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How Will We Reach the ‘Tipping Point’ in a New Movement for Older Americans?

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

At the beginning of every nonprofit movement – whether it succeeds or fails – the founders probably feel like Odysseus. No matter how much momentum you start with, and how many battles you win in creating an idea and whipping up enthusiasm for it, actually figuring out how to make the new movement stick is a far more circuitous and daunting process than anyone can ever expect. I learned this in recent months as I have been testing my idea to create a service movement for baby boomers as a way to help ease the “nonprofit leadership deficit” – the 640,000 vacancies that are expected in senior jobs at nonprofit organizations in the next decade. As I have been spending the past months meeting with key nonprofit leaders to figure out what approaches might work best to stimulate a real movement, I began to get blown off course, just as Odysseus did. At the beginning of my journey, I was lured by the siren song of City Year and its mission: a year of national service for 17-to-24-year-olds. Spending one morning at the organization’s Boston site off Copley Square was all I needed. I was instantly taken in by its intoxicating culture that pulsated with idealism and citizenship. Why not create a City Year for people 55 and older? How inspiring and how transformational that would be. But as I reflected on this idea, a number of obstacles began to surface. I could see a City Year for retired workers, but how would working people who are approaching retirement age yet still in their prime earning years actually give a year of service? How would they be freed up financially? How would they be able to cover their children’s college tuitions and tend to aging parents? Not so simple. Even if these structural obstacles could be surmounted, it would be challenging to overcome some of the big differences in how businesses and charities work, and how the cultures of leadership differ. We all know that boomers will not stand for work that does not carry meaning. But how, really, would hard-charging business executives take to senior positions at nonprofit groups, with the complexities of making decisions that involve both the bottom line and the social good, the tug of multiple constituencies, and the lack of management and operations support that many companies provide? How would nonprofit groups themselves take to business people? And whether in for-profit or nonprofit situations, how would the generations work together? I discussed this issue with Clara Miller, chief executive of the Nonprofit Finance Fund, in New York, who wondered how experienced nonprofit managers would take to being told, “Move over! Let me drive,” by someone with no nonprofit operating experience. Not very well, we surmised. Throughout my journey I encountered another potential challenge: the palpable sense of skepticism that many Gen Xers, those born in the wake of the baby-boom generation, harbor about boomers. While it was never openly stated in discussions I had with people in this age group, it was not far below the surface either. In their eyes, the achievements of the boomers who said they wanted to change the world did not always match the rhetoric. And, if those obstacles were not enough, there is the whole problem of language itself. How do you actually find and recruit older Americans who (a) deny that they are old, and (b) avoid words like “senior” and “elder” like the plague? Sixty, after all, is the new 30! The next stop on my journey was Tarrytown, N.Y., where I attended a stimulating conference on engaging older Americans in civic activities that was sponsored by the Atlantic Philanthropies, the foundation that is the most generous grant maker to organizations grappling with this issue. As a newcomer to this cause, I found myself primarily in a listening mode. The challenges the experts at the conference described resonated with my limited experience. While they acknowledged that no single concept on how to think about civic engagement among older adults has yet materialized, it is clear that older adults are entitled to lead purposeful lives and become valued resources for the greater good. The emerging collective vision identifies the need to do three things: Articulate new norms and attitudes about age and aging. Invent new opportunities for engagement, including flexible approaches to both paid and unpaid work. Uncover better “enablers” that could pave the way to civic participation – universal health care, economic security, lifelong education, and transportation chief among them. While I met extraordinary people, talented and devoted agents of real change, I was struck by how this movement is still in its infancy. I still found myself at sea, no closer to my original destination, and confronted with the increasing realization that my quest might take far longer than planned. Unlike Odysseus, however, I lacked a guide like his “clear-eyed” Athena. So I turned to the next best mentor I could imagine: Malcolm Gladwell, author of the highly successful book The Tipping Point, which I read for the third time. This movement already is taking on the elements of a social epidemic that is reaching for a distant “tipping point” as described in the book – that is, a critical mass of people changing their behavior. First, it already has the leadership in place: the mavens, salespeople, and connectors – what Mr. Gladwell calls “the law of the few.” Second, it already has developed scores of vivid stories of older adults serving the greater good, which, in Mr. Gladwell’s parlance, provide the “stickiness factor,” or the ability to appeal to people by turning conventional wisdom about the role of older people on its head. The movement only lacks a third key component in Mr. Gladwell’s theory, something he dubs “the power of context” – the social unit, the organizational model, the web of relationships where it all comes to life. Turning experienced adults into nonprofit leaders is important, to be sure. But I have decided that I was several years ahead of the curve with my idea to start a school to groom those leaders and that I should shift gears. Now I am turning my attention to a more fundamental first step: volunteering. This, after all, is where boomers could enter the civic arena and get their bearings. This is where we could turn volunteers into highly focused teams that could respond directly to specific needs of existing organizations. These teams could, for example, be financed through innovative contracts and a relatively new philanthropic instrument, the “social venture partnership,” in which donors pool their money to provide grants to nonprofit groups. And we could draw on such delivery systems as volunteer centers; affiliates of Hands On Network, a nonprofit group that promotes volunteerism; community foundations; and colleges and universities. For months I had marveled at what Muhammad Yunus, who accepted the Nobel Peace Prize in December, had accomplished with Grameen Bank in Bangladesh through his own experiment with the “power of context.” Groups of five women holding one another accountable in repaying microloans: That became the linchpin of his whole thriving enterprise. Now I am increasingly intrigued with what Aaron Hurst has accomplished at Taproot Foundation, in San Francisco, enlisting teams of pro bono business specialists to bring a needed infusion of expertise to nonprofit organizations in such areas as marketing and branding, technology, and human resources. Why not apply these very basic principles to engaging older Americans in service? I am beginning to think anew about what Margaret Mead said years ago: “Never doubt that a small group of committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Clint Wilkins, who retired as headmaster of Sage Hill School last spring, is an associate at the Skoll Centre for Social Entrepreneurship at the University of Oxford. He plans to write regular updates as he seeks to build a new way to engage the baby boomers in nonprofit work. His e-mail address is

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