nice retreat, and was a great way to connect to nature and other cultures. It reinforced my thinking that magical spaces have the ability to transform the world and get us to think magically, and that’s how we think at the Human Impacts Institute. If people come into a creative space, then creative things can happen a lot more easily.
What is one piece of software or a web service that helps you be productive?
Google for Nonprofits (GFN). We have a GFN grant and it saves so much time with mail hosting, organizing and connecting with our crew.
Another good one is Catchafire, which connects nonprofits with skilled volunteers. It’s helped us build the infrastructure of our organization astronomically and get access to people that we could never afford as an organization. We’ve been lucky enough to receive a grant for Catchafire as well as pay for it ourselves in the past.
What is the one book that you recommend our community should read and why?
One book I’m excited to read that was recommended to me by a funder is The Art of Gathering by Priya Parker.
• Effective entrepreneurs must know how to build a team, delegate and take a step back when necessary.
• Listening to others and seeing value in the experiences of other communities is the best way to learn and move forward.
• Communication can move a mountain in either direction. Make it a tool that helps inform and connect rather than project and paralyze.
• Always ask for what you want or need, and never assume that the answer is “no.”