older adults are leading change

maine

Mobilizing Maine’s 50+ population to lead community revitalization

 

Midway into the last decade, Maine, like many parts of the United States, faced demographic forces driving major change. As the first of the Baby Boom generation passed age 60, Maine’s population growth slowed and even began to decline. Mainers were already the country’s oldest population, and growing older.

As the economy stalled in 2008 and financial resources grew more scarce, the Maine Community Foundation felt a growing urgency around the need to mobilize the state’s pool of human talent. In particular, the Foundation was concerned about low participation by older adults in local and state government and in nonprofit leadership positions. The Foundation did not have a focus on aging or “senior issues,” but nevertheless, came to believe that if the state’s most experienced residents were reluctant to pick up the leadership mantle, it was a deep loss for all Mainers.

Experienced adults age 50 and up—many of whom had a lifetime of accumulated knowledge about their communities, extensive personal and professional networks, and problem-solving skills they developed while raising families and building careers—were a critical, underused resource. What if this resource could be tapped? What could be accomplished?

The Foundation decided to conduct a statewide survey of Mainers 50 and older, seeking to understand their interests and the barriers that discouraged civic participation. With 400 respondents, the survey’s success was itself a sign that older Mainers cared about these questions. Many said they welcomed more opportunities to help create sustainable change in their communities, but felt they would need training to be effective as well as help figuring out where they could use their skills to make the biggest impact. A few themes stood out: Maine’s experienced adults had strong individual perspectives and passions, many with a local community focus. They felt deeply about the need to preserve and improve quality of life so that future generations would want to call Maine home. Most importantly, few were looking merely for ways to pass time; what got older Mainers excited was the possibility of creating meaningful, lasting change.

The Foundation convened an advisory group that included public and community-based agencies, professional associations, and university research and training units. That group looked carefully at survey results and began formulating potential approaches that would reflect the diversity of individual passions, the focus on local issues, and the Foundation’s commitment to driving impact across the entire state. The original concern about the lack of participation by older adults in government and nonprofit organizations gave way to an expanded concept of civic leadership. The Foundation came to see its core objective with this work was to create community change agents, broadly defined. With the proper training and encouragement, experienced adults could potentially use a wide range of strategies and tackle diverse types of issues in order to revitalize their communities.

Soon after, one of the advisors—the University of Maine Center On Aging—received a grant through the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to create a training program promoting older adult volunteerism focused on “smart growth.” The Foundation and the Center On Aging immediately saw an opportunity to merge their efforts to achieve greater impact. The Center would be able to expand beyond training to follow and support older adults as they put their leadership skills into use in their local communities, while the Foundation saw smart growth as an appropriately broad umbrella for addressing quality of life, including public, environmental, and economic health.

Christened the Encore Leadership Corps (ENCorps), the initiative officially launched in 2010. Its goals were to build a statewide leadership training program for older adults and, by increasing older adult civic participation, to promote healthy communities, people, and environments by addressing the impact of growth and development on the natural resources of Maine’s communities.

 

COLLABORATORS

GEOGRAPHIC SCOPE

  • Statewide
  • Total population = 1.3 million
  • 55+ population = 416,000 (31%)

RESULTS (FIRST 3 YEARS)

  • 250+ volunteers advancing the work of 475+ organizations
  • Community-level impacts in 120 cities and towns, in every county in the state
  • 85,000+ hours of service (valued at more than $1.5 million)
  • $1.3 million raised to support the program