The Value of Intentional Influence
The Value of Intentional Influence
The Value of Intentional Influence is a blog series exploring why and how organizations should use the power of influence to solve social problems at the magnitude they exist.

If you had asked me about Lumina Foundation when I first took the job as its CEO in 2008, I would have told you that we had a good and important mission focused on increasing college access and success. Today, I’d tell you that we’re committed to ensuring that 60 percent of Americans hold high-quality degrees, certificates, or other postsecondary credentials by 2025. (Today less than 45 percent hold such degrees or credentials.) Community Wealth Partners calls this a bold goal. We call it Goal 2025. Every day I’m focused on making sure this is more than just another goal. Our commitment to it drives every aspect of our work, including grantmaking, convening, and our work around public policy and community-level impact. We believe this goal can be achieved, and we are leveraging intentional influence to see that it does.

Lumina is unusual in philanthropy, because we’ve worked in just a single issue area since our inception in 2000. Our founding board members made the conscious and courageous decision to keep our mission tightly focused on postsecondary education attainment. For an organization as large as Lumina—a private foundation that has an endowment in excess of a billion dollars and annual grantmaking that averages upwards of $50 million—that decision was almost unprecedented. This set the stage for our subsequent 2008 decision to formally adopt Goal 2025.

The fact is that the future of the American higher education system hangs in a tenuous balance. The adequacy and relevance of an approach that has served our country’s economic and social needs for more than a century are now being questioned and reconsidered by many stakeholders, including employers who cannot find workers with the necessary skills to fill open jobs, policymakers who increasingly propose administrative and legislative fixes to address perceived problems such as college affordability and completion rates, and students and their families who face increasing difficulty paying for higher education. The system that once served the needs of our nation so well is in need of redesign. Given the scope and complexity of this task, we recognize that it is too big for our organization to tackle alone; we can only achieve it if myriad stakeholders insist on and lead significant— some might argue revolutionary—change efforts. As a result, we place a high value on working across levels and sectors to intentionally influence others to act.

Our strategy includes working within the system as well as disrupting it. Within the system, we’re mobilizing action among federal, state, and local stakeholders to increase students’ attainment of credentials. For example, we’re working side by side with employers, postsecondary education leaders, and community members in 75 metro areas to encourage broader adoption of and support for Goal 2025. Through this effort, we also work to increase the ability of participating cities to customize education attainment plans that will best suit the needs of each community and its residents through significant technical and planning assistance, data tools, and flexible funding.

At the same time, we’re disrupting the system by developing specific approaches (new finance and credentialing models, for example) to create the fundamental change needed in higher education to reach the goal. This requires that we have more than just a “start from scratch” mentality. It also means we must work closely with faculty and administrators that have been doing business the same way for decades, and encourage and create incentives for them to do things differently. To create the top-down, bottom-up pressure necessary to effect significant change, we also spread these concepts to groups including elected officials, community and business leaders, entrepreneurs, and other citizens.

Perhaps the most encompassing of our intentional influence efforts revolves around redefining success within the higher education system. We are leading the national dialogue about meeting the nation’s demand for talent by better acknowledging and rewarding all forms of postsecondary learning. A core element of this approach is a strategic document called the Degree Qualifications Profile (DQP), which defines the skills and knowledge students need to earn degrees at various levels. In short, the DQP shifts the discussion on campuses from “What are we going to teach?” to “What should our students know and be able to do? What knowledge and skills must they be able to demonstrate to thrive?” We chose to produce and encourage the use of the DQP, because our financial resources and independent perspective allow us to take risks that few others can.

Our long-term aim is to simultaneously move those who supply higher education (such as faculty and institutional leadership) and those who demand it (such as students and employers) to embrace the DQP. We initially shared a beta version of the DQP with faculty, and college and university administrators in 2011. After nearly four years of testing the DQP at more than 400 college and universities in 45 states, we recently released a new version that is poised to help us collectively propel American higher education forward with a renewed focus on student learning and clear outcomes. With this in hand, we’re moving to influence those who influence higher education institutions and employers—including national organizations and projects that work with faculty, regional higher education compacts that link colleges and universities, employers and policymakers, and workforce and employer-focused organizations—to drive its adoption.

The future of our nation hinges on our collective ability to educate a greater swath of our citizenry and equip more people with the skills they need to compete in a global society. To meet this ambitious charge, not to mention Goal 2025, the postsecondary system that has served us well for centuries needs to change. My task is to ensure that Lumina Foundation uses all of its capacities to intentionally influence each of the actors who can make that change happen. If we succeed, we will dramatically enhance the nation’s economic, social and, cultural well-being.