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America Needs Talent - an interview with Lumina Foundation's Jamie Merisotis

Monday, October 5, 2015
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Jamie Merisotis is on a mission, and people are paying attention.

America Needs Talent, the new book by Lumina Foundation’s CEO, is sparking passionate conversations in multiple sectors, from government to education, politics to philanthropy. Jamie believes that America is facing an urgent crisis - a talent crisis. Our ability to identify, develop, and deploy talent is going to shape profoundly our country’s future, our economic and social success - or lack thereof.

And he believes that we in the philanthropic sector have a crucial role to play.

Let’s begin by understanding what Merisotis means by “talent.” It’s not just ability, although that certainly is a component of the larger picture. “Talent” is a combination of a variety of factors - knowledge, skills, and abilities are the more often named elements, but it includes as well the less quantifiable attributes of values, interests, and personality traits. Talent, according to Merisotis, is developed by opportunity. He says, “for the synergistic potential of talent to rise in every human, we need to have the mechanisms in place for it to find daylight.” (America Needs Talent)

The broad strokes of the plan Merisotis suggests to “unblock” and invest America’s talent capital are fivefold: reforming higher education to be more about recognizing skills and competencies than time invested; unleashing private sector innovation; forming a federal Department of Talent; reshaping our immigration policy to draw talent to our shores; and reimagining our cities as talent hubs, where collaborative energy and talent identification thrive.

It could be easy to get bogged down in the breadth of this vision. It’s hard to think that any one of us, a foundation executive director or program officer, could move the needle substantially on, say, the establishment of the Federal Department of Talent.

However, in an interview with Merisotis, he reminds us of some fundamental leverage points that philanthropy, by its very nature, accesses. “At its core, philanthropy is about change,” Merisotis says. “Charity is about helping meet urgent needs. But philanthropy is about permanently altering the conditions that make assistance necessary.”

So what are the ways in which Indiana philanthropy stands ready to change capacity? Merisotis, sitting with me in a board room at the Lumina Foundation, offers three big ideas.

“By being actively engaged, we have the opportunity to improve our talent quotient in Indiana,” he says. “First, we can invest in talent improvement in our communities. We can be part of goal setting, developing collaboratives, and then sticking with them for an extended period of time.” He is intense as he says, “Money is just one part of this. We have the chance to be actively engaged in the change process. But we have to be willing to stay with a goal longer than just a grant cycle or two.”

Secondly, Merisotis urges philanthropy to take advantage of its singular risk tolerance. “Philanthropy’s risk-taking capacity is unique,” he says. “For example - the Indiana legislature recently passed B corporation creation. Imagine what might happen if philanthropic foundations helped B corps get started - there’s huge potential in this space for talent development. Or imagine social innovation bonds - applied to the talent context, not just to housing or the things we usually think of. The potential is amazing.”

Thirdly, Indiana philanthropy can use its voice to be a thought leader and change agent. “Philanthropy has this bully pulpit,” Merisotis says. “We can be the spokespeople for the change we need. So let’s use our pulpit! We are more than highly interested cash registers. We are entities with expertise and a commitment to mission that makes us uniquely qualified to speak and lead on these issues.” He is passionate as he concludes, “Society needs us to play this role - to be involved in the change process. Economically and socially, we need to be successful. If we do use our leverage, our risk capacity, and our commitment to mission to address the social problems we have, the dividends are going to be shared prosperity for all of us.”

Jamie Merisotis is president and CEO of Indianapolis-based Lumina Foundation, a national foundation dedicated to increasing Americans' college attainment, and author of "America Needs Talent: Attracting, Educating & Deploying the 21st-Century Workforce."

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