The Changing Role of Philanthropy and Aging

The Changing Role of Philanthropy and Aging

The excitement was palpable but, in truth, it had very little to do with the bingo cards in front of us. Early one Tuesday morning, I sat at a table with seven senior citizens, helping them follow the game and mark their cards when letters and numbers were called. When the people at my table won, I helped them choose their prizes.

We were at a Day of Caring at the Principal Financial Group's headquarters in Des Moines, Iowa. I was struck by how much energy my new friends drew from spending time with each other. Indeed, I was amazed by how much joy we can bring others with such a small investment of time and attention.

Until last year, I was the chairman and CEO of The Principal, a Fortune 500 company. While some people in my position might have felt awkward sitting in a conference room during a work day helping senior citizens play bingo, it was exactly where I wanted and needed to be. When I retired at the age of 59, some people expected me to hit the golf course. After all, I had spent years working my way to the top of the corporate ladder.

But for me, retirement was just the beginning. I stepped back to think about the next phase of my life. I didn't need or want to accumulate more money. Nor was I looking for another business challenge. Instead, I could focus on what I really wanted to do and what I wanted was to fulfill my responsibility to the broader community.

But I didn't want to simply write checks and attend galas, so I started a new career. I stayed in Des Moines, where I serve on a volunteer basis as the president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines, which aims to improve the quality of life for a wide range of people.

Since childhood, I've had a profound appreciation for the role of social services in society. I was raised in poverty, in a very troubled family. The Boys and Girls Club saved my life. It provided me with structure, support, and purpose when I badly needed it, and that experience instilled in me a lifelong commitment to philanthropy and community service.

At this stage of my life, I am not alone in my quest to find new ways to contribute. An estimated 77 million Americans are part of the "baby boom" generation. We are in our late fifties and early sixties, thinking about retirement but not wanting to retire from a life with purpose. We face a choice between "aging" and "saging." In other words, we can grow old the way generations before us did, or we can draw on all of our previous experience to create a second phase of life in retirement with greater meaning.

This choice has become even more relevant in difficult economic times. Millions of baby boomers have lost substantial retirement savings and have no choice other than to continue working. Still, they have a choice in what kind of work to do a choice about whether to "age" or "sage."

Not all of the 77 million boomers are capable of charting an active second phase of their lives. Some face serious health problems and other difficulties. An unprecedented boom in healthy retirees will be coupled with a similarly unprecedented spike in the number of aging people who need help. The two can, and should, go hand-in-hand.

Philanthropic organizations need to explore innovative partnerships with community groups, corporations and government agencies to plan for this growing need. Beyond serving these communities, the nonprofit sector needs to work with them encourage healthy baby boomers to engage in social service work and target social services to the ever-evolving needs of an aging population.

Just as baby boomers have been planning for their retirement, the philanthropic community needs to plan for an influx of older people with a wide range of needs. Social services and charitable organizations like the generation who will be turning to them need to "sage." The result will have a tremendous impact on both the population in need of services and the people providing them.

J. Barry Griswell is president of the Community Foundation of Greater Des Moines. He is retired CEO and chairman of the board of the Principal Financial Group, where he continues to serve as a board member.