Encore For a Local Audience

When Gayle Orange says she wants to find the "heart connection" of Baby Boomers in the metro Grand Rapids area, she isn't referring to their potential health problems.

On the contrary, Orange is looking to tap into what will make up 20 percent of the entire population of Kent County for the long-term benefit of her organization, the Camp Fire USA West Michigan Council.  The council is one of a number of non-profit organizations locally that now are systematically pursuing citizens age 50 years and older that tend to be rich with life experience and generous with donations.

At stake is the survival and growth of many organizations that add significantly to the quality of life in metro Grand Rapids.  But the real winners in harnessing the 50 and older crowd are the volunteers themselves, says  Kate Luckert Schmid, program director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation

"We are looking at an asset-based approach to aging," says Schmid about the foundation's Encore initiative that aims to mobilize the plus-50 demographic. "There has been a lot of discussion by other groups about assisted living facilities, more home-delivered meals, things like that. Rather than focus on where they will live or how they will get their nutrition, we really centered in on what people will do at that age."

The First Group
Launched a few months ago, Encore invited a dozen local non-profit organizations to meet with experts from Temple University at the foundation's office in February to learn the practical aspects at engaging older individuals who can help solve communitywide problems. At that three-day workshop, the university experts also instructed individuals from the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy and Nonprofit Leadership at Grand Valley State University on how to continue the training locally.

Orange, executive director of the local Camp Fire USA council, says she came away with a cohesive plan after the February workshop to build on the natural support that former members of Camp Fire Girls would have for her organization. In the mid-1970s, Camp Fire Girls changed its name and began to serve both boys and girls in primarily through after-school programs that emphasize youth development.  The local council of Camp Fire USA serves about 2,500 children with more than 400,000 contact hours annually per year.

While the local council found that it had a huge reserve of goodwill primarly with women who were involved as children in the Camp Fire Girl program, old records weren't useful because they identified girls by their maiden names that were later changed when they married.

"When we were able to go through this training, it really helped us to come up with an action plan as to how we were going to go after our alum," Orange said.
 
Based on the plan,  the organization did mailings, took out advertising and distributed posters to find Camp Fire alumni. Then the organization made an assessment of how inviting it was to older volunteers. "It allowed us to say: Okay, we have the names of these people, now what do we do with them? How do we reconnect with them and re-engage them in the organization?" 

Key to the Solution
The Grand Rapids Community Foundation believes that tapping into the aging population  "absolutely is part of the solution" for organizations like the Camp Fire USA to sustain and grow, Schmid says.

There are two demographic trends that bolster that belief, she says. About one out of every 10 individuals in Kent County is over the age of 65 now, but that age group will double in size about 20 years from now.  Further, experts nationwide say surveys of the Baby Boomer population consistently show that the group wants to connect with and help their communities by using their life experiences.
 
Schmid says staff at the foundation developed the Encore concept over the past five years as they considered ramifications of the aging populace in Kent County, and the board has embraced the concept enthusiastically as part of the foundation's mission. Established in 1922, the foundation disperses as much as $8 million annually in grants from proceeds of its endowment of nearly $240 million. 

Gone are the days, Schmid says, when Americans in their 50s saw themselves on the cusp of retirement and old age. As baby boomers have hit the half-century mark, many of them are searching for second careers, for new challenges that will add meaning to their lives.

The Second Half of Life
She says Encore takes its name from a book written by Marc Freedman called "Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life." Freedman said many people entering or already in their 50s "are moving beyond mid-life careers."

Taken collectively, Freedman says, contributions from today's 50+ population "have the potential to solve significant social problems." The challenge for communities is to "pave the way for this windfall of talent, experience, and commitment," he writes.

Schmid says the foundation will continue to support the Encore initiative by hosting the workshops at 185 Oakes St. SW, subsidizing the cost of attending the workshops for agencies that meet certain criteria and funding selected activities that result from workshop planning.

Upcoming workshops will be taught in May and October by trainers from the Johnson Center for Philanthropy.  Individuals who are interested in learning more about the workshop should contact the Johnson Center, and the cost for the first workshop series is $150 for 2 seats.  "We highly recommend that each group be represented by two staff members, one of whom has decision-making authority for an organization's staffing and volunteer opportunities," Schmid says.

At the workshops, participants learn how to draw on the talents, skills, and passions of people 50 and older; craft compelling opportunities that will appeal to them; develop effective ways to market such opportunities; manage an inter-generational work force; and create a doable, outcomes-driven action plan, she says.

Jane Royer, who heads up the Volunteer Center ofWest Michigan United Way, says she attended the January-February workshop to design volunteer opportunities "that really match our organization's needs with the energy, expertise, and desires of people over 50. Research shows there are about 78 million people leaving their primary careers and looking for ways to do meaningful work in their communities."
 
She says the workshops are particularly timely because of the nation's economic woes. "It's good for organizations to begin to think of how they can tap into the resources that are available," Royer says. "And we want to be ready for those opportunities -- to be pro-active and to respond to the desires of people to serve their community."



Keith Essenburg is a local freelance writer whose work has appeared in daily publications, business magazines, and on line. 

Matt Gryczan is the managing editor of Rapid Growth.

Photos:

Kate Luckert Schmid, program director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation (3)

Photographs by Brian Kelly -All Rights Reserved

Signup for Email Alerts