Baby Boomers Find Second Careers Working for Social Change
STANFORD GRADUATE SCHOOL OF BUSINESS—It's time to redefine "having a senior moment," says David Campbell, founder of Hands On Worldwide. The new definition? "When our experience could help solve a problem."
Campbell, a retired technology executive in Carlisle, Mass., now heads a nonprofit that organizes volunteer disaster relief. He points to creative answers that he and his volunteers came up with during post-Katrina relief work in Biloxi, Miss.—when cars and gas were not available they handed out bicycles; to help locals navigate the battered city, volunteers made and erected new street signs to replace those swept away by wind and water. It was Campbell's decades of experience in the business world—including expanding Computer Task Group from 20 employees to over 4,000—that enabled him to grow his volunteer group from a handful to over 1,500 workers.
When most Americans think of retirement, they see golf courses, sandy beaches, and cruise ships. But another vision of retirement is gaining traction. That vision—"Americans leading with experience"—was the focus of the 2006 Purpose Prize and Innovation Summit, cosponsored by San Francisco-based Civic Ventures and the Center for Social Innovation at the Stanford Graduate School of Business on September 7-9. Americans in the second half of life are demonstrating "a tremendous wellspring of innovation" in the nonprofit world, says Marc Freedman, president of Civic Ventures and author of Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America. The goal of the Purpose Prize is to recognize a few such individuals by offering awards—of $100,000 and $10,000—to people over 60 who have shown uncommon vision and entrepreneurialism in addressing community and national problems.
Business graduates of all ages already engage with nonprofits in large numbers. According to a 2006 survey of Business School alumni, 68 percent had volunteered for a nonprofit. From the class of 1970 or earlier, more than 60 percent had served on a nonprofit board. Some 20 percent of those of their classmates had worked for a nonprofit, another 20 percent for a government agency. In contrast, about 10 percent of those from the 1990s had worked for a nonprofit and less than 2 percent for governments. Several factors seem to be attracting businesspeople to the nonprofit sector as they reach 50 and over.
First, Freedman points to economics. Many people simply cannot afford to retire at 60, but they would like to be paid for work that matters to them. "Work—and not volunteering—is the future of social engagement in the second half of life," he says. The traditional goal of "freedom from work" is being transformed into "freedom to work as an expression of one's better self," Freedman says.
Some see an opportunity for boomers to take the helm at nonprofits as the sector's needs grow. The field pays less than the for-profit sector and suffers significant turnover. In a 2006 survey of 2,000 nonprofit executive directors by CompassPoint and the Meyer Foundation, three-quarters said they planned to leave their jobs within the next five years. Thomas Tierney, founder and chairman of the Bridgespan Group, a nonprofit management consultancy, projects that in 2016 alone, 78,000 new senior managers will be needed, but projections vary. Thomas Pollak, associate director of the National Center for Charitable Statistics at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., using more conservative assumptions, projects the number of executive directors nonprofits and foundations will hire in 2016 to be around 28,000.
For those who have already made the leap, "retirement" means hard work. J. David Nelson's second career brought a longer commute and just as many hours on the job. After 33 years at IBM, including three years managing the company's largest business unit in China, Nelson left the corporate world to become COO at the National Foundation for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) in New York City, a group that engages low income youth in academics by training them to create their own businesses.. This year, the organization served 28,400 students—up from 6,800 when he joined five years ago. "I'm still challenged by what I'm doing," Nelson says.
Often, midlife executives encounter needs in their communities that drive the would-be retirees to get back into the fray, but this time, in nonprofit leadership roles.
Richard Chambers used his passion and his experience to create Bonnie CLAC near Hanover, N.H., a group that helps low-income people get the best possible car loans. Chambers had begun several businesses, including a New York computer software services business with many banking clients. Later, working in car sales, he watched as salesmen persuaded a low-income worker to purchase a used car and overpriced warranties, all with a high-interest loan.
As dealership employees gave each other high-fives over the $5,000 profit they'd just made, Chambers cringed. "I decided to do something about it," he says. His experience working with banks helped him navigate the terrain, but didn't solve all his problems. When approaching banks about offering better loans to low-income drivers, "I got the door slammed in my face a number of times," he recalls, before finding a way to make the deals profitable to both the bank and auto dealers.
Some executives want to solve problems in the business world. At 50, Susan S. Stautberg had already had a stellar career in media and TV journalism, including founding her own publishing company, MasterMedia. But her interests had evolved away from print and towards people, inspiring her to launch New York-based Partner Com, a company that helps assemble advisory and corporate boards. Noticing the dearth of women on corporate boards, she created a new service for women and minority leaders: OnBoard Bootcamp, a powerful networking and training experience for those interested in board membership. Stautberg also founded Women Corporate Directors, a group that links 195 women into a network with meetings in five cities to facilitate circulating news of board openings to each other.
When entering the nonprofit world in retirement, many say, the important thing is to "know thyself"—review the skills you already have and find a way to transfer them. Nelson remembers trying to get a position with a large foundation, thinking that he wanted to "give money away," when a colleague reminded him that he was an "operations guy" who would be miserable as a grantmaker. He needed to be out there doing the work itself, he realized—and soon after joined NFTE. Others, who prefer an advisory role may find satisfaction in serving on boards or as volunteers. Many begin their second careers with a part-time commitment.
A pitfall for those hoping to make the leap is that some nonprofits are fearful of retired executives trying to dictate to them or the people they serve. And some simply do not have the structure in place to use volunteers' or new employees' special skills. Several Purpose Prize fellows described being turned away from existing nonprofits. That motivated some to found their own organizations.
For Nelson, part of the challenge was convincing a skeptical staff that he was the right man for the job—and not too "corporate." At first he never mentioned IBM to his staff. To cope with cultural differences between the for-profit and nonprofit worlds, Nelson recalls, "I used some of the same ideas as when I went to China. Don't make assumptions, anticipate preconceived notions, and be an agent for discussion and change."
The recipe for successful leadership in the nonprofit world, it turns out, is very similar to that in the for-profit environment: "Be persistent, work harder, work smarter—and put in long hours," advises Stautberg. On top of that, you may have to be willing to be "both chairwoman and charwoman," she says, handling problems both big and small.
How many retired Americans will go to work for social change? The answer is uncertain, but clearly, the idea has already started to take off among funders, say Laura Robbins and Brian Hofland of Atlantic Philanthropies, a Purpose Prize funder. The Bermuda-based institution began a $30 million a year funding program in civic engagement four years ago as part of its U.S. aging program. At the outset, only a handful of other foundations were focusing on older Americans who were working for change in their communities. Now, says Robbins, a recent survey shows 32 grantmakers in the aging field have expressed interest in funding later-life civic action. "There is a real hunger and recognition for the role of civic engagement and the role of older adults," says Robbins.