The Leadership Model of Philanthropy
Focus, flexibility, and fortitude—the three pillars of philanthropic organizations looking to create systemic change.
As our global society grows more complex and the need for greater economic and social opportunity more pronounced, the role of philanthropy becomes ever more important—and more nuanced. The days are long past when the field of philanthropy could pin its hopes solely on grant making, and other means of providing direct service or support to those in need.
Don’t misunderstand; it’s not that charity doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary: Without it, true opportunity is unattainable. Charity has always mattered, and it still matters a great deal. But it’s not enough, and it’s not philanthropy.
At its core, charity is about meeting urgent needs. Philanthropy is about change. Philanthropy is focused not on symptoms, but root causes. It’s systemic, not episodic; it’s proactive, not reactive. It seeks to permanently alter the conditions that make assistance necessary. And to effect significant and lasting change, a philanthropic organization must be a leadership organization. It must set an agenda for change, and then work purposefully and consistently to produce results.
While our organization, Lumina Foundation, is young (established in 2000), we’ve come to recognize that our “brand” of philanthropy—a leadership model of philanthropy—might serve as a model for other foundations.
For us, this model is characterized by three main attributes: focus, flexibility, and fortitude. We believe that by consciously exemplifying each of these attributes, any philanthropic organization can assume a leadership role in addressing its area of public concern.
The commitment to a time-limited, quantitative goal is the first step in transitioning from a good grant-making organization to a true leadership organization. Establishing a single, ambitious goal that drives all of an organization’s work compels transparency, emphasizes scale, mandates measurement, and encourages constant refinement and reassessment—all of which lead to systemic change.
We first announced our goal—what we call Goal 2025—in 2008: for 60 percent of Americans to hold high-quality degrees, certificates, or other postsecondary credentials by 2025. We commenced the publication of an annual report analyzing national-, state-, and county-level higher education attainment data, and so far, more than half of all states have committed to increasing postsecondary attainment. Many higher education institutions are working to increase their completion rates to meet attainment expectations expressed in Goal 2025, and President Obama has expressed support for a national goal that echoes Lumina’s.
In the coming years, we will have access to more comprehensive and detailed data that will tell us more about our nation’s progress toward the goal. In the meantime, the fact that national attainment rates are accelerating encourages us to stay the course and keep pressing our approach.
Of course, an organization can have a crystalline goal and a staff set on accomplishing it, but if it can’t honestly evaluate its progress and change course when necessary, it can’t play a leadership role. A willingness to change and course-correct without abandoning the ultimate aim is the second important attribute: flexibility.
At Lumina, flexibility has allowed us to transcend the traditional foundation role and become a thought leader. Our staff embodies many decades of combined experience in the higher education and public policy arenas, and we use that expertise to articulate our goals and draw attention to challenges facing American higher education. For example, as CEO, I work to share Lumina’s message publicly—through speeches and writing, by providing Congressional testimony, and by making myself available to the news media.
This means we can drive innovation on many levels; we can influence how higher education is structured (from an institution-centered, time-based system of measuring progress, to a student-centered, competency-based model), promote greater productivity in state higher education through outcomes-based funding, and push for rigorous and measurable learning outcomes tied to what a degree actually should mean via tools like the Degree Qualification Profile. Lumina is also supporting entirely new models of student finance, rethinking the business model of college to focus on accelerated degree programs and competency-based institutions.
Another type of flexibility that is vital to every leadership organization is healthy self-awareness: the ability to recognize situations where others should lead and we should follow. The ability to discern one’s strengths and weaknesses also demonstrates fortitude—the other main attribute of the leadership model of philanthropy and perhaps the most important attribute.
Fortitude, or courage, is a must, because any effort to make meaningful social change is notoriously difficult and inherently risky—and some aspects are too risky for anyone but foundations. Unlike government officials, foundation leaders don’t face re-election. Unlike traditional business entities, foundations aren’t beholden to stockholders. The only bottom line we have is to ensure social progress—a daunting charge that requires strong leadership.
This sometimes means taking on policy discussions at the state and federal levels, stepping into the public square and advocating strongly for public policies that will benefit society. Foundation leaders need the courage to be strong policy advocates, because advocacy is our obligation as an agent of the public trust.
We’re convinced that the leadership model of philanthropy is helping us make the most of that responsibility and hope that it might inspire others to do the same.