How Private Foundations Can Support Civic Education — A Spotlight on Lumina Foundation

This interview was conducted in conjunction with the CivXNow Policy Summit. See more interviews and case studies about how philanthropy is engaging in civic education here.

This past spring, The Indiana General Assembly passed House Bill 1384, which requires that every student in the Hoosier State complete a one-semester course in civic education in either sixth, seventh, or eighth grade, and that the state’s board of education and department of education establish standards for civic education by July 1, 2022. In addition, the new law calls for Indiana to form the Indiana Civic Education Commission, a 15-member panel that would include teachers and state officials, as well as members of the business community.

The legislation, which was sponsored by both Republicans and Democrats and signed into law by Governor Eric Holcomb on April 8, 2021, passed nearly unanimously: 49–0 in the state Senate, and 96–1 in the state House of Representatives.

The new law responds to a dire need in Indiana, as the state ranks in the bottom 15 percent for both voter registration and turnout.

For the philanthropy world, the law presents an interesting model for how private foundations can be involved, especially because they cannot lobby directly for legislation. Still, the Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation played a central role — not by lobbying, but by funding the Indiana Civic Education Task Force, which conducted both the research and coalition-building necessary to pass the law.

In the following interview, Tim Robinson, Lumina Foundation’s Vice President of Administration and Partnerships, details how exactly the foundation supported the creation of the Indiana Civic Education Task Force that was chaired by Lieutenant Governor Suzanne Crouch.

What was Lumina’s previous portfolio around civic education that made this initiative in Indiana a fit for the foundation?

Tim Robinson: The reason why I’m involved in this particular part of our business is I’m responsible for all the civic engagement work that we do in central Indiana. And the reason why that’s important is because we’re a national foundation. We sit in Indianapolis and so we think about things that we do in Indianapolis differently than we do about other locations. So in other words, if someone came to us from San Diego and said, “We’d like you to sponsor such and such that’s committed to our community,” we would not likely support it because our whole foundation is based on post-secondary attainment and achieving a national attainment goal. But if the request comes to us from Indianapolis, we will give attention and consideration to it because of who we are in this community.

That leads to the overarching question: What type of foundations should get involved in this type of work?

Tim Robinson: We think about how we influence postsecondary attainment. If we took every dollar in our foundation and distributed it out as scholarships, we would not likely come close to hitting our post-secondary goals or addressing the systemic and institutional barriers that prevent some learners from pursuing educational opportunities after high school. So our approach has always been on systems change and institutional changes. So we do have a state policy team. We have a federal policy team. As you probably know, as a private foundation we cannot legislate and we cannot lobby. We cannot take any advocacy positions opposed to specific legislation. In this particular case, that’s not what was asked of us. What was asked of us was would we be willing to financially support the creation of a task force to look at the issues related to increasing civic engagement. And so looking at the legal ramifications of that, that’s not advocacy. In fact, we were very clear that once the task force came forward with recommendations, if those recommendations were included in the advocacy, we were not going to go into phase two of that particular work. We were going to limit it solely to the creation and the funding of the advisory task force.

What entity first asked you to get involved, and why did you say yes?

Tim Robinson: The Indiana Bar Foundation came to us because they had been running civic education programs to the high schools and they wanted to know what other states were doing so they could replicate it.

Civic engagement is personally important to me, but that can’t be the basis on which we make it a foundation distribution. We also had introduced a Racial Equality and Justice Fund back in 2017 after the events in Charlottesville, and we put a couple of million dollars into it. After last summer, we reseeded it with an additional $15 million dollars. Those are some of the things that we’re thinking about — and this is specific to at least how I think about the central Indiana portfolio. But this wasn’t a mandate from the foundation. This was me trying to put my arms around this particular portfolio and how it would be distributed in Indianapolis.

So I came up with some buckets, for lack of a better word. The first one was education. Obviously that’s our primary focus — and this is particularly for people of color, activities associated with people of color who we care about in terms of the racial justice equity fund. Number two was entrepreneurship and wealth creation. The third was civic engagement, especially the disengagement of black people in the political process. We’re not telling them how to vote, but we want them to know how to inform themselves on the issues. And then number four was just general well-being. How do you think about the mental well-being of black people and brown people?

This opportunity had presented itself. That was a way that we can lift up that particular area and say what can we do to inform and make sure people are aware of the importance of engaging in the civic process. So the head of our foundation had reached out to me. I sponsored something else on their behalf. And in the course of the conversation, that is what we evolved to. And that’s why we were willing to support the creation of the task force.

How does civics education fit into the foundation’s goals?

Tim Robinson: If you think about our postsecondary goals, we do think it’s important for people to have post-secondary training. And by that I don’t mean just a college degree, whether it’s a bachelor’s or associate’s degree, because all sorts of credentials and certificates can lead to gainful employment. One of those important things is civic engagement, because when you know more, you participate more, and you’re more engaged in your communities. And that’s for the benefit of everybody. And so civic engagement has always been sort of this sub-priority of our national attainment goals.

What is the state of civic health in Indiana?

Tim Robinson: Poor, disappointing, frustrating. [It’s not just the number of people who are voting], but participation at the school board level, participation at the local level is particularly bad.

Was there any kind of metric that gave you a sense of why Indiana was falling short?

Tim Robinson: I think it was generally just apathy. People just didn’t feel like they understood the issues enough to be engaged in the issues. And this isn’t an excuse, but you have to be engaged at every single level. But to be on the school board — think about all the issues the school board has to deal with — then you move to the city and then you have to deal with all the municipal issues. Then you go to the state. If you think of the federal issues involved in international issues, it is so overwhelming. I think people just throw their hands up and say, “I have no idea. So I’m not even going to participate.”

Exactly what was the role that Lumina played beyond the funding?

Tim Robinson: We funded the creation and the operation of the task force. So there was that check that had been written. I told them very specifically, I did not want anyone from Lumina to serve on the task force, because what I didn’t want to happen was there would be some implication that Lumina was trying to influence legislation sort of surreptitiously. They invited me to participate in some of the calls, and I said I would participate in the first call just because they wanted to acknowledge the contribution we made. But then I was going to remove myself from any of those conversations, except for those with Chuck Dunlop [executive director of the Indiana Bar Foundation in Indianapolis]. He would send me updates, he would send me reports, and he would send me things as required under the grant agreement. But I really wanted to create an arm’s length transaction so that there would be no appearance of a conflict.

Is that something every foundation should do?

Tim Robinson: If you’re a private foundation like Lumina is, yes, you want to be very clear about whether you are in the role of trying to get legislation passed or if you are lobbying for something specific. We as a private foundation are allowed to inform people about legislation. We’re allowed to inform people about the issues related to legislation, but we cannot give any indication that we are moving towards a certain type of legislation or particular outcome. And we’re generally very conservative in that regard. There would be some other foundations who may clearly walk up to the line. But we are very far away from the line. The way that we see ourselves, at least in the education marketplace, is as a neutral, bipartisan provider of information. We don’t want anyone to think that we’re taking one side or another. We just want to be the honest broker in anything related to post-secondary attainment.

Did you have to put in place standards and practices or did you already have those?

Tim Robinson: We generally already have those. So when we set out the terms of the grant, I was very clear about this at the very beginning. “Here’s what I’m willing to do. And here are the gates that we’re going to put around this, so that people will only see that it was the creation and the support of the task force. Anything beyond that Lumina is not going to be a part of that.” Chuck really wanted to acknowledge the philanthropic gift, and I appreciate that. But I didn’t want him to really promote it. I didn’t want it to appear that we’re trying to somehow do something that we shouldn’t be doing.

I imagine that would be hard for some foundations.

Tim Robinson: Some people do walk up to the line. But our particular position is that we want to remain the honest broker.

Does that mean you approached publicity for this differently than you do with other grants?

Tim Robinson: There are some grants that we do want people to know about. We don’t do it just for our reputation. We do it just because in our space, if Lumina comes in and provides money, that sometimes is an endorsement, and sometimes you want that endorsement to be known because it brings other funders into the mix. It’s not for any good egotistical reason. In this particular case, I would rather have a much more muted publicity. So if they are publishing something, then there’s a little thing at the bottom, “funded by Lumina Foundation.” I’m fine with that. In a press release, I would say you do not have to include this in the press release because we don’t want any of that notoriety.

That poses an interesting challenge, though, because if you want partners and you’re not putting your name out there, how do you go about doing that?

Tim Robinson: Well, in this particular case, I don’t know that they were looking for Lumina to be a lead funder to invite other funding opportunities. The other issue was that the Lieutenant Governor, Suzanne Crouch, was on the Task Force, there were other legislators, state representatives on there. I just did not think it was appropriate for us to be on the same task force. We have restrictions on the government interaction that we have.

How do you keep that firewall with the grantee organization?

Tim Robinson: The way that we generally would do that is there will be a grant agreement that will lay out what we’ve agreed to and what we are giving you the money to do. And we then leave it to them to figure out the best way to do it. We try not to be too restrictive, but we are restrictive about a couple of things. One of which is you may not use this for lobbying, you may not use this for advocacy. You may not do anything with these funds that would imperil our tax-exempt status. And if you do, then you either have to pay us back or we’ll have to take some action. And so other than that, we do not try to restrict them too much. I do ask for reporting.

Did Lumina have goals for this or firm outcomes that you wanted to see happen as a result of this grant?

Tim Robinson: That’s a really good question. This is why we do things differently in Indianapolis and Indiana, especially because we are focused on a post-secondary attainment goal, where metrics matter. We generally do impose a requirement from our grantees. For instance, we may say this work needs to generate X number of degrees or credentials because that will count towards our goal. But very little of the work we do in Central Indiana is connected to our scale. So there was nothing that was going to come out of this project that would have added to our postsecondary goal. So our goal is 60 percent by 2025 and we are currently just under fifty two percent. None of this work has any impact on that. So instead, what I do in those instances, I say, “You tell me what your goals are, and I’m going to hold you to your goals. I’m not going to hold you to the Lumina goal because that would be unfair because you couldn’t meet it anyway.” So they laid out. Here’s what we’re going to do. Here’s what we’re trying to accomplish. And then I have them report on it.

So were their goals/your goals met?

Tim Robinson: I think so. They had done the survey of teachers who were teaching civics and their engagement level. And I think there was an enthusiasm that this does work well, and then they can scale it up and make it more effective. And then ultimately, of course, their goal is more engagement. The one issue that I did bring up was racial justice inequity. What I did want to see was if they could particularly focus any of the work towards people of color. So were they able to disaggregate the data? And I don’t know that they were able to do that. But I think there was a general recognition that, yes, there are gaps between the of white households and black households and Latino households. These are the populations that we care about in terms of education. But I didn’t require them to report on that. I did say if you had that information, I would like to know it, but I don’t think it was a disqualifying metric.

So for other foundations, what’s your advice in terms of setting expectations?

Tim Robinson: Know what your boundaries are. Know what you can and cannot do. Understand what the grantee is going to do with it so it doesn’t jeopardize your foundation. And then be clear on why you are doing this. Are you doing it to fulfill a specific mission that you have as it relates to your foundation, or is it really more of your corporate citizenship role that you’re serving in your community?

And I would say that’s how Lumina defined it. We were very clear that this has nothing really to do with our mission. I think about some of the work that we do here as “mission centric,” which means it’s very specific to the goal. Then we have what I call “mission aligned,” which means it’s not mission-centric, but it’s adjacent. So, for instance, we don’t fund K through 12 education. We’re entirely post-secondary. But there are some times that you have to fund these things because you don’t get to post-secondary without K-12. And third is what I would call “goodwill,” which means it has nothing to do with our mission at all. It just means that we want to be a good corporate citizen, or it’s important to one of our employees. So we will give deference and consideration to it for those reasons.

How heavy a lift was this? How should other foundations evaluate how much it’s going to take from our team to pull off?

Tim Robinson: There’s an administrative process by which we evaluate all grants. And so this is not unique to any funder, but we have certain things that we require. We do charitability checks. So we want to make sure this organization can receive these funds. We require audited financials, board of directors, all these things that we submit. We ask them to submit a proposal. The proposal has a whole list of things that we want them to do. And then it comes out. Someone’s got to upload it into a system, someone has to review it, and then it goes in front of an executive team. So, you know, it probably took six to eight weeks to move it through the system. I’m the only one that manages these portfolios, but I’m not the only one who touches the paperwork that’s related to it. So I don’t think it’s a particularly heavy lift.

Tim Robinson, J.D., is vice president of administration and partnerships at Lumina Foundation, an independent, private foundation in Indianapolis that is committed to making opportunities for learning beyond high school available to all.

Before joining Lumina in 2017, Robinson was with PNC Wealth Management for six years, most recently as investment director for Indiana, where he was responsible for implementing investment strategies for high-net-worth clients. He also spent 13 years with Irwin Union Bank, where he managed the bank’s trust, investment, and insurance businesses.

Robinson also is an adjunct instructor at Butler University, where he has taught classes in business law, negotiations, and nonprofit governance for the past 20 years. He serves on the Indiana Humanities board and on committees for the Archdiocese of Indianapolis and Versiti Blood Center of Indiana.

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