A report from the epicenter of encore careers

PHOENIX – The ironic location of the Encore 2014 conference wasn’t lost on Marc Freedman, the organization’s founder and CEO: Maricopa County, Arizona, birthplace of the idea of retirement as a time of leisure. In January, 1960, Del Webb opened Sun City here.

Marc Freedman

Marc Freedman

“Webb was a remarkable social innovator, and he came up with the idea of a community where, because everyone was old, no one was old – you could recapture your youth,” Freedman said at the conference, which brought together 450 national leaders focused on social entrepreneurship and innovation in the latter half of life. “It was a a sort of version of the fountain of youth. He coined a beautiful phrase – the golden years, which became a centerpiece of the American dream for half a century. But it was never designed to support 30 years of another childhood – graying as playing. And as we enter this period of the 21st century, we’re going to really need to re-think the whole undertaking.”

Encore.org is focused on the country’s aging demographics and rising longevity – and the opportunity created by these converging trends to re-invent the concept of retirement around giving back to a hurting world.

The signature event at the Encore conference is the awarding of the annual Purpose Prize. Now in its ninth year, the prize recognizes trailblazers over age 60 who have tackled social problems creatively and effectively. Cash prizes range from $25,000 to $100,000 – in all, $300,000. The conference gets bigger every year, and now is complemented by the awarding of additional large cash prizes for social entrepreneurship by the Eisner Foundation.

This year’s winners include a business executive whose management prowess gave rise to a nonprofit that dispatches thousands of volunteers to global disaster sites; a child psychiatrist, daunted by the effects of poverty on public education, who designed a school-based program that reaches tens of thousands of children a year; and a rural reverend whose distress over too many congregants’ poor health inspired a community garden and family center that’s become a model for more than 20 church communities. You can read about all the winners here.

The encore vision has broad resonance among older Americans. Many want to stay engaged and work longer, sometimes out of economic need but often out of a deep motivation to give back. An Encore.org survey this year found that 55 percent of Americans view their later years as a time to use their experience and skills to make a difference, though just 28 percent say they are ready to make it happen.

But many people find the prospect of a leap this big very daunting – so I asked two of this year’s prize-winners for their advice on how to get started.

Kate Williams, 72, lost her eyesight to a rare degenerative disease after a long career as a corporate human resources professional. She overcame her own fears, first by moving away from friends and family in Southern California to start over in San Francisco and later by starting an employment training program for the blind. Today, she runs a similar, larger program for the national non-profit organization Lighthouse for the Blind. Williams was awarded a $25,000 Purpose Prize.

David Campbell, winner of a $100,000 prize this year, wanted to help after the Indian Ocean tsunami that devastated parts of Southeast Asia in 2004. A senior executive at several software and Internet technology companies, he figured he could help by creating a Web-based tool to organize volunteer tsunami relief efforts. That led him to start All Hands Volunteers, which has worked on 45 disaster relief projects in six countries and dozens of U.S. locations. The non-profit uses the Internet to route volunteers to places where they can be put to work effectively.

Purpose Prize winners are encore rock stars – but I tell their stories every year in hopes that they will inspire, not intimidate. Many of the social entrepreneurs gathered here this week are making small dents in social problems, and taking it one step at a time. Williams’ program, for example, has worked with 100 blind job seekers over the past three years, placing 40 percent of them.

Campbell urges people interested in encores to just pick a spot and get started.
“I always advise people to start by volunteering with some organization with social purpose – it’s an easy, great way to start. But the question many people have is, ‘Which one, and what might I do?’ ”

Campbell suggests people consider geography and the focus of the work. “Do you want to work locally, nationally or internationally? Do you care about health, education or some other thing? That starts the conversation and helps people narrow it down.”

Then, he says, visit a non-profit that interests you, and take the time to understand its needs.

“Be willing to help understand the mission, and do whatever it is they need help with. And don’t treat volunteering as a casual activity. You need to commit to a certain number of hours of work a week as though it were a paying job, and take responsibility for it.”