- Our Work
- Areas of Work
- Talking About Race
- Racial Justice and Equity
- Stronger Nation
- News and Views
- Resources and Events
- Contact Us
One of the first things I learned after joining Lumina Foundation in 2003 was just how steep a learning curve I faced in understanding the educational crisis.
My world was very different from the true portrait of America we saw at the foundation: All my friends had graduate degrees. All their children went to college. I saw life through that lens, but Lumina opened my eyes to the advantages of my comfortable little world. And seeing the scope of the problem, I thought about the responsibility we have to make the world and our country better.
I’ve thought about this since announcing my retirement from the foundation, where for 19 years I’ve had the opportunity to oversee operations, legal affairs, and board governance as executive vice president, chief operating officer, and general counsel. Now that it’s time to step away and make more time for family, travel, and hobbies, there’s been a chance to reflect on the importance of leadership and service.
We’ve all heard this, but we know many don’t believe it. I have always thought that positive, respectful relationships are what make ideas happen—and of course that it is people who get the work done. The role of a good leader is to understand how all the different parts of an organization connect, and to get a good idea to the specific people who can make it their own and act on it. If we start with an issue to solve, and help someone else see the need for that, we can let them own the solution—and the credit.
We don’t want to take an argument or an idea into the general marketplace and have that be the first time someone says, “Oh, that idea’s not very good. Did you think of ABC?” So, when advancing an idea, I always want someone to challenge my thinking. I need someone to tell me what I am missing and point out my blind spots. Those people are the most constructive critics you could have, and they will only make the work and the ideas better.
As a tax-exempt organization, we have an incredible stewardship responsibility. The assets we hold in trust are for something that is external to us as individuals and external to Lumina. That means at this foundation, we never want the work to be about one person. We don’t say, “This is my work, my strategy, my ambition.” I don’t think the philanthropic sector is about us.
And as I look back on it, one of the great privileges of working in philanthropy is the opportunity to test new ideas and take risks through trial and error. I incubated several efforts, including the development of our mission-related investment fund, which evolved into an impact investing capacity. What I learned was the importance of having an idea—and then testing the concept and improving it as we learned more. Foundations that are open to this evolution of ideas are able to promote real change.
Lumina is an amalgam of different cultures. Our staff members have a wide array of experiences in difference sectors. Some have developed their expertise in the business culture, some in an academic culture, and some have worked most of their careers in philanthropy. Those three cultures collide at times, and that’s only to be expected. There is not one culture that is “right” and another wrong. An organization shows its strength by bringing these perspectives and skills together to reach new insights and solutions.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we learn from our mistakes. When I joined Lumina in 2003, I got off on the wrong foot with some on our executive team. Lumina had not had a general counsel before, and my new colleagues weren’t quite sure why I had been hired. I jumped into the work with my own view of what I was brought in to do, and that was a mistake. I started reading the tea leaves and thought, “I need to start over, because we are not remotely on the same page.” It was clear that I should have just listened so much more and spoken much less early on. That insight helped me a great deal: It changed how I look at people and what they need. I strive to listen from the outset.
It’s very gratifying to arrive at a point of accomplishment with amazing friends and colleagues, but if we’re lucky, the journey itself is the reward. And that’s the way it’s been for me: Little did I know 19 years ago, how working for Lumina would help me grow as a person and a professional. The work, the people, the ideas, the passion, the commitment, the energy, the power of a sense of purpose. It has been the experience of a lifetime for which I am incredibly grateful.
Holiday Hart McKiernan, J.D., retired recently as executive vice president, chief operating officer and general counsel for Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.Back to News