June 15, 2016

Three Ways Older Workers Help Create More Sustainable Organizations

Jim McNerney using his expertise in music at the Phoenix Conservatory of Music.

Millennials have received a lot of attention as the talent pool to tap for nonprofits looking to hire new employees. But encore talent—individuals who've retired from their first careers but are looking to put their skills and experience to work in the social sector—shouldn't be overlooked.

By: Betsy Werley

Millennials represent a popular talent source for nonprofits. But "encore talent"—older adults who want to put their skills and years of professional experience to use in the social sector—shouldn't be overlooked. In fact, these encore-stage adults offer a diversity of high-level experiences such as building businesses, hiring and developing talent, and engaging diverse groups of stakeholders.

Consider the experience of Jim McNerney. A Phoenix-based engineer, McNerney was far from ready to call it quits when he retired from Intel at the age of 50. A lifelong musician, he hoped that his next chapter would find him using his professional skills in new ways. He opted into an Encore Fellowship, a half-time, stipended program that places corporate executives in nonprofit capacity-building roles, through Phoenix-based nonprofit Experience Matters.

"I had thought about going back to school for music," McNerney said, "so when I applied for the fellowship, I asked 'Do you have anything related to music?'" That's when he connected with the Phoenix Conservatory of Music (PCM), a nonprofit that provides families and the community with affordable, high-quality music education. As PCM's project manager for music technology, Jim brought a career's worth of engineering know-how, project management skills, and a big network to the organization.

McNerney found the work inspiring. "I really believe the encore idea is getting some traction," he said. "I'm getting exposure to the needs of my community. My background in engineering helps, but much of my work is interpersonal communication, something that, at Intel, you learn to do well."

A new lifestage

Today's 50- to 70-year-olds are defining a new encore life stage between adulthood and old age. They're healthy, educated, and tech-savvy, and they want to create a living legacy, using their skills and life experience. And their numbers are steadily rising: Encore.org's 2014 survey showed 4.5 million people ages 50 to 70 in paid and unpaid encore roles, with 21 million who aim to join them by 2020.

This "longevity dividend"—the benefit to social-sector organizations that harness the skills and passions of experienced adults—happily contradicts the "gray tsunami" narrative, where longer lives are perceived as a threat to society. And it's not just baby boomers; future generations will live even longer. Demographers project that 50 percent of children born today will live to celebrate their 100th birthdays. Strategic nonprofit leaders who learn how to engage encore talent will benefit from an evergreen supply.

Helping build sustainable organizations

When an encore worker moves to the social sector, she brings decades of work experience, including real-time problem-solving skills and abundant day-to-day experience engaging with people from diverse backgrounds. Her broad network includes connections through work, family, school, and community. And she's likely to stay with the organization long-term: Mature adults stay in jobs three times longer, on average, than younger colleagues.1

In short, encore professionals offer organizations experience that can help build and sustain the nonprofits for which they work and volunteer. Here are a few benefits they bring to the table:

They know how to grow a business: Encore professionals often have deep experience that can help grow a nonprofit's services and programs. Consider Roy Mainelli, a mechanical engineer with an MBA. After decades in the aerospace industry, he put his skills to work to have a bigger impact on his hometown of Hartford, CT.

He signed up for a Encore!Connecticut's nonprofit transition program, which mixes classroom experience, introductions to local nonprofits, and an internship. Mainelli interned with and was later hired by Journey Home, a nonprofit focused on ending homelessness through employment, housing, and support services.

Charged with developing a veterans' employment program, Mainelli drew upon his professional expertise and network of industry leaders. "The guy who MC'd my retirement party runs an aerospace company." Mainelli said. "I asked, 'If I bring you candidates that are low- to mid-skill and get them educated, will you hire them?' and he said, 'Yes.'" That personal assurance allowed Mainelli to design a training program that has, to date, led to living wage jobs for 17 formerly homeless people.

Another encore professional, Stuart Ray, helped the nonprofit he joined turn around its financials. After decades building the fifth-largest global Burger King franchise, Ray sold his business and turned his talents to the Guiding Light Mission, a Grand Rapids, MI, nonprofit dedicated to helping people living at the margins of society. Ray's management skills moved the organization from a $300,000 deficit when he joined in 2009 to revenues of $1.7 million in 2015. He identified fundraising as the key to Guiding Light's financial stability, noting "Our first line of business is donor relations and the entire organization needs to point and align in that direction." Ray built an effective fundraising team with clear processes and performance metrics, doubling the average donation amount and attracting more frequent donations from contributors.

They know how to manage talent and develop people: Ray's for-profit skills in motivating employees translated directly to his social service work; he focused on putting people in roles consistent with their passions, setting goals on their development, and managing to those goals. "At Burger King and Guiding Light, my most important role was to create a culture where people are encouraged to maximize their God-given gifts," Ray said.

A fellowship with Portland, OR, social service agency Metropolitan Family Services (MFS) helped Cheryl Edmonds flex her business experience in project and talent management. A Hewlett Packard retiree, Edmonds traveled to China to teach English before she turned her focus to bolstering Portland's skilled-volunteer, encore workforce. Cheryl's experience in talent management, among other areas, helped her develop an effective interview process for encore volunteers. Starting with pilot projects—one project sought to match encore-stage consultants to specific needs at area nonprofits, another included creating a resource for part-time encore volunteers seeking ways to connect with local organizations—she improved how volunteers were hired and managed. Eventually, her success at MFS led her to expand the volunteer program internally and externally, as other Portland nonprofits adopted her process.

They have useful, market-ready skills that can help you fill immediate gaps: It's no surprise that with years of professional experience behind them that encore workers can hit the ground running. MFS CEO Judy Strand outlined the strengths and skills Edmonds brought to the role: intellectual curiosity, passion, project management skills, follow-through, and initiative. "She really did her homework and she made it easy for me," said Strand. "She had a complete capacity to manage this new project and bring in creative thinking."

Veteran food sales executive Al Marino jumped into a fundraising role at Hartford, CT, nonprofit Foodshare. "We're developing a corporate sponsorship program," Executive Director Mary Kate Cox said. "Al can talk to corporate executives and make the case in a low-drama way. In fact, he knows many of them from his previous career." She added, "I couldn't send a 26-year-old kid to call on a corporation and expect a check."

Nonprofits benefit from expertise and experience

During McNerney's one-year fellowship at PCM, he developed three revenue-generating recording studios and launched a music technology curriculum. He also encouraged friends to donate equipment, recruited donors, and became a "music mentor," offering free lessons to low-income students. "Without Jim's technical expertise and passion coupled with the funding and resources that Experience Matters coordinates and supports, Phoenix Conservatory of Music would not have been able to get this project off the ground," said PCM Executive Director Regina Nixon.

"You're doing your organization a disservice if you don't think about boomers as a resource and invest time in recruiting them," said Volunteer Supervisor Brandy Kramer, a big advocate for the value of experienced talent. After working with multiple encore volunteers as a staff member at Denver-based Project Shine, she saw firsthand their benefits. "They have great experience, knowledge, and networks that will help you accomplish a lot more than you could without them."

A Resource for Finding Encore Talent

Encore Talent Works is a digital resource that distills the experience of dozens of organizations deploying seasoned professionals in skilled volunteer or staff roles. Success stories illustrate how other organizations make the most of this talent pool; practical, how-to resources can help your organization connect with encore talent.

For organizations ready to engage experienced adults, Encore Talent Works shares innovative models and an online readiness assessment. The toolkit also helps you create encore roles that offer impact, opportunities for learning, decision-making authority, and the flexibility experienced adults value. And it offer practical guidance on how to attract encore talent and evaluate transferrable skills and culture fit.

Finding encore-stage talent isn't hard. A growing number of programs connect social purpose organizations with experienced adults; for leads, visit Encore.org's searchable program map. Encore Talent Works also includes suggestions for local networking as well as tips on recruiting via professional organizations.

Betsy Werley is director of Network Expansion at Encore.org and an encore careerist who moved to the nonprofit sector after 26 years as a corporate lawyer and banker.

Creative Commons License logo
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Permissions beyond the scope of this license are available in our Terms and Conditions.