In 1960, USA Funds was founded in Indianapolis as a nonprofit student loan guarantor. Later renamed USA Group, its business flourished until it became the nation’s largest such enterprise. It set up its own foundation in 1997 to conduct research and engage in philanthropy, and then in 2000 it sold most of its assets to another education loan provider for $770 million in cash and stock and became a private foundation, now known as Lumina Foundation for Education.
What did not change was its historic mission-helping Americans go to college. The foundation’s president and CEO Martha Lamkin was a long-time USA Group executive and former president of the Cummins Engine Company Foundation. Lumina Foundation “strives to help people achieve their potential by expanding access and success in education beyond high school,” she says. To reach this goal, the foundation uses “research, grants for innovative programs, and communication initiatives,” with a special focus on “underserved student groups” such as adult learners and minority students.
“Many foundations are shifting funding away from higher education,” Lamkin notes, leaving Lumina proud to be “the only national foundation focused solely on student access and success in higher education.” She credits federal and state governments, business, and philanthropies for “having significantly improved access to higher education,” but success is another story: “Completion rates are still disappointingly low.”
The foundation sets aside a portion of each year’s grant budget for special projects in its home state of Indiana, but “because our endowment was generated nationally, the founders wanted to maintain a national focus,” Lamkin says. That does not mean Lumina Foundation’s focus is fuzzy around the edges. Asked to name the foundation’s greatest challenge, Lamkin replies that it involves “maintaining clear focus” on the issues of college access and success and avoiding the temptation “to define education with a broader stroke to include such important areas as K-12, pre-school preparation, or even pre-natal care.”
Another challenge she sees is the perennial difficulty of achieving real change in the field where the foundation works. “It’s hard to define a strategy that is most likely to succeed in improving postsecondary education, a sector of society that is so decentralized, independent, and heavily influenced by a variety of public policy decisions at federal and 50 state levels.”
Concern for actual results drives the foundation’s emphasis on effective evaluation. Lamkin admits their evaluation work “can be time-consuming and expensive,” but she sees evaluation as “a critical point of quality assurance that increases our ability to improve future grantmaking. We can’t afford not to evaluate and learn the lessons it can teach us about what to continue and what to improve.”
Beyond internal evaluation, the foundation also stresses public research. Consulting opinion leaders in higher education at the foundation’s founding, Lamkin heard “a common mantra: Quality research can be a foundation’s most lasting contribution. We listened and established an active emphasis on research, both internally and externally, to help us ground our work in data and continue our learning through the evaluation of our grantees and ourselves.”
Similarly, the foundation has an active publication program. “Our focus on research dovetails with our emphasis on publications,” Lamkin explains. “Research and a healthy publication strategy are important to our mission because they help define issues and share knowledge with a wide range of constituents.” She sees education leaders, public officials, and families as all “in need of better information on which to base decisions”; the foundation’s publications are available online, free to anyone (www.luminafoundation.org).
Some of Lamkin’s favorite programs include “our work with organizations like the Posse Foundation, which assists needy students at a one-on-one level and helps inner-city youth succeed at top-tier universities,” and the foundation’s partnership with the National Survey of Student Engagement. She is joined in her work by the foundation’s chairman of the board, John Mutz, whose wide-ranging résumé includes serving as president of the Lilly Endowment, lieutenant governor of Indiana, and head of Indiana’s largest electric utility company. In 2002, he spoke on the character of board leadership at The Philanthropy Roundtable’s annual meeting.
Addressing her peers, Lamkin urges philanthropists to make it their highest priority to “choose a focused mission, avoid mission creep, and develop the most effective strategy to achieve the mission.” She also believes the philanthropic world must emphasize the recruitment of “new generations of thoughtful philanthropic leaders who can work through private, family, community, and corporate vehicles. I’m cheered by The Philanthropy Roundtable’s own leadership in this effort. The transfer of wealth to younger generations in coming years is a key opportunity for the renewal of the philanthropic sector and its potential for contributing imaginative solutions to national and international problems.”