GRAND RAPIDS — The Grand Rapids Community Foundation is fortifying an effort that allows nonprofit and for-profit organizations to tap into the institutional knowledge of retirement-age individuals.
GRCF plans to bolster its Encore program in 2016, which is designed to engage some of Kent County’s more than 187,000 men and women who are over the age of 50 and who want to harness their passions and experiences in a constructive way.
“About 10 years ago when we were looking at the changing demographics, we saw that by 2020 our population of people over the age of 65 was expected to double,” said Kate Luckert Schmid, program director at the Grand Rapids Community Foundation. “We took an asset-based approach to it. We saw tremendous opportunity in this population — to tap their talent, experience, willingness and excitement to get engaged.”
Encore provides education, dialogue and resources for both retirement-age individuals and organizations. It strives for the proverbial win-win, where older individuals are able to put their passions and knowledge to use, while organizations are able to tap into this expertise — often in the form of free labor, but not always.
While Encore is not specifically a service that places individuals in positions with for-profit and nonprofit organizations, it does serve essentially as a liaison to connect the two.
“Encore is really more about challenging conventional thinking and crafting a new narrative,” Luckert Schmid said. “Our approach is focused on existing resources and challenging that conventional thinking. For us, Encore is not a program — it’s a concept and a new narrative that speaks to how we can approach this issue.”
Grand Rapids Community Foundation comes into 2016 with aspirations of ramping up Encore even further with the addition of three new innovation fellows.
These additions include public relations consultant Mary McLoughlin; Jane Royer, the former director of the volunteer center for Heart of West Michigan United Way; and Tera Wozniak Qualls, who served as the director of communications and advancement for the College of Community and Public Service at Grand Valley State University. Wozniak Qualls was also the communications manager for the Dorothy A. Johnson Center for Philanthropy at GVSU.
The three newcomers join former Grand Rapids Press columnist Tom Rademacher, who was the lone innovation fellow last year. He is also currently employed with Grand Rapids-based Sabo PR.
With the new support on hand, Encore looks to further its Grand Rapids network of for-profit and nonprofit organizations to more effectively prepare and place individuals in second careers.
The innovation fellows are tasked with telling the success stories of the program and also building a capacity for such opportunities.
“It’s important to tell stories on how organizations are successful in this approach,” Luckert Schmid said. “(Innovation fellows) are also focused on building the capacity of individuals and organizations to expand these opportunities — to help connect people with one another and link individuals and organizations together. It’s not a placement thing, but more a network providing opportunities for dialogue and cross-pollination.”
Aside from the fact that retirement-age men and women are a growing demographic in Kent County, Encore effectively addresses a concern highlighted by the 2015 Civic Health Index.
The report, released by the Michigan Nonprofit Association in November 2015, stated that older individuals — primarily baby boomers and members of the Silent Generation — remain very involved with civic duties, which stood in glaring contrast to millennials.
The index made the recommendation that “Michigan’s nonprofit and community leaders should leverage the civic assets of the Silent Generation by developing intergenerational civic projects that will enable this senior generation to mentor members of those generations following it,” the report stated.
IMPLEMENTING AN ELDER WORKFORCE
Paul Haan, executive director of the Healthy Homes Coalition in Grand Rapids, has experience engaging with Encore and its volunteers.
The Healthy Homes Coalition strives to improve children’s health and well-being by eliminating harmful housing conditions. This is achieved through direct services — like carbon monoxide/smoke detector installation, radon testing, eliminating lead hazards from homes and more — and outreach, education and advocacy efforts.
Haan said that he became acquainted with the Encore program about three years ago when the coalition engaged a volunteer, and then took a step back to assess the value and determine how to build sustainable capacity.
Recently, Haan and his staff have circled back and are engaging another Encore volunteer — Dave Kagan, who specializes in photography. For Haan, one thing that has stuck out about Encore volunteers is that they have the capacity for so much more than menial tasks.
“A lot of organizations, they need some people to do grunt work — fold some papers, stuff envelopes and come in for a few hours, do this and get out. That’s not Encore,” Haan said. “Encore is way different than that.
“Having people with experience brings great capacity. The old way of looking at it is that volunteers do really menial tasks. Outside from board members, you don’t really think of volunteers bringing in knowledge and brainpower to the equation.”
Those types of contributions can be a double-edged sword, according to Haan. Later-in-life individuals already have an idea of what they are passionate about, what they want to do and how they want to do it. For that reason, there needs to be a good fit between the individual and the organization.
“Implementing volunteers like this is not completely unlike hiring an employee,” Haan said. “It’s not always going to work out, you have to find people that fit. After all, they’re not just grunts — they bring a certain capacity and they know what they want to do. You have to find the right fit without compromising your mission or what you do.”
As Haan and his staff continue to assess their organization’s needs, he said that programs like Encore likely will be pivotal in accessing experienced talent.
“The work we’re doing right now, we’re focusing on a talent development platform where we look at the type of talent we have on deck and what we already have on staff,” Haan said. “It’s an intentional look at skill sets we need, and this will open up very clear identification of the talent that we need.
“The tough part for us is that we don’t always have the dollars, and that’s when you turn to the voluntary sector.”