Fundraising Campaigns & Strategic Planning Insights

The Leadership Model of Philanthropy

Philanthropy is focused, not on symptoms, but on root causes.

‚ÄúPhilanthropy is focused, not on symptoms, but on root causes. It is systemic, not episodic; proactive rather than reactive. In short, the goal of philanthropy is not so much to provide assistance or service; rather, it seeks to permanently alter the conditions that make assistance necessary. What this means is that to effect significant and lasting change, a philanthropic organization must be a leadership organization.‚ÄĚ

With these words, the Lumina Foundation‚Äôs President and CEO, Jamie Merisotis, makes a compelling case for foundations to embrace the Leadership Model of PhilanthropyFounded in 2000 with a current endowment of $1+ billion, the Lumina Foundation aims to increase high-quality post-secondary educational attainment in the United States. Their work is driven by a flagship target ‚Äď Goal 2025 ‚Äď which, if accomplished, would see 60 percent of Americans achieving high-quality degrees, certificates, or other post-secondary credentials by 2025.

Lumina Foundation’s Leadership Model of Philanthropy

Although the Leadership Model of Philanthropy is not a new concept and has been labelled and applied differently in the past, Lumina’s Leadership Model of Philanthropy is distinctive and can be characterized by three key attributes: focus, flexibility, and fortitude.

1) Focus ‚Äď The Lumina Foundation has chosen to focus its resources to redress a single issue: college access and success among low-income, first generation and underserved populations. Foundations, especially those with large endowments, do not always restrict their aspirations to a singular mission, opting instead to divide their attention to multiple causes.

The Lumina Foundation champions the pursuit of one objective because it compels transparency, emphasizes scale, mandates measurement, and encourages refinement. The idea of not spreading oneself too thin should serve as a model for smaller philanthropic organizations that do not have the financial prowess of mega-foundations such as Ford, Carnegie, or Rockefeller or whose assets are dwarfed by the endowment sizes of new mega-philanthropies, such the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

2) Flexibility ‚Äď This second attribute of the Leadership Model of Philanthropy enables the Lunima Foundation to engender meaningful change. For the Lumina Foundation, flexibility means a myriad of actions ranging from encouraging and facilitating multi-stakeholder dialogue, fostering out-of-the-box thinking, allowing staff to share expertise, and ensuring the CEO actively participates in spreading the Foundation‚Äôs mission.

Though setting a single goal may seem static from the outside, it permits the Lumina Foundation a greater degree of flexibility within a well-defined operational framework. It is important to note that for the Lumina Foundation, the definition of flexibility goes beyond traditional boundaries of the foundation as the wealthy financier dictating solutions. Flexibility should be accompanied by a healthy dose of self-awareness that guides a foundation’s understanding of knowing when to lead, and when to follow. Strength in numbers, rather than leadership for leadership’s sake, has been proven to be an effective accelerator for achieving philanthropic goals.

3) Fortitude ‚Äď  Lastly, foundations must possess fortitude. The Leadership Model of Philanthropy reminds the philanthropic community that foundations operate within a ‚Äúprivileged space‚ÄĚ and that this privilege ought not to be taken lightly. The Lumina Foundation makes an impassioned call to action for foundations to be proactive, to effect systemic change, and to take risks.

S. Sutton & Associates Inc. helps navigate through potential pitfalls

While there is much to celebrate about Lumina’s back-to-basics stance on philanthropy, foundations would be wise not to let their mission statements or goals turn into dogma.

S. Sutton & Associates Inc. can help philanthropic organizations navigate the potential pitfalls of a well-meaning strategy that may not always address the root cause of the solution they are seeking. In Lumina’s case, the pursuit of a single, measurable goal is not without negative historical precedents. Similar cases of single-minded pursuits gone awry are not infrequent, but transformative philanthropy is rooted in taking risks.

Expertise in Philanthropic Governance

With its deep expertise in philanthropic governance issues, S. Sutton & Associates Inc. reminds philanthropists that the leadership concept of being first among equals should not come at the cost of continued and enhanced collaboration with other funders in the field, especially in the pursuit of meeting a challenging goal.


To be successful, philanthropy has to look at the present as well as the future. Forward-thinking is especially important in retaining talent and making prudent investment decisions. S. Sutton & Associates Inc. advises philanthropists and their charitable vehicles regarding strategic planning and effective social and financial impact to enable them to find and implement their next significant, path-breaking objective.

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