Looking Through an 'Opportunity Lens' to See Older Adults' Potential
How three youth-serving organizations do it to find volunteers and staff
While he was in his 90s, my grandfather packed a bag, got on an Amtrak train in Boston and came to see me in Philadelphia. A few hours after his arrival, he installed a mini-art installation in my vestibule, attended a Picasso exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art and taught me about the city’s history. (How did he know so much about it? He was from Queens!)
Later that evening, I took him to a dinner party and, to my surprise, almost nobody spoke to him. They smiled kindly, made sure he was well-fed and comfortable and basically ignored him. Many guests at that dinner were “creative types” and people who deeply value “networking.” They’re always on the lookout for potential collaborations and new projects. But they missed a great opportunity sitting right in front of them.
A Missed Opportunity: My Grandfather
What could have happened that night if the guests had viewed Grandpa as a source for networking and collaboration? What kind of relationships could have been formed? What would they have learned from an artist who mentored many younger artists? What projects could have been planned?
Quite simply, the guests lacked an “opportunity lens” — an ability to see the potential of older people to contribute in rich ways to whatever activity is at hand. What was lost on that evening is lost every day when we overlook the potential assets that older adults in our communities and networks can bring to work being done with children and youth.
As the director of leadership and learning for Encore.org’s Generation to Generation campaign (Gen2Gen), I meet regularly with youth-serving organizations that engage adults 50+ to expand their reach, improve programs, recruit new sources of volunteers and identify new pipelines for staff. The organizations that are most successful invariably describe using an opportunity lens. Some do it intentionally, others more instinctively, but all of them are reaping benefits by looking at the older adults in their midst as a source for new opportunities and solutions hidden in plain sight.
3 Groups Using an 'Opportunity Lens'
Here are three stories that illustrate the point:
The Eastman Community Association in Grantham, N.H., was originally a seasonal retirement community. In recent years, as younger families with children moved in, the community developed some excellent programs to build intergenerational connections. They also boosted engagement and opportunities by using an opportunity lens.
One day while out walking, Leslie Moses, chief community living officer at Eastman, came across an older community member building a boat. Rather than simply observing a retired man engaged in a hobby, she saw an opportunity for building intergenerational connection and learning. And she kept seeing more opportunities to build connections, all of which decreased social isolation and increased a sense of purpose for older residents, while supporting positive youth development.
The boat builder now regularly teaches boat-building skills to young people. And in 2016, Eastman was awarded “Best Intergenerational Community” by Generations United, a nonprofit improving the lives of children and older adults through intergenerational programs, policies and strategies.
FIRST 5 Santa Clara, a Santa Clara County, Calif.-based funder for early childhood programs, joined the Gen2Gen campaign in 2017 to find ways to engage older adults as volunteers in FIRST 5-funded Family Resource Centers (FRCs) to support the health, early learning and development of children. In addition to developing formal volunteer roles, the FRC staff also intuitively brought the opportunity lens to informal settings, always asking themselves when they interacted with adults 50+: “How could this person become engaged with the FRC and the children?”
At one FRC health fair, a group of older adults were coincidentally practicing Tai chi and fan dancing nearby. Rather than observing the scene simply as “seniors exercising in the park,” the staff saw a potential opportunity for intergenerational, cross-cultural engagement and invited them to perform for the children during the health fair.
In the past year, the resource centers have added more than 50 volunteers just by engaging grandparents who were visiting the centers with their grandchildren. FIRST 5 is now expanding the Gen2Gen model to all of its FRCs countywide.
Ascentria Care Alliance, based in Worcester, Mass., is one of 10 sites that comprise the Second Acts Initiative of the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities, which partners with Gen2Gen. Each site is implementing best practices and testing new approaches for engaging and leveraging 50+ talent.
Ascentria’s CEO Angela Bovill says engagement in this pilot initiative changed how she looked at older adults. During a recent vacation in a community with mostly older adults, she watched people pass by. Instead of seeing an undifferentiated group of older people, she began to see individuals.
“This person,” she thought, “could be a great donor.” “This person could be an excellent volunteer.” “This person would be a tremendous ambassador.”
Have you been using an opportunity lens? Or are you tempted to try? Here’s a hidden-in-plain-sight challenge: This week, find at least one older adult in your midst and take a little time to learn more about him or her. Perhaps there's a way this person can plug into something you're already working on. Share your experience by posting in the Gen2Gen Champions Group on Facebook or send us a message at [email protected].
For more ideas, tips, and best practices for engaging adults 50+ with children and youth visit the Gen2Gen Learning hub site.