When the Lumpkin family began, in 2005, to consider a new grant program, they encountered a stumbling block. While the family had a number of common interests—healthy food, education, water quality, nonprofit capacity-building—none of them produced enough “collective passion” to warrant the creation of a new grantmaking focus.

“Rather than picking one of the program areas to work in, we said, ‘Let’s create a program to learn about these program areas,’” says Bruce Karmazin, Executive Director of the Lumpkin Family Foundation.

The result was a four-year program of flexible, peer-directed learning experiences called learning circles. Each year, the family is taking on a new topic with a series of readings and short presentations capped by a final report to the entire family.

“It’s a cross between a book club and a college seminar,” says Karmazin. “Our first strategic plan said we would strive to be a learning organization, but we didn’t have a clear idea how. The learning circles are really helping us do that.”

The Lumpkin Family Foundation was created in 1953 with a bequest from Besse Lumpkin. Besse was the widow of Dr. William C. Lumpkin, who, with his father Iverson A. Lumpkin, created the Mattoon Telephone Company in 1894. The company became Illinois Consolidated Telephone Company, one of the nation’s largest privately held telephone companies, before eventually going public. It is still has significant Lumpkin ownership and a Lumpkin, fourth-generation family member Richard Lumpkin, is Chairman.

Today, members of the Lumpkin family’s fourth, fifth and even sixth generations contribute both time and resources to the foundation, which has distributed more than $15 million in grants since its founding.

The Lumpkin Family Foundation awards grants in the areas of education, the environment, and at-risk youth. There is a special focus on the family’s historical commitment to Central Illinois, but the foundation also provides support to groups where Lumpkin family members live.

It was partly this impulse to engage the family members’ own programmatic interests that lead to the creation of the learning circles.

The Lumpkin family took a cue from the Andrus Family Fund’s Board Exploration Triads or BETs in creating their learning circles. In the Andrus model, an AFF trustee and an extended Andrus family member would be grouped with an outside expert to investigate a different aspect of AFF’s two program areas over a period of eight months and to report back to the family.

The Lumpkin Family Foundation kept the facilitator and the structured learning environment, but scaled the approach back to fit the needs of a smaller family. The Andrus Family Fund was designed to engage a family of nearly 400 members. The Lumpkin Family Foundation represents the 23 adult descendants of Besse Lumpkin and their spouses.

The Lumpkin family’s first learning circle was about food and they found their facilitator in Michael Hamm, C.S. Mott Professor of Sustainable Agriculture at Michigan State University.

“He proved a good and flexible fit to the family,” says Karmazin. “After family members visited with him, Mike started with an overall presentation on the issues involved in the food system today. There was a great discussion about the curriculum. Family members said, ‘I want to learn about this. I want to learn about that. I’m interested in this.’”

The group began with Michael Pollan’s book The Omnivore’s Dilemma, moved on to the ecology and economics of food production, and veered into how educational institutions teach people about food even as they feed them in school and university cafeterias.

The learning circles allowed the family to capitalize on an important space between discussions of grantmaking and family members’ interests. The circle structure enabled the family to discuss big program issues without having to decide immediately how to act on those discussions.

Staff members listened closely to what family members were saying and began to understand how apparently different visions intersected.

“It gave much better definition to the Foundation’s local food program, already under development,” explains Karmazin.

“It was a way to flesh out what’s important,” he says. “I heard that working with educational institutions was important, that supporting economic development was exciting, and I was able to incorporate those ideas and feelings and bring together a program that was much more readily approved. They recognized their voices in the program.”

The family recently wrapped up its learning circle on food, and, this fall, welcomed more family members to the learning circle on water quality.

“We’ve managed to figure it out so that most of the work happens on the phone, but it’s not always easy,” Karmazin explains. “The best possible scenario would be to do it like a book club, where you’re meeting in somebody’s living room or office over a coffee. People have busy lives and not all the reading gets done, but enough of the reading gets done so that people really enjoy it.”

Karmazin credits the facilitator for some of the program’s success.

“The facilitator is really critical,” he says. “You can do it without a facilitator. As families, we’re not always comfortable welcoming someone into the inner sanctum of our living rooms, but it adds an important level of expertise.”

Karmazin notes that, while a learning circle is a terrific way to engage a family programmatically, it’s not for everyone.

“If you’re looking for a facilitator who can referee when Uncle John and Cousin Billy have a personal disagreement, you probably shouldn’t be looking at a learning circle,” he says. “Learning circles are a great team-building exercise, but they’re not the answer to a dysfunctional team.”

They have, however, proved attractive to the next generation of Lumpkin philanthropists.

At age 10, Lumpkin family members can participate on a grantmaking committee distributing small amounts to selected charities. At age 16, one becomes an official member of the family philanthropy—eligible to serve on committees, attend board meetings, and participate in the “Introduction to Philanthropy” program.

Teens and young adults may participate in this program for seven years of their choosing between the ages of 16 and 30. Participants can distribute $1,000 annually in discretionary grants, but they must be engaged in some kind of structured learning in order to receive the privilege.

As a new group of teens came of age, they wondered, says Karmazin, “Maybe we could do this together rather than completely on our own.”

A new learning circle on philanthropy, featuring readings like President Clinton’s new book Giving, is a work in progress for the group of three 16-year-olds, as they too take advantage of this new opportunity to learn together.

You can learn more about the Lumpkin Family Foundation, its mission, history, and future, on its website.

The report on the BETs that influenced the Lumpkin learning circles The BETs: An Experimental Approach to Educating Trustees and Extended Family Members about Program Areas is available on the Andrus Family Fund web site.