Civic Ventures Aims to Bring Out the Benevolence in Boomers

by What's Next

An entrepreneurial nonprofit, Civic Ventures, directs the energy of would-be retirees into philanthropic endeavors that capitalize on their deep, profound experience and drive to give back.

Since they first learned to speak, boomers have promised a lot: peace, love, universal health care.

Most lofty goals have proved elusive, but as the largest demographic bulge in the nation’s history starts turning 60 their nagging urge to improve the world has survived undimmed. So it’s hardly surprising that many boomers now predict they will revolutionize the concept of retirement—and even old age. To hear some tell it, the revolution will take the form of a gift—a massive gift of experience and knowledge bequeathed from our generation to those younger.

Of course, health and career have already changed dramatically over the last generation or two. People live longer now and they do so in better health, thanks to balanced diets, advanced medicine and smarter habits involving less smoke and more exercise. Sharp minds and bodies, it seems, don’t settle well into lazy days of retirement. They also don’t remain as utterly motivated by cash and prestige—the mantras of many boomers’ heyday. Instead, a whole generation of would-be retirees is ushering in a golden age of “giving back” that takes their Peace Corps ethic to a whole new level.

A big believer in and supporter of this movement, Marc Freedman has created a nonprofit called Civic Ventures that raises millions of dollars to promote the involvement of Americans over 50 in civic and community-oriented endeavors. The funding comes from organizations such as the Atlantic Philanthropies and the Ashoka Foundation—institutions aimed at educating, equipping and mobilizing people of all ages and incomes to develop solutions to broad social problems.

Civic Ventures, “a think tank and an incubator generating ideas and inventing programs to help society achieve the greatest return on experience,” was the brainchild of Freedman and John W. Gardner. Gardner, who died in 2002, was Lyndon Johnson’s secretary of Health, Education and Welfare. He was deeply involved in the creation of Medicare, the Older Americans Act and numerous other social programs. In 1988, he wrote that older people “have an active feeling of obligation to our society and our communities.”

Providing a pathway

The sentiment was prophetic. “Surveys show,” Freedman writes, “that the vast majority of boomers expects to work long past traditional retirement years, and they are eager to apply their idealism and passion to work that makes a meaningful contribution to society. But how will they get from midlife careers to more flexible jobs for the greater good? Where are the paths and the role models to guide them?”

Civic Ventures is hardly the only nonprofit that recognizes the boomer cohort’s potential. About 400 of the Peace Corps’ nearly 8,000 volunteers are over 50. AARP, Habitat for Humanity, the National Senior Service Corps and numerous other organizations help would-be volunteers find work. But only a few organizations help cultivate and grow the boomer work force.

The distinction between volunteer and paid work is crucial. For one, people tend to approach paid work with greater energy and commitment. Then there is the fact that boomers, though healthier, wealthier and, if not wiser, at least better educated than previous generations, have been distinctly spotty in the saving department. One survey notes that eight out of ten boomers intend to continue working into their “retirements,” but only a third expect to cut back their standards of living. In short, plenty of boomers won’t be retiring because they’ll need to keep making money.

Still, Civic Ventures’ signature program is essentially an unpaid labor of love. Experience Corps mobilizes Americans over 55 to serve as tutors and mentors to students in urban public schools. Today, 1,800 Corps members are working in 14 cities. Their principal goal is to improve literacy, but they are also there to provide leadership and guidance in other ways.

Experience Corps personnel receive more leeway than conventional employees in defining their tasks and schedules. They work in teams and are dispatched to schools in sufficient numbers to make a real difference for the schools in which they work. Eleven years after its start as a pilot program in only five cities, the program seems an unqualified success. “Experience Corps boosts student academic performance, helps schools and youth-serving organizations become more successful, strengthens ties between these institutions and surrounding neighborhoods, and enhances the well-being of the volunteers in the process,” Freedman says.

Encouraging social entrepreneurship

There is more to Civic Ventures than the Experience Corps. A program called The Next Chapter offers expertise and assistance to local groups engaging midlife and older adults in meaningful community service. It sponsors the Purpose Prize, a new annual award given to individuals over the age of 60 whose work challenges assumptions about aging and contributes to the greater social good. Starting this year, five winners will receive $100,000; 60 runners-up will be designated the “Sixty at Sixty+.” All will receive national recognition for their work.

Then there is the Still Working documentary project—120 first-person portraits of “post-midlife” individuals who’ve found fulfillment in public service—which aims to provide role models and answers for aging boomers wondering about the next step.

At this point, the so-called trend toward baby boomer benevolence is, in large part, wishful thinking. All the statistical evidence supporting this trend is based on surveys of people’s intentions, not their actions. At the same time, a study by the Harvard School of Public Health on boomers and civic engagement shows that, “compared to their parents’ generation, the so-called ‘Greatest Generation,’ boomers have done less by every measure of civic engagement, including rates of voting and joining community groups.”

On the other hand, there are so many boomers that even a modest fraction of them would swell the volunteer ranks. And there is a good chance that many of them will be looking for something worthwhile to do with their time. After all, Freedman points out, “They know they’re likely to live another 25 years (after retirement).” Boomers believe they thrive on challenges and they take their place in history very seriously. With any luck, their best is yet to come.


by What's Next | Wednesday, March 4, 2009 | Career Change, Nonprofit Jobs

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