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The Purpose Prize: Often the Best Chapters are the Later Ones

Resource type: News

Gara LaMarche |

When Gordon Johnson was a teenager, his Dad took in two nieces and two nephews whose parents were unable to care for them. He never forgot his father’s big-spirited act, or the neglect by government care agencies that made it necessary. Mr. Johnson pursued a career in foster care programmes to help abused and neglected children, but was troubled for years by witnessing the impact on children taken from their homes and separated from their brothers and sisters. So in 1998, he did something about it.

Moving to Florida, Gordon Johnson started Neighbor To Family (, a private nonprofit foster care agency with the explicit goal of keeping siblings together in foster care. Neighbor To Family has also led the way in developing other innovations: foster parents in his programme are treated as employees, held accountable and paid modest salaries and benefits. Supportive teams of biological and foster parents, along with therapists and caseworkers work with each child to develop the best long-term approach. Since its founding, Neighbor To Family has helped 4,500 children, including 4,100 siblings. The kids in Gordon Johnson’s programme have spent 75 percent less time in foster homes than children in state-run programmes. Recently, Neighbor To Family has expanded to four other states — Georgia, North Carolina, Maryland and Virginia.

Next weekend, Gordon Johnson, 74, will join the four other top prize winners of this year’s Purpose Prize ( — $100,000 for each recipient — at Stanford University’s Graduate School of Business’ Center on Social Innovation to share their knowledge and experiences at an annual summit of older social innovators. An additional ten $10,000 prize winners and 40 more fellows will also be recognised for their work.

Atlantic and the Templeton Foundation joined forces to support Civic Ventures ( to establish and award The Purpose Prize, a three-year, $10 million programme that invests in social innovators over age 60. Now in its second year, The Purpose Prize is the nation’s only large-scale award for those in the second half of life working on critical social issues. You can learn more about the winners and the programme at

As Civic Ventures’ Founder and President, Marc Freedman, puts it: “The Purpose Prize was designed from the outset to be the opposite of a lifetime achievement award— rather, it’s an investment in what a set of 60-something innovators are going to do next.”

Standing alongside Gordon Johnson to be recognised this year will be four other $100,000 prize winners:

  • Donald Berwick (age 60, Cambridge, Massachusetts) founded the Institute for Healthcare Improvement ( to enlist wide-scale co-operation and scientifically-proven protocols to help hospitals improve care and save more than 100,000 lives.
  • H. Gene Jones (age 91, Tucson, Arizona) had the idea to create Opening Minds through the Arts ( to accelerate student achievement by integrating music and art in a districtwide curriculum that improves critical thinking, problem-solving and test scores.
  • Wilma Melville (age 73, Ojai, California) launched the National Disaster Search Dog Foundation ( to save lives at disaster sites by training rescued dogs to serve on canine-firefighter search teams.
  • Sharon Rohrbach (age 64, St. Louis, Missouri) created the Nurses for Newborns Foundation ( to save the lives of newborns through home visits by nurses.

Brian Hofland, director of Atlantic’s Ageing Programme, says that “The Purpose Prize identifies and honours older-adult pioneers who are a source of solutions for society’s problems. Just imagine how our society could be transformed if there were easy pathways for older persons to make such contributions.”

In my professional and personal life, I’ve been fortunate to be surrounded by older people who not only refuse to “retire,” but who start new chapters – what Marc Freedman calls “encore” careers — in their sixties and seventies: The late ACLU Founder Roger Baldwin, who left the nation’s leading rights institution to pioneer in the early days of the international human rights movement, helping to establish civil liberties guarantees in postwar Japan and elsewhere; the late Eli Ginzberg, who followed a successful academic and government career by launching the Revson Fellows Program at 71 and overseeing it for the next 20 years; Herb Sturz, 76, my colleague at the Open Society Institute, who founded the Vera Institute for Justice in his 30s, and in his 60s and 70s played a critical role in launching no fewer than three civic ventures, Atlantic-grantee The After-School Corporation, a South African affordable housing venture called NURCHA (National Urban and Reconstruction Agency), and a senior paid volunteer corps called ReServe, and who currently is immersed in trying to find solutions to the subprime mortgage crisis; my longtime friend Bernie Bellush, who turns 90 next week – Happy Birthday, Bern! — who stepped down 30 years ago from a brilliant career as a City College history professor to start a second chapter as a columnist for The Forward; Marie Wilson, 66, founding director of the Ms. Foundation for Women and creator of “Take Our Daughters to Work Day,” who launched the White House Project to promote and foster women’s leadership; and Atlantic’s own trustee, Fritz Schwarz, 73, whose impressive career in private practice as a key Cravath, Swaine & Moore partner and government service as counsel to the Church Committee, New York Corporation Counsel in the Koch Administration was but a prelude to his current roles as Chair of the New York City Campaign Finance Board, and Senior Counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice, where he is a leading figure in the fight to restrain unchecked Presidential power.

Lifting up the vision and accomplishments of people like them, and celebrating The Purpose Prize honorees, we remind a youth-worshipping society that civic engagement and social impact don’t end at 60, or 70, or 90. A lifetime of experience can do a world of good. Since Atlantic is set to go out of business in 2017 or so, when I’m 63, I’m already thinking about my encore career!


Last week I addressed the annual meeting of Grantmakers in Aging and reflected on some of what I’ve learned about the issue in my six months at Atlantic, particularly through the lens of my career as a human rights advocate. If you’re interested, the talk is available elsewhere on our website by following this link.

Gara LaMarche