Recent events have compelled nonprofit organizations to change the way they get work done, how they deliver their services, and what they do to achieve a more just and equitable society. So, The Business of Giving has connected with those organizations that are doing this exceptionally well in a segment we call: The Paths Forward. Because there is more than just one way.

Denver: In this edition of The Paths Forward we’ll speak with team members at the Luminos Fund, a national impact finance and advisory nonprofit. We’ll start with Caitlin Baron, their President and CEO, who will tell us about the mission of the organization.

Caitlin Baron: Even today, there are still 250 million children around the world who never learned to read and write; 60 million of those kids don’t even get the chance to try because they’re denied the chance to go to school. Luminos was created to give those children a second chance. We were founded as a stand-alone organization in 2016 after six long years of experimentation and program development in the far reaches of rural Ethiopia. We found we had a truly unique model of working in some of the poorest communities to deliver rich quality education to children who hadn’t had the chance to study up until then.

Denver: The Culture at Luminos is of the utmost importance. It starts at Hiring and is built on Trust according to Maretta and Kaitlynn.

Maretta: We are so proud of the culture that we have here. It’s a really hardworking, compassionate, mission-focused team. And on the one hand with hiring, I think we’re extremely careful and thoughtful in the interview process to really try and gauge whether a candidate is a Lumineer, we say, if they’re bringing that real spirit of focus on the mission, of focus on excellence. So, we’re very careful with our recruiting, even though we are growing, we do really need to hire people. We try to be thoughtful and take that time to select excellent candidates that are going to be a real match for our culture.

And then once folks are on the team, again, that really continues, I think, through the onboarding process and the longer-term engagement process. Whether that’s through our annual reflection cycles, through one-on-ones with managers, through team meetings, I think there’s just a real common thread of trying to engage the team and keep that spirit and culturalize.

Kaitlynn: I think before COVID and now as we’re emerging from COVID, I think Luminos is a place that really, again, has a culture of trust. Caitlin Baron really, really trusts each and every team member to do what they do best. There’s no micromanaging, really. Every single team member is really empowered to make decisions, and again, I think that’s been with us throughout.

Denver: James picks up on that point and shares his perspective on Decision Making.

James: I think when you’re working in a high-level of strategy in fancy places, you tend to rely on a researching, like things you find on JSTOR, but when you actually work in places where Luminos work, most of the knowledge are within the community and most of the knowledge are the people who most have the great proximity to the actual problem.

So, it’s just having that level of humility to listen and to be able to refine whatever solution people will give you upfront. That’s how you’d actually solve problems, and just being able to go there and do it, and to be patient. Because, I think like I mentioned for the Liberian team, there are times when we’re spending one hour on the call to arrive at one decision. It’s not the most effective use of your time, but once you get it right, that you’d be thinking through, “This day doesn’t make sense ‘cause it’s a holiday tomorrow, it will affect how much money you spend, how much time you’re looking actually to travel til I get this done,” where you spend a lot of the time really thinking through and open a platform where everyone can speak openly, everyone can bring in whatever personal experience they had before Luminos and why they are at Luminos, you’ll arrive at a decision on a much more rich advantage point because everyone really has a chance to think with authority, but also to draw in the level of an experience both living in the communities, but also whatever academic experience they have and professional experiences too.

Denver: The Organization keeps every team member connected to the mission….and to each other….as Anh and Kirstin illustrate.

Anh: So, there’s a lot of ways that the team have pivoted to make a good work and to follow the guidance from the local government, and I think that really means a lot to me, personally, because I, again, don’t have that exposure to the program and on the frontline. But seeing how the team has really pivoted and focused on even working late and on Saturday trying to secure these bags of rice, thinking about the logistics of how to distribute theses to the different communities that we work in, very remote places, has really warmed my heart and I think it’s helped motivate me to support even further and help out wherever I can.

And I think hearing the challenges that the team tackle on the ground, again, makes me feel really truly connected to the mission and the work that we do. I personally always admire our Programs Team for all of their hard work on the front line and make sure that our children actually get back to the classroom and have food to eat as well. Because these families, with the challenge of COVID, sometimes, they go down from three meals a day to only one or two, and we understand that children cannot learn on an empty stomach, so that was important to us, make sure that we really think about the holistic approach and the whole wellbeing of the student and the family that we serve.

Kirstin: And I think that Luminos has created a very exceptional introduction to this process for me. I think touching on what Anh said earlier on communication, I think, and feeling really connected to the work, is something that stood out to me because you’d imagine that things might be a little bit challenging starting your professional development and career fully remote, but I think that I felt really connected to the team and the work more than I feel like I would have if we were in person.

Denver: Like many nonprofits, Luminos had to pivot over the last 2 years. Maretta and Anh Le give us a flavor of how they did.

Maretta: Yeah. I think we have really wonderful leadership with our CEO, Caitlin Baron, and I think we have a very explicitly education-focused mission, but looking through a larger lens, I think we see that as a humanitarian focus.

And when we saw the pain of lockdowns and how that was affecting the communities and the children and the families that we serve, the teachers that we serve, it was extremely moving to all of us, and we knew we couldn’t sit still and not do anything. We knew we had to act and we’re also blessed to be supported by a community of funders that have been remarkably supportive. And we had donors that were saying, “You know what, you’ll know what to do. You’ll know what to do best.” They’ve added flexibilities to some of their funding, so we were able to make that pivot and to make it very quickly, and I think it was a real moment of pride for a lot of us and for our community of supporters to see that in action.

Denver: Two aspects of the organization that help set it apart is the ability to Innovate and to Problem Solve as Kaitlynn and James explain.

Kaitlynn: I think it’s really true and I think it really also kind of has really positively impacted our ability to innovate as a team across departments, whether you’re kind of on the fundraising team or the programs team, like this organization really values new ideas, creative thinking, and just new ways of approaching something old, right, which I think is, I would say, part of our DNA, just the ability to be creative and innovate.

James: I think on a day-to-day basis, we all like collectively problem-solve in real time, especially from a context like Liberia where we have classes in very hard to reach areas, like they’re difficult terrain. Just to answer the question around how the mission has shifted, I think everyday requires you to make decisions on what makes sense in terms of implementing some of the specifics. There are no guidebooks like you have to do this. It’s like every context you’re in, pushes to problem-solve in that moment to think about what to do.

So, as the Country Manager in Liberia, I’m always on the phone with the field staff, they’re asking, “The bike just broke down, do I not do five classes today? What is the best thing to drive to the closest or the nearest classes.

Denver: Kaitlynn and James provide a glimpse of how Luminos helps assure the Wellbeing of the Team.

Kaitlynn: I think this is something Luminos has done so incredibly well during the pandemic and it’s been what we’ve done well at, is just being so specific about the needs of each individual and so there isn’t like an overarching, like this is how we approach well-being, but we’ve really done well at, again, targeting support to the needs of each individual, I think.

James: And then there’s a third thing I want to comment on is sort of like commitment from [bad audio] I think most people sort of talk about with respect to mental health, with respect to work-life balance. But then people will text you like two or three in the morning [without] realizing that you also sleep or you actually have things and also have work.

And I think at Luminos, they have, sort of, that unspoken rule that people have to respect that, and I think having a platform like on Slack where you can mute notifications or you can pause it [bad audio] WhatsApp or Skype, all the other platforms, you can really do that, like people can just text you whenever. You might choose not to read, but you would still get the notification. And I think just working into a place where people know, after a certain time, at least write them or tell them, “You don’t have to look at this until you’re back in office or you have, like, a proper time to actually do this.

Denver: Finally, Every voice is valued and heard at Luminos Fund as Anh Le and Kirsten describe.

Kirstin: So, Kirsten Buchanan. I think one thing that hasn’t been talked about that I think would be kind of nice to just round out the conversation is looking ahead to the kind of eventual return to some hybrid form of working, and I personally have some anxieties around that and how to navigate those. Just to talk a little bit about that, I think I’m kind of really comforted by the fact that so far it’s been a discussion and it’s been a collaborative discussion, and I think to tackle on this little bit earlier [bad audio] considered to kind of assess comfort levels and really [bad audio] going to be flexible around them. So I think, of course, there’s anxieties of returning to some version of what the world looked like before this, but moving forward, I think I’m just kind of encouraged by the process of it being so open-ended and kind of a conversation that’s incorporating everyone’s thoughts. So, this touches on a lot of what’s already been said, but there’s a lot of elements of feeling kind of heard and valued and comforted by the fact that your comfort and anxiety is considered in whatever decisions taking place, but I’m also kind of excited, like I said, because I started fully remote to kind of explore what that system could look like and also explore how to pivot if we need to at any point.

Anh: I would say that I’m truly honored and feel really privileged to be a part of Luminos. I came from a background of doing mutual fund and hedge fund, financial reporting, and I think this is a completely different environment where I truly feel like I’m a part of the team and what I do actually matters and my voice being heard is important. People appreciate it when we hear from different perspectives, and everyone has something to contribute to the team, and I think that is just so unique and special about Luminos. I’m grateful for the opportunity to work alongside all of my amazing colleagues on this call and also all of the team that we have at Luminos and I’m hoping that we’ll be able to continue supporting and reaching different students and children across the globe.

Denver: I want to thank the Luminos Fund team members who participated in this piece: Maretta Silverman, James Kiawoin, Anh Lee, Kaitlynn Saldanha, and Kirstin Buchanan. And to learn more about their work come to and hear my earlier interview with Caitlin Baron, the President & CEO of the Luminos Fund.

Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving serves as a Strategic Advisor and Executive Coach to NGO and Nonprofit CEOs and Board Chairs. His Book, The Business of Giving: The Non-Profit Leaders Guide to Transform Leadership, Philanthropy, and Organizational Success in a Changed World, will be released in the spring of 2022.

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