In some ways, five years doesn’t seem like such a long time. And yet, in the past five years, so much has changed, economically, politically, even demographically, as the first wave of baby boomers moved into their 60s.
With many of those changes in mind, two foundations – The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation – joined forces with Encore.org, formerly known as Civic Ventures, to launch The Purpose Prize®. In just five years, we’ve named 307 Purpose Prize winners and fellows – the most inspiring crowd one could ever hope to meet.
To honor the winners, fellows and the fifth anniversary of The Prize, I’d like to share with you five critical lessons we’ve learned from this experience.
1. If you build it, they will come.
I remember very clearly the few days before nominations closed for the first Purpose Prize. Younger social entrepreneurs seemed to flock to programs like Echoing Green. But would older ones be attracted to The Purpose Prize? Were they even out there?
I needn’t have worried. On the first day of March 2006, when the doors closed, we had received 1,200 nominations. For five prizes. The Prize had clearly hit a vein of creativity – and one not easily exhausted. For five years now, we’ve received thousands upon thousands of nominations from people making extraordinary contributions in their encore careers.
Many of The Prize winners have taken great risks by building something, then watching people flock to it. Ann Higdon, a Prize winner in 2009, started a nonprofit that taught construction skills to a few dozen high school dropouts in Dayton, Ohio. Now she’s running charter schools teaching nursing, construction, computer operations and manufacturing to more than 400 students who might not have a future without her.
Ann learned something about return on investment, too. She won a $50,000 Purpose Prize last year, then turned around and leveraged it by raising more than $3 million. No wonder the Lifetime network named her one of our nation’s most remarkable women.
2. When it comes to longer lives, conventional wisdom isn’t particularly wise.
The nation is aging, the dictum goes, and we’re headed toward a period of declining innovation, entrepreneurship and creativity. Young people are creative, and old people are, at their best, seasoned. Really? The Purpose Prize has helped us see that innovation has no age limit and that people can do their most important work, the work they’re proudest of, in the second half of life.
People like Conchy Trelles Bretos, who might have retreated to the sidelines after losing an election. Instead she became Florida’s Secretary for Aging and Adult Services, a position that allowed her to see firsthand the thousands of low-income elders and disabled adults who, for lack of a little help, were being pushed prematurely from public housing into nursing homes.
Conchy became the driving force behind the nation’s first public housing project – Helen Sawyer Plaza in Miami – to bring assisted living services to older adults. Today she runs a consulting company helping 21 states develop assisted living projects that save taxpayers millions. And she’s working to put projects in every state.
3. Experience and entrepreneurship make a powerful pair.
In sharp relief to the vaunted image of the visionary, heroic change maker, those over 60 are often incremental entrepreneurs, putting two and two together, using common-sense insights to create institutions and solutions of great value.
After his wife died, Gary Maxworthy retired from a long career in food distribution and became an AmeriCorps/VISTA volunteer at the San Francisco Food Bank. Using knowledge he had gained in his first career, he created a way to distribute excess fresh produce from farmers to food banks all over California.
When he won The Purpose Prize in 2007, Gary’s program, Farm to Family, distributed 38 million pounds of fresh produce a year. This year, it delivered 100 million pounds. In the time in between, Gary won the prestigious Jefferson Award and started work on a fresh food program for California’s public schools.
4. Longer lives bring with them second chances.
Purpose Prize stories are more often ones of renewal than reinvention – of bringing together a lifetime of experience rather than of radical departures. Instead of the success-to-significance storyline, The Purpose Prize winners often tell a different tale – one of workaday lives to new purpose.
Jock Brandis was a lighting designer for low-budget movies and second-rate television productions. When his wife died, Jock visited a friend in Mali who was serving in the Peace Corps. He was shocked to see how harsh the peanut economy was on the hands (and wallets) of the local farmers. Using his well-honed tinkering skills, he created a $28 nut sheller which has revolutionized village economies in 17 countries.
Jock, who recalls being teased by his kids for helping to make some of the least distinguished movies of all time, won The Purpose Prize in 2008. His organization, The Full Belly Project, is now working to develop more inexpensive tools to fight global hunger and poverty.
5. Purpose Prize winners do great work and portend even better things to come.
Toni Heineman won The Purpose Prize in 2008 for helping foster kids. She started by recruiting a dozen therapists, each volunteering to work with one foster child for as long as that boy or girl wanted or needed help. It caught on – and her group, A Home Within, expanded to 20 chapters. In just two years, Toni’s organization, the only national nonprofit focused exclusively on the emotional needs of foster kids, has doubled in size to 40 chapters and won a major award from the Kenneth A. Picerne Foundation Social Entrepreneur Fund.
Purpose Prize winners like Toni are part of a vanguard that signals a promising future – for those they serve and for all of us who will one day be “of a certain age.” Their lives define a powerful dream of fulfillment, contribution and purpose for a time that was once considered the leftover years. And their contributions suggest a coming windfall of talent dedicated to shaping a better world, now and for generations to come.