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The Innovation of Age

Resource type: News

The Chronicle of Philanthropy |

Purpose Prize honors achievements of older Americans who use their talents to solve social issues They might not seem to have much in common: a chief executive officer making his multinational corporation more environmentally friendly, a former physical-education teacher now training search-and-rescue dogs, an erstwhile restaurateur helping Latinos succeed in business, and an Episcopal priest fighting global warming from the pulpit. But each of them – Ray Anderson, Wilma Melville, Sara Gonzales, and Sally Bingham – are among the 15 finalists for the second annual Purpose Prize, an award program designed to honor people 60 and older who are finding innovative ways to solve social problems. The award is administered by Civic Ventures, a San Francisco think tank that develops and promotes ways to engage older Americans in social service. “As a society, we have done little to elevate or underwrite the remarkable efforts of a new movement of individuals in their 60s, 70s, and beyond who constitute a lost continent of social entrepreneurship and leadership,” the group said in a statement. By highlighting the stories of older Americans who have developed social innovations, Civic Ventures hopes to “inspire millions of baby boomers to find ways to use their talents to tackle big issues.” The fifteen finalists, ages 60 to 91, will each receive $10,000. Five of the finalists will be awarded $100,000 Purpose Prizes in September. The Atlantic Philanthropies, in New York, and the John Templeton Foundation, in West Conshohocken, Pa., are providing the prize money. Going ‘Around the Bend’ Ray Anderson, founder and chief executive officer of Interface, an international carpet manufacturer in Atlanta, says he is excited to be a Purpose Prize finalist. However, the 72-year-old is not surprised by the number of older Americans finding novel ways to contribute to society. “There’s a wealth of stored knowledge in the minds of retirees, and we are living longer and healthier lives,” he says. “It only makes sense that people want to fill those days with work that is meaningful and rewarding.” Mr. Anderson was 60 in 1995 when he had an ecological “epiphany” after reading Paul Hawken’s book The Ecology of Commerce, which details industry’s often dire impact on the environment. He then started an aggressive effort to make his company as “green” as possible. To date, he has cut his firm’s polluting emissions by more than half, made significant reductions in energy and water use, and found ways to recycle hundreds of tons of material previously sent to landfills – all while seeing profits increase. While today Mr. Anderson travels extensively to preach the benefits of corporate environmental responsibility to other business leaders, initially, he says, some folks in the office were whispering that he’d “gone around the bend.” He took it as metaphor for bold new ways of thinking. “I told them that it was my job to go around the bend, because that’s where our future is,” he says. Sherry Lansing, chief executive of the Sherry Lansing Foundation in Los Angeles and former chair of Paramount Pictures’ Motion Picture Group, heads the panel of judges that will select the five Purpose Prize winners. Other panel members include Sidney Poitier, the actor and producer; Gloria Steinem, the feminist and activist; Gen. Eric Shinseki, a retired Army chief of staff; and Harris Wofford, a former U.S. senator from Pennsylvania. The other finalists are: Gloria Jackson Bacon, 69, of Chicago. Founded Project 18 to provide a comprehensive array of social, educational, and medical services to poor families. Donald Berwick, 60, of Cambridge, Mass. Started the 100,000 Lives Campaign to improve hospital safety and reduce unnecessary deaths. Sally Bingham, 66, of San Francisco. Started the Interfaith Power and Light Campaign to unite people of all religious faiths in the fight against global warming. Phil Borges, 64, of Seattle. Founded Bridges to Understanding, which uses technology to build cultural awareness among students worldwide. Richard Cherry, 64, of New York. Founded the Community Environmental Center to help low-income people save money through energy conservation. Adele Douglass, 60, of Herndon, Va. Founded Humane Farm Animals Care to improve the treatment of farm animals. Jose-Pablo Fernandez, 62, of Houston. Started the Community Centers Alliance to help Hispanics expand their educational and career goals. Sara J. Gonzales, 71, of Atlanta. Started the Hispanic American Center for Economic Development to help Hispanic entrepreneurs open their own businesses. Gordon Johnson, 74, of Daytona Beach, Fla. Founded Neighbor to Family to help keep siblings together while in foster care. H. Gene Jones, 91, of Tucson. Created Opening Minds Through the Arts to provide arts education to youngsters as a way to improve their academic performance. Marian Kramer, 62, of Detroit. Helped develop legislation making it easier for poor households to pay their water bills and avoid shutoffs. Gary Maxworthy, 69, of San Francisco. Founded Farm to Family to distribute surplus produce to needy families. Wilma Melville, 73, of Ojai, Calif. Founded the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation to increase the number of dogs trained for search-and-rescue work. Sharon Rohrbach, 64, of St. Louis. Founded the Nurses for Newborns Foundation to bring nurses into the homes of new mothers who are poor or face personal hardships.

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United States


Civic Ventures, Purpose Prize