For the past five years, Civic Ventures, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has been instrumental in developing the concept of "encore" careers for older Americans, has been awarding the Purpose Prize, funded by The Atlantic Philanthropies and the John Templeton Foundation. The winners—five received $100,000 and another five got $50,000—are all over age 60 and have founded projects that have achieved sufficient success to justify the cash and acclaim that goes with the honor. I am one of the judges tasked to choose among the finalists based on material prepared by the Civic Ventures staff from among more than one thousand submissions. According to Marc Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures, there have been about six thousand nominations for Purpose Prizes, and 307 people have been designated winners or fellows (essentially, runners-up). "On the first day of March 2006, when the doors closed we had received 1,200 nominations," Freedman wrote in introducing this year's results. "The Prize had clearly hit a vein of creativity and one not easily exhausted."
The prizes are presented at a "summit" gathering that includes past winners, fellows and representatives of groups and organizations working in the evolving field of encore work—careers that begin when a generation ago people started thinking about retirement. PublicAffairs has published two books by Freedman: Prime Time: How Baby Boomers Will Revolutionize Retirement and Transform America and Encore: Finding Work That Matters in the Second Half of Life. Another book, The Big Shift: Navigating the New Stage between Midlife and Old Age will appear next spring. Collectively, the theme is how best to use the decades (roughly thirty years) that have been added to Americans' life spans over the past century.
As a judge, I do my best to be conscientious in choosing among the finalists, but I have always felt that however innovative the projects, the descriptions of them seem more earnest than inspirational. That two-dimensional quality comes from reading questionnaires and staff appraisals rather than meeting the finalists or visiting their projects. But that vaguely patronizing sense disappears when, as happened again this year at the summit in Philadelphia, I actually see the winners, hear them talk about their work, and see short films that illustrated their work in action. Here, very briefly are descriptions of this year's $100,000 winners.
Allen Barsema of Community Collaboration Inc., Rockford, Illinois. A former alcoholic, Barsema has created an outreach center for the area's homeless that, he estimates, has served ten thousand people over the past decade. More than 140 social service agencies in five states have adopted his methods and database tools.
Barry Childs of AfricaBridge, Marylhurst, Oregon. Working in Tanzania, his childhood home, Childs has set up twenty-eight income-generating farming cooperatives and built classrooms and clinics for thousands of children, many orphaned by the AIDS epidemic. In 2009, Africa Bridge offered comprehensive care plans for 3,557 children.
Margaret Gordon of the West Oakland Environmental Indicators Project, Oakland, California. Gordon's project has focused on rerouting diesel trucks on three adjoining freeways to reduce pollution that was making area residents sick with asthma at twelve times the rate of children in more affluent areas. She is a commissioner of the country's fourth-busiest container port and, through her organization, she has been instrumental in improving the health standards in her urban neighborhood.