Two Cheers for the Lumina Foundation from NCRP

We're super excited over here at IP about NCRP's new initiative to put top U.S. foundations under the microscope, using their own expertise and crowdsourcing. Whether you’re a funder, a grantseeker, or an ordinary citizen, the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy wants your opinion to make foundations more transparent and in-tune with the needs of their communities.

The initiative is called Philamplify, and it’s definitely worth checking out if you haven’t already.

We recently took a closer look at NCRP’s evaluation of the William Penn Foundation, but there are two other foundations undergoing Philamplify evaluations too. One of these is the Lumina Foundation for Education, a private foundation committed to increasing the proportion of Americans with high-quality degrees, certificates, and other credentials to 60 percent by 2025. Higher education is the sole focus of this Indianapolis-based foundation, which was originally established as the USA Group Foundation with $770 million in assets in 2000. In 2012, Lumina awarded 70 grants totaling over $30 million, and the median grant amount was $435,761.

When NCRP began evaluating Lumina’s grantmaking, it found a highly focused foundation that’s staying on track with savvy policy advocacy and a well-respected staff. However, nobody’s perfect.

According to Victor Kuo, Ph.D., a researcher, evaluator, and educator who has spent over a decade helping foundations measure their impact, Lumina should devote more funding to community organizations to be successful in the next decade. The foundation’s stance on balancing strategic and responsive approaches to philanthropy is described as “unclear,” especially in terms of mobilizing metropolitan areas and the higher education sector to develop quality credentials.

Also, according to a recent survey, about two-thirds of Lumina grantees said that they had not been asked for feedback in at least three years.

These are the six recommendations that Mr. Kuo has for the Lumina Foundation:

  1. Continue strategies and practices the foundation is doing well.
  2. Heed stakeholders’ concerns, retool the foundation’s role, and bolster its funding and capacity to effec­tively support community-based work.
  3. Strengthen strategies that will effectively engage targeted beneficiary populations in achieving goal 2025.
  4. Enlist credible voices to explain to external audiences the foundation’s focus on both equitable access and quality educational outcomes.
  5. Create structured and targeted opportunities for stakeholders’ input to inform strategy adjustments.
  6. Implement effective grantmaking practices such as increasing grants payout to achieve a bold agenda.

But compared to the William Penn Foundation, Lumina received a glowing review. As Kuo wrote, “Recognizing its niche in a broader ecosystem, the foundation has used its singular purpose of college completion and its national presence to influence a postsecondary policy agenda at federal and state lev­els. Supporters and critics alike described the foundation as very effective in advancing policy goals.”

Across the board, the foundation was also praised for its collaborative activities with staff and grantees. However, its relationships with non-grantee nonprofits, businesses, and the media varied a little more.

Without a doubt, Lumina is very analytical and metrics-driven in its approach to philanthropy. It also pays out grants at a higher rate than many other funders, taking the recession into account and working to ensure that grantees’ missions are given a fighting chance. Regardless, NCRP recommends that Lumina significantly increase grant payout dollars by at least 6 percent to achieve its highly ambitious education goals by 2025.

If Lumina heeds the advice of its grantees, stakeholders, and NCRP, the foundation will start paying more attention to grassroots organizations and prioritize deep site engagement over breadth. But without a willingness to engage in open communication and knowledge sharing, that 2025 goal may be overambitious.

To learn more about the Lumina's grantmaking, check out the foundation's Grants Page and the FAQ Page. Keep in mind that this funder does accept a limited number of unsolicited inquiries through the end of September.