Eight questions for Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation
Human Work and Learning

Eight questions for Jamie Merisotis, President and CEO of Lumina Foundation

Jamie Merisotis has spent most of his 30-plus-year career at the intersection of philanthropy, education, and work. He’s the president and CEO of the Lumina Foundation, a funder with over $1 billion in assets and a mission to increase the proportion of Americans with degrees, certificates, and other high-quality credentials to 60% by 2025.

Before joining Lumina in 2008, Merisotis served as co-founder and president of the nonpartisan, Washington, D.C.-based Institute for Higher Education Policy, and as executive director of a bipartisan national commission on college affordability. Also an acclaimed author, his “America Needs Talent,” was named a top 10 business book of 2016 by Booklist. His most recent offering, “Human Work in the Age of Smart Machines,” was released last October.

I recently chatted with Merisotis from Lumina’s headquarters in Indianapolis about formative events from his past, his philosophy on life, and why fears of a future ruled by machines are (fortunately) overstated. Here are some excerpts from that discussion, which have been edited for clarity.

Who has had the greatest influence on you as a professional?

There are a couple of ways to answer this question. One is that I’ve had a series of mentors in my career that have had a lot of influence. The first goes back to when I was in college. I went to Bates College in Lewiston, Maine, and wrote for the student newspaper, and my first big influence was the deputy editor. Then there was my first boss when I was a researcher at the College Board, and my board chairs at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

What all of these people have in common is that they instilled in me that my desire to make a difference has to be inclusive. This has had a very strong influence on me at Lumina, which is driven by our time-limited 2025 educational attainment goal, and the idea that if you want to make a difference, you’ve got to make sure you’re inclusive. And I’m happy to say that we’ve gone from 38% to 52% on our path to our 60% goal.

There is one other individual who has influenced my professional career and my life more broadly, even though it’s someone that I didn’t know all that well. One of the most famous graduates in the history of Bates is Benjamin Elijah Mays. He was Martin Luther King Jr.’s mentor and president of Morehouse College. He headed the Atlanta school board when they went through desegregation.

He died in 1984, so I was a sophomore in high school at the time. I actually briefly met him before he passed away. What struck me about Mays is his view that education is transformative in terms of your ability to make the difference that you want to make. He has this great quote—he wrote, “Bates College did not ‘emancipate’ me; it did far greater service of making it possible for me to emancipate myself and to accept with dignity my own worth as a free man.”

That philosophy has influenced a lot of what I’ve done—my wife and I have even named our oldest son after him. He’s been a very powerful guide in my life.

Thus far, what have been the worst and best events in your life?

This answer may sound a little bit hackneyed but the worst moment is the death of my parents and the best moments were the births of my children.

What I’ve come to realize over the course of life is that you really do have a very limited time to make a difference. My parents were immigrants and were very hard-working, driven people, and the one thing that influenced me personally and professionally was their belief that the most important role that they had was to prepare us for what would come next, and that includes getting us into college.

We were a low-income family. My parents didn’t know what college was for the fact that we were going. That was their motivation. I ended up getting grants and scholarships and took out loans. I did all those things that a first-generation student has to do. But it took seeing my parents pass to realize that they lived their entire adult lives striving toward preparing us for the future and to think, “Wow, they did all of that just for us.”

I have a son who is a freshman in college and a 13-year-old daughter, and that is the best part of my life. And the death of my parents and the birth of my children—they are connected. The birth of my children is my opportunity to do what my parents did, to prepare them for a rapidly changing and complex world. It’s something that’s really motivating and exciting.

What, if anything, keeps you up at night?

In a world of incredible change, and a confluence of existential threats to humanity, racial injustice and inequity, climate change, there are lots of things I could point to. But the one that I think keeps me up at night right now is the rise in anti-democratic and authoritarian views and leadership that we’re seeing in the U.S. and around the world.

We live in a world where progress and human prosperity have advanced because of democratic systems. What we’ve seen in the rise in authoritarianism is that you stoke fear—fear of change and fear of the other—and that gets you to a place where there’s conformity, and therefore, less social progress, less prosperity. We’ve seen this in the context of racial inequity and injustice, in the context of false information about vaccines and COVID. We’ve seen it in the context of people for whom the changing nature of the world is not to their liking. So I’m very worried about it.

At the same time, I feel fortunate that I’m leading a national foundation that can push back on these anti-democratic ideas because what we know about education is that it advances critical thinking, ethical decision-making, analytic reasoning—lots of the important democracy-enhancing traits and capabilities.

What is your philosophy of life?

I look at myself as someone who has had the good fortune of having parents that made sacrifices for me and mentors who have guided me through my career. I’ve been able to have these professional opportunities, and my philosophy of life is that luck is a terrible societal strategy. As a society, we can’t count on the idea that “Jamie was lucky and fortunate and good for him for trying to make a difference given his good fortune.”

We actually need a plan, we need to agree on what are the things that we need to do to improve the human condition, to advance prosperity, to improve human flourishing, and actually set out about to do that as a society, whether it’s through philanthropy, government, the corporate sector or through individual effort.

What is the most important thing you tell young people who are thinking about making careers in the nonprofit sector?

I often tell people that you’ve got to do two things to be successful in the nonprofit sector. One is, you’ve got to develop your individual expertise. You’ve got to be good at something that people know you are good at, whether you’re a programmatic expert or you’re someone who … works on the operational side of the house.

And at the same time, you have to keep your head up to build your broader knowledge so that you are not stuck in that vertical for your entire career. I think it’s very important that if you’re working in an organization and you’re a program officer, learn the finance side of the business, learn the communication side of the business. Those things are really important in terms of building your career.

Society needs the nonprofit sector more than it ever has, but it needs us, the professionals, to continuously improve ourselves, and that means developing deeper expertise, but make sure that you broaden your perspective so you can contribute to the success of the organization as a whole.

What advice would you give to executives looking for foundation funding?

Authenticity is hugely important. Too many nonprofits leaders seeking funding try to tailor their message to what they think the foundation wants to hear.

Authenticity has to do with, what is your value system? What do you actually believe in? What results are you trying to produce? Then you can see if that aligns with the ways in which that particular foundation is defining its own interests, and a relationship can come together much more organically.

I think that authenticity carries a lot of partners over time. We learn a lot from our partners and grantees, and it shapes our thinking in the long term. We wouldn’t be able to do that if we simply believed everything that we said and didn’t learn from those partners, and the only way to do that is for those partners to be authentic and to tell us exactly what they are trying to accomplish.

You wrote a book called “Human Work In the Age of Smart Machines.” Can you provide a synopsis?

The book intersects with the way that I think about the world. What I’ve always tried to figure out here is how can we make the connection between learning and work more inclusive? And in the course of that work, one of the questions that people have asked me is, “What is education for?” We as a society keep saying we value education, but for what?

I thought that question needed a better answer than simply, “it helps you be more successful in work and in life.” As I got into it, I realized that my simple answer is that we have to prepare people for the work that only humans can do.

We all know that work is changing because of technology and AI. And machines are good at a lot of things. They’re good at repetition and pattern and reduction to an algorithm. But machines can’t understand nuance or subtlety. Machines don’t understand interaction between humans, which is often unpredictable.

What we need to be thinking about as a society is this idea of human-machine complementarity—that what humans are good at is complementary to what machines can do and vice versa. How do we nurture and develop those foundational human traits and capabilities—empathy, ethics, compassion, interpersonal communication, creativity, the things that make us uniquely human? Because at the end of the day, as humans, work matters. We work not just because we’re trying to earn a paycheck but because we get dignity and meaning and contribute to a greater whole.

The dignity and meaning of work is a huge theme of the book. Did you explore how these ideas intersect with growing interest in universal basic income?

I did. Look, the motivation to provide a safety net is a very important thing. I don’t want to impugn the perspective of the people who support it. But I’m not sure that is what a lot of people want. People want to work and contribute more broadly. In fact, there’s a Gallup survey that I mentioned in the book, that even for the lowest wage workers, they say they are willing to give up some money for meaning.

Meaning and purpose are very important to people in terms of how they see themselves in life, and particularly how they see themselves when it comes to work. So I’m not sure that we fully understand the unintended consequences of long-term basic income. At the very least, I want us to keep questioning whether that’s the right strategy, even as I would encourage the experimentation that is taking place.


This interview was originally published in Inside Philanthropy.

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