November 24, 2005

Getting on Board With Boomers

A handful of grant makers hope their efforts will spur more support of programs to engage older adults

As nonprofit organizations look for ways to finance programs to encourage older Americans to volunteer,

they are confronted with a dilemma: How will they pay for programs that draw in older adults — particularly those who want to use their experience and specialized skills to help solve large social problems?

So far, grant makers have not been enthusiastic about financing such efforts. Less than 2 percent of all foundation grant making is earmarked for projects that deal with aging. Leaders at some foundations say that less than 10 percent of that amount goes to programs that promote civic engagement of older adults; most of the money goes to programs that deal with the health and long-term care of the elderly.

But those who keep an eye on foundation trends say they see a growing interest in supporting programs that would strengthen the ties between older would-be volunteers and charities. Already, one of the the largest grant makers, Atlantic Philanthropies, is pouring a big share of its assets into efforts to help nonprofit groups put retired people and other older Americans to work on social causes. And as the first members of the baby-boom generation reach 60 in January, interest is building.

"The baby boomers are coming," says Carol A. Farquhar, executive director of Grantmakers In Aging, in Dayton, Ohio, a group of more than 100 foundations that make grants for projects to help people 55 and older. Noting that the percentage of people age 65 and older could grow from about 13 percent of the total U.S. population today to more than 20 percent within 30 years, Ms. Farquhar says that such figures have started to get grant makers thinking about new projects. "The demographics are finally getting everyone's attention."

Some foundation officials add that their status as boomers plays at least a small role in their attention to aging and social involvement among older adults.

Says Stacey Easterling, manager of community-response grant making at the Cleveland Foundation: "Most of us in nonprofits and foundations are boomers and many of us aren't looking to stop working. There's a personal drive behind a lot of this."

"I'm 54," says Diana Sieger, president of the Grand Rapids Community Foundation, in Grand Rapids, Mich. "These types of programs are being planned for me and people like me."

Four years ago the foundation decided to supplement its grants to groups that help sick and frail elderly people with awards to organizations that try to get the baby boomers involved in civic causes.

Changing Perceptions

Some grant makers believe that foundations owe it to the greater good to tap the potential of the generation born in the 18 years that followed the end of World War II.

The aging of baby boomers "is seen as a liability by most of the country," says Marshall Kaplan, executive director of Children First-A Merage Foundation, in Newport Beach, Calif.

The foundation, started by the businessman Paul Merage (The Chronicle, June 23), makes grants to programs that link retired lawyers, doctors, and other professionals with organizations that provide teachers and mentors to needy children. The boomers have the potential "to drain Social Security, drain Medicare, be a burden to their children," says Mr. Kaplan. He believes, however, that they can also become an asset by being put to work on solutions to social problems. "This natural resource — more affluent, healthier, more skilled than their parents, and more likely to live longer — must not be ignored."

Brian F. Hofland, director of the aging program at Atlantic Philanthropies, says that the coming wave of boomers helped him persuade the foundation's board in 2001 that finding meaningful work for the people about to reach their 60s would be a good use of its money.

"I wanted to be bold," says Mr. Hofland, who has worked on aging issues for foundations and organizations since 1976. "I saw this as a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity."

Atlantic Philanthropies plans to spend all of its endowment — currently at $3.8-billion — over the next 12 to 15 years as part of the "giving while living" philosophy of Charles F. Feeney, its founder, who is now 75.

The foundation makes grants primarily to four causes, including human rights and population issues, but John R. Healy, its chief executive, says that its awards to programs focused on aging perhaps most closely tie in with plans to shut down by 2020.

"As demographics change, it makes sense to put a lot of money upfront into these programs," says Mr. Healy. "It pays to get a lot of these programs up and running now, so that the outlook for volunteerism improves in the future."

Since 2001, Atlantic Philanthropies has awarded about $50-million to programs in the United States that promote the civic engagement of older people — by far the largest outlay of any foundation. It gave a total of $140-million during that period for aging programs, the bulk of the money going to health programs.

Still, Mr. Hofland and other Atlantic officials would like to see other large grant makers do more to focus on efforts to enage older Americans in nonprofit work.

"One of our major goals is to persuade other foundations about the viability of doing this," says Mr. Hofland. "We try to convene meetings with foundation leaders and grantees as often as we can."

Atlantic Philanthropies has successfully found one big partner. It is now working with the John Templeton Foundation, in West Conshohocken, Pa., to offer prizes of $100,000 each to five people a year aged 60 or older who have come up with the best solutions to social problems.

Templeton decided to become involved in the social-innovation prize after entering into discussions with Marc Freedman, head of Civic Ventures, a think tank in San Francisco, says Kimon H. Sargeant, vice president of human sciences at Templeton.

Templeton has a history of offering prizes, most notably through its annual awarding of the $1.5-million Templeton Prize for Progress Toward Research Discoveries About Spiritual Realities, which it has given out each year since 1973. That interest in rewarding people who will serve as exemplars, plus the philosophy of John Templeton Sr., its 93-year-old founder, on remaining vital after retirement, spurred the foundation to co-sponsor the prize.

"We've made several grants to people who have written books or conducted research into retirement and how people can find meaning in life even after they've finished working," says Mr. Sargeant. "This was a good fit."

'New Models'

Mr. Hofland says the need for grant makers to support programs that keep the baby boomers healthy and encourage them to become involved with charities will continue to grow. Charities will need grant money to retool their volunteer strategies, to hire more staff members that would handle volunteers, and to devise new ways for boomers to help.

"We need new leaders, new organizations, new models," he says. What's more, spreading the idea that civic engagement is important as people age is a task that would be greatly aided by more foundation money, Mr. Hofland says. He and Mr. Healy say they are surprised the issue isn't front and center among grant makers.

"Demographics have crept up on us and foundations are just catching up," says Mr. Healy. "We can't figure out why other foundations' boards aren't all over this."

Debra E. Blum contributed to this article.