"Do the Right Thing." Why This Top Higher Ed Funder Is Getting Behind Racial Justice Work

photo:  Helioscribe/shutterstock

photo:  Helioscribe/shutterstock

In a departure from its usual focus on degree attainment, the Lumina Foundation recently pledged $2.5 million to support racial justice work on college campuses. Also of note, the grants, which required a special budget allocation from the foundation’s board, look to be the first of a new area of focus for Lumina—which has a $1 billion endowment—and not a one-off donation.

The grants come as the visibility of white nationalists increases, made evident by incidents like the Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, Va., last summer.

Related: The Dark Side of Philanthropy: A Look at Tax-Exempt Donations to White Supremacists

“After the racist chaos of Charlottesville earlier this year, many leaders said something needed to change, that we needed to go beyond words to action. I was one of those people, pointing out that we can and must do more,” said Jamie Merisotis, Lumina’s president and CEO, in a recent blog post.

The $2.5 million gift will be divided among several organizations. The bulk, $1 million, will go toward a national study on racial climate on campuses, in partnership with Rockefeller Philanthropy Advisors. Leadership grants capped at $100,000 will go to higher education institutions that have made significant efforts to improve educational equity and provide anti-racism education on campus. Smaller grants are available for schools that want to improve or expand programs that promote racial justice.

To get more philanthropies working on racial justice, Lumina is granting the Council on FoundationsGrantmakers for Education, and Independent Sector $100,000 each to host webinars, trainings and convenings.

Lumina hopes that its decision to support racial justice work on campuses will spur action by other funders. 

“The fact is, this call to action is true not only for Lumina but for every philanthropic organization seeking to drive social change,” Merisotis said. “We know the challenge isn’t just to do the right thing—it’s also to bring others along.”

“Ensuring fair and equitable results in a country sullied by an enduring legacy of systemic racism and oppression is not just a part of our collective work in philanthropy. It is the work,” he said.

That said, these grants represent a departure from Lumina’s usual work. The foundation centers most of its funding around its Goal 2025 program, which aims to increase the number of Americans with high-quality degrees or credentials to 60 percent by 2025. A big part of that is competency learning, which shifts the focus from credits to mastery of specific skills. Equal access to education is another big part of the philosophy behind Lumina’s giving, which comes into play with the foundation’s push for equitable education outcomes for African Americans, Hispanics and American Indians.


Merisotis sees the direct confrontation of racism on campus as in line with Lumina’s long-term push for equitable education outcomes, but admits it differs from the foundation’s typical approach. To advance the Lumina’s long-term goal to increase the number of Americans with post-secondary school degrees, “we must join others in doing more at this pivotal moment,” he said.

Lumina is not the only funder to be spurred to action by the events in Charlottesville. James Murdoch, son of media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, and his wife, Kathryn, donated $1 million to the Anti-Defamation League, following the rally and President Trump’s reticence to rebuke the white nationalists involved. Several other anti-racism donations were made around the same time, including from corporations. 

One effect of the Trump presidency so far, along with the civil turbulence it's helped generate, has been to spur changes in grantmaking by any number of foundations and major donors. In that sense, Lumina's new initiative isn't so surprising—even if it doesn't track with its past work.  

Merisotis hopes that the speed of Lumina’s response will inspire other funders to act with similar urgency to address racism. “Foundations such as Lumina typically aren’t the first responders to crises, but in this historic climate, we believe the time to act is now,” he said.

As we've been reporting, other funders have already moved to address racism, including through new rapid-response funds created since the 2016 election. But there's plenty of room for more foundations in this space, especially bigger mainstream players like Lumina.