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The Encore Career Movement Grows Up

After an upbeat conference, four challenges lie ahead


To me, there’s nothing more inspiring than being surrounded by inspiring people. I just had that experience, covering Encore.org’s sold-out Encore2016 conference in San Francisco, a gathering of 405 encore career movement activists, advocates and ambassadors from 14 countries. Their mission: to cultivate second acts for the greater good.

Journalist Debbie Galant, of Midcenturymodern magazine on Medium.com, calls it “the Super Bowl of aging consciousness.” I’ve been to two previous Encore conferences, but this one seemed the most significant because I sense the encore movement is at a crossroads, with exciting opportunities as well as serious challenges.

In part, it’s because recognition that older people have so much to offer has caught up with the movement, started by Encore.org founder and CEO Marc Freedman.

“I feel a shift in the zeitgeist,” Freedman told the attendees, about half of whom were attending their first Encore conference. He cited two markedly different examples from 2015: The Pope’s U.S. visit where, as Freedman noted, the pontiff “talked about older people as a storehouse of wisdom forged by experience.” And The Intern, starring Robert De Niro as a 70-year-old intern, with its tagline: “Experience never gets old.”

Encore.org will put more emphasis on the broader “greater good” part of its tagline and less on the more personal “second act” part.

But partly, it’s because Encore.org has itself grown into adulthood and is evolving.

The Biggest Encore News

The biggest news from the conference came at the ritzy San Francisco Jazz Center ceremony honoring the six impressive winners of Encore’s 10th annual Purpose Prize, where Freedman announced to the gasping crowd that, going forward, AARP would take over the Purpose Prize.

But the real news is that, going forward, Encore.org will lead the encore movement by putting more emphasis on the broader “greater good” part of its tagline and less on the more personal “second act” part.

Freedman told me: “What I’m most excited about is the rededication to the goal of social impact, which was the original idea.” In some ways, he added, “we’ve become so focused on the encore career idea for second acts that we haven’t put sufficient emphasis on the objective of them to enhance the greater good.”

The Big Idea the group is now advancing: its new five-year Encore Campaign for Children and Youth, aimed at mobilizing one million adults over 50 to help at-risk children in America and combat inequality. Freedman calls it “the North Star for the whole movement.” The campaign’s goal, said Encore.org President Ann MacDougall: “to improve the lives of millions of kids.”

Freedman explained it to me this way: “People are realizing that inequality is spiraling in the immediate future, but it could be exponentially worse 10 to 20 years down the road as a result of the struggles of low-income kids today.”

A New Focus on Encores to Help At-Risk Kids

The theme of older adults bonding with children permeated the conference. “We need to do more things to make kids happy,” enthused 2015 Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact winner Rev. Belle Mickelson, whose awesome Dancing With the Spirit group brings music to children in remote Alaskan villages.

The conference awarded the two 2015 Eisner Prizes for Intergenerational Excellence to nonprofits Generations United (whose Executive Director, Donna Butts, was named a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging last year) and L.A. Kitchen. Last year, former Disney CEO Michael Eisner rededicated his family’s Eisner Foundation to exclusively funding “innovative and effective intergenerational programs.”

Eisner told me: “When we’ve done site visits, the electricity between the older generation and the younger generation was palpable.” He’s hoping the Eisner Prizes and his foundation’s work “can put a spotlight” on cross-generational efforts and that “others will fund and copy them.” Eisner joked: “Copying is bad in my business — entertainment — but here, we encourage it. We call it ‘replicating.’”

4 Challenges Facing the Encore Movement

I mentioned that the encore movement faces challenges. The four biggest, I think:

1. Diversity  It’s about making encore careers more inviting, and more possible, for low- and middle-income people over 50. Currently, most encore work is either unpaid volunteering or small-stipend paid, part-time work.

MacDougall said one of the key questions the encore movement faces is “Is it really for people like me?” and added a few questions of her own: “How do we involve more people who are struggling financially and need a paycheck or a stipend to do the work? How do we bring in more people of color and of different groups and cultures?” She said she was committed to “take on the challenges to make the movement broader and more inclusive.”

Encore just published noteworthy research documenting the usefulness of 1,698 encore folks to the nonprofits that brought them in: 73 percent contributed new ideas, approaches or tools to their organizations and 49 percent helped reduce operating costs or improve service delivery. They also often mentored other staffers and got high marks for their short learning curves.

“We learned that in well-managed organizations that understand how to utilize encore talent, people can have surprising impacts in areas you wouldn’t normally expect of people 50-plus,” said Jim Emerman, Encore.org’s executive vice president and co-author of The Encore Impact Project: A Study of Encore Talent of Work.

But none of the second act-ers in the research study were earning what you could call a living. “One of the challenges for the encore movement is finding ways to engage people who need financial support in some way,” said Emerman.

2. Conquering funding constraints of nonprofits started, and run by, people in encore careers  I heard tales of financial woe repeatedly during the conference, even from, or about, this year’s and last year’s Purpose Prize winners.

Mickelson told me that funding has been her greatest challenge in launching her encore career. And David Campbell, a 2014 Purpose Prize winner who runs the effective international disaster-relief nonprofit All Hands Volunteers, said: “It’s painful to run out of money and abort projects, but you just have to soldier on. It’s friggin’ hard.” (To learn more about how Campbell has kept his group afloat, read his new book, All Hands.)

2014 Purpose Prize winner Charles Fletcher recently shut down his SpiritHorse Therapeutic Riding Center and ended its riding sessions for kids, due to “heavy financial losses.” He told the Dallas Morning News that he’ll continue offering training programs for instructors from other equine therapy centers.

3. Getting others to propel the movement  Despite the size of the conference, Encore.org is a small, resource-challenged nonprofit. That’s why it’s increasingly turning to others to champion encore careers and why the organization can’t do much in the “how to launch an encore career” vein.

Betsy Werley, Encore.org’s director of network expansion, is leading the charge to find and nurture partners. Right now, there are local formal encore networks in Boston, Tampa Bay and Seattle, with others in the pipeline in Denver and Washington, D.C. Encore’s also making a global push.

“When people step forward, we really support their efforts,” said Werley. “The network’s focus is building demand for encore talent and raising awareness of the encore concept.”

She’s had recent success linking to an association of retiree organizations in higher education, helping bring ex-academicians into the encore fold at their alma maters. And a new online toolkit targets hiring managers, primarily at nonprofits. Which brings me to the last challenge…

4. Persuading businesses to hop on the encore bandwagon  I was struck at the Encore conference by how strong the focus was on encore work at nonprofits and how weak a role the private sector is playing. I didn’t hear a soul talk about a company helping its pre-retirees or retirees learn about encore careers, let alone bring back former full-timers to do part-time mentoring or other forms of service.

“The number of corporations who have been involved in social innovation — like Intel, with its Encore Fellows Program, and Merrill Lynch, which has been changing the narrative about this period of life — remains small,” bemoaned Freedman. “But I think we’re approaching a tipping point. The accumulation of people at this stage of life with a desire to do something important will prompt a growing number of companies to invest much more in the notion of purposeful second acts.”

I’d like to believe that, but I’m not sure I do.

Pearls From Purpose Prize Winners

But I’ll finish on a high note, to reflect the optimism and cheerfulness at the conference. The best way to do this is to quote four of the 2015 Purpose Prize winners from their awards ceremony:

“There are people praying for each of you to come and help them and when you answer that call, you’re going to be blessed beyond anything you could ever imagine.” — Rev. Belle Mickelson

“My encore career has been the culmination of all my life’s experiences — even the bad experiences.”Laurie Ahern, president of Disability Rights International

“My mom says my first words weren’t ‘Mom’ and ‘Dad.’ They were ‘Why not?’”Patricia Foley Hinnen, founding CEO of Capital Sisters International and winner of the Purpose Prize for Financial Inclusion

“There is no expiration date for dreams,” Jamal Joseph, founder of IMPACT Repertory Theatre

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