Carol Farquhar, Executive Director, Grantmakers In Aging: Philanthropy and the 'Graying' of America

May 25, 2006
Carol Farquhar, Executive Director, Grantmakers In Aging: Philanthropy and the 'Graying' of America

The oldest baby boomers have begun to turn 60, and over the next twenty-five years the population of older Americans will swell to historic proportions. According to the Census Bureau, by 2030 almost a fifth of all Americans — 72 million people — will be 65 or older, and those 85 and older will belong to the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. population.

Though the general public only recently has begun to pay attention to those demographic trends, many in the philanthropic sector have been thinking about the challenges posed by an aging population and looking to identify programs and initiatives that offer solutions. Since its beginnings as a pre-conference networking event at the Council on Foundations' annual conference in 1982, Grantmakers In Aging has emerged as one of the fastest-growing of the council's affinity groups and has galvanized a network of experts and funders in the field, all focused on strengthening grantmaking for an aging society.

Recently, Philanthropy News Digest spoke with Carol Farquhar, GIA's first full-time executive director, about the organization's early days, the aging of the baby boomers and what that is likely to mean for the field, and why funding for aging-related issues remains a "tough sell."

A long-time program officer for the Kettering Foundation, where her work revolved around public education, Farquhar has presided over a doubling of GIA's membership since she became the organization's executive director in 2000 and has established the organization as the go-to information resource on aging for funders and others in the field.

Philanthropy News Digest: Tell us about Grantmakers In Aging. When was it founded and how does it fulfill its mission?

Carol Farquhar: Grantmakers In Aging has been around since April 1982. The founders of the organization came together because they were frustrated that there weren't places where program officers and others interested in aging could convene and learn from each other, exchange what they were doing, gain insights, and get new program ideas.

PND: This was a group of people within the Council on Foundations?

CF: That's correct. There were not many foundations paying attention to aging in those days. So, they decided to convene at the council's annual conference, and the two very informal receptions they put together provided an opportunity for people to network and get to know each other. That's also how the tradition of our annual fall forum got started. The council get-togethers continued well into the 1990s, when the group's leadership decided they had to make a choice: Stick with the status quo and risk having the network fade away because it was the same core group with only a small influx of new people every year; or become more focused and set a goal to expand the group. They chose the latter, with organizational development grants from the Retirement Research Foundation, Archstone Foundation, and the AARP Andrus Foundation.

PND: Was that because they recognized there were social and political challenges inherent in an aging population?

CF: The people in the field were very familiar with the demographic trends and had been talking about them for some time, but they couldn't seem to get broader attention focused on it. It is only recently, in fact, with all the media attention on the first of the baby boomers turning 60, that you see the public starting to pay attention to the aging of American society. But back in the late '90s it was difficult to get people to see that aging was a critical and emerging issue.

PND: Why was it so hard to get people to pay attention?

Very few people want to think about getting older or being old....

CF: It was a tough sell. It's still a tough sell. The needs of the elderly aren't as appealing as the needs of children and youth, not to mention all the other major program areas that need funding and deserve attention. And there's denial. Very few people want to think about getting older or being old, especially given some of the negative images of aging and the elderly we may have seen or experienced on a personal level. So the question becomes, Why is funding in aging important, especially when we're on the threshold of what some are calling a longevity revolution? And I think the answer has to do with all of the above. There has been a shift in the way people perceive aging and the way they approach aging. Plus, people are becoming much more health conscious. All the evidence points to the fact that if you take responsibility for your health, if you eat a proper diet, if you exercise, if you stay socially connected, it really makes a difference in your overall health and quality of life.

PND: How did you become involved in the field?

CF: I was a program officer at the Kettering Foundation for thirty years. My work there revolved around public education, and I eventually got involved with a program called the National Issues Forum, which was focused on teaching the public about public-policy issues and getting them to think through some of the tough choices that had to be made to solve those problems. At the time, each member of the Kettering staff was assigned to work with a particular audience, and my audiences were community colleges and senior citizens and older adults. As a result, I spent a lot of time visiting retirement communities and working with activities directors and program directors at senior centers to try to encourage older adults to organize forums around important issues like the rising cost of health care or social security. The issues themselves tended to be national issues, rather than aging issues specifically, but we thought senior citizens were a prime audience for us because they tended to be interested in politics and social issues, they read the paper and want to be engaged, and because they had extra time on their hands. Anyway, through my work at Kettering I came to know Grantmakers In Aging. And when, a few years later, I learned that GIA was hiring its first full-time executive director, it piqued my interest.

PND: Is it fair to say the organization is headquartered in Dayton, which is where Kettering is based, because of you?

CF: Yes, I think that's fair. It was important to me to convince the search committee that my skills and the Dayton location would be assets to the organization. Grantmakers In Aging has always had a decidedly Midwestern flavor, in that it is known as a warm, open, and welcoming environment, and the organization has tried to encourage its members to share their time and talents. Our members are our best resources. We've worked very hard to continue to share knowledge and lessons learned with each other over the years.

PND: Are your members mostly private foundations?

CF: Independent/private foundations are our largest membership category, yes. But we also have ten operating foundation members. In the past, operating foundations were thought to be both grantseekers and grantmakers, but we've run special sessions at our annual conference focused on the assets, research, and program work that operating foundations bring to the table. That, in turn, has resulted in a number of collaborations between our grantmakers and our operating foundations in which they really work together and share information and resources. We also have fifteen community foundation members, some public charities, and a few corporate foundations. That last category is where we think we'll see growth over the next couple of years.

PND: I would imagine the growth potential for aging services is huge.

CF: It is. We're seeing a number of new foundations looking at productive aging, healthy aging, because of all the evidence-based research that shows that lifestyle choices can reduce healthcare costs for seniors and make a dramatic difference in their quality of life.

PND: Has the ability to measure the outcomes of these types of programs improved over the past decade or so?

CF: Yes, and that has helped to stimulate foundation interest in the field, especially over the last five years or so.

PND: In their grantmaking, do your members tend to fund trends they're seeing within the field, or do they look for innovative local efforts and try to grow them?

When we find a model that can be adopted locally, we emphasize the benefits of working with large national foundations....

CF: It's a combination of the two. There are some foundations that are on the leading edge of innovation with trials and experiments based on new models. They tend to be the larger, national foundations, and the scope and cost of their program investments — I'm talking about foundations like the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Retirement Research Foundation, the John A. Hartford Foundation, the Commonwealth Fund, and the Atlantic Philanthropies — can be intimidating. But we're also seeing some of those models being picked up at the local level by smaller, locally based foundations. When we find a model that can be adopted locally, we emphasize the benefits of working with large national foundations. And with the large national foundations, if they want to implement their program at the local level, we can connect them to foundations that are interested and know the territory.

PND: Can you give us an example?

CF: A good example of that approach are the two AdvantAGE programs that were funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, the Atlantic Philanthropies, Archstone Foundation, John A Hartford Foundation, and Retirement Research Foundation. The program was later picked up by the Winter Park Health Foundation in Florida, the Fan Fox and Leslie R. Samuels Foundation and Helen Andrus Benedict Foundation in New York, Mather LifeWays, and the Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust. Another example is BenefitsCheckUp, which was funded by many national and local foundations through the National Council on Aging and has just been expanded to a number of different communities; the community picks up the individual cost of the program, but the prototype was funded by a national foundation. Experience Corps is another one; it enlists older adult volunteers and places them in inner-city schools as tutors. It's taken a while for the program to get traction, but it's gaining momentum — especially in Baltimore — and the organization hopes to expand it throughout Maryland.

PND: How has the funding of aging issues changed over the past five years?

CF: Well, within the foundations we know and work with, funding for these issues has increased. But it's difficult to put your finger on specific numbers, and the reason is that the language used to describe the issues and programs changes so quickly. For example, some foundations now categorize older adults under "vulnerable populations." Still, all we have to do is look at the fact that when we started six years ago we had fewer than sixty members, while today we have over a hundred, as evidence that interest in the field, at all levels, is growing.

PND: Do you expect that to be the case for the foreseeable future?

CF: Absolutely. With people living longer and living healthier, and the baby boomers just entering their senior years, we don't see interest in the field peaking for at least another twenty years.

PND: Are you seeing changes in the types of programs and initiatives your members are funding?

CF: The biggest change has to do with "aging in place," which means staying in your own home as you get older. On the plus side, that approach is less expensive for individuals and society, and people tend to be happier. The problem is that without a continuum of care, you run into problems having to do with social isolation, maintenance issues, and transportation challenges. So now we're seeing more of what we call "aging in community," which simply means that, as you get older, you move a short distance from home to an assisted-living facility or group home or co-housing arrangement.

PND: So people might live in the independent-living wing of a complex and then move to an assisted-living environment as they require more services?

CF: Yes. Or they could move a few blocks away from home to an assisted-living facility. They're still in the neighborhood, they still have their bank, their church - all the things that keep them connected to a community.

People are taking more personal responsibility and group responsibility for where they want to live and how they want to live as they age....

The other trend we're seeing involves people taking more personal responsibility and group responsibility for where they want to live and how they want to live as they age. There are a number of communities, a couple in Colorado and one or two in upstate New York, where groups of friends have bought land and are designing their own compounds around their interests and lifestyle and building in what they need from the standpoint of medical or social services.

And there's still a lot of interest in end-of-life palliative care. In the last couple of years, the Open Society Institute and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, both of them big funders in this area, decided to move out of that field and put exit strategies in place. That, in turn, really energized them to find networks of smaller foundations that wanted to build on the decade of good work that they had put into the field. I think this is an interesting testimonial to how programmatic funding and energy can be maintained when large funders change their course.

PND: Was their decision to pull out a surprise?

CF: It was expected. But now Robert Wood Johnson is looking at it as a positive result and would like to observe, in a hands-off way, to see how this progresses. We also have a network of foundations that come together through audio conference calls, and we provide a range of resources to people to help them understand the grantmaking opportunities in end-of-life work. We're also working with the Funders' Network for Smart Growth and Livable Communities around transportation issues. Transportation is a huge issue for almost every foundation that funds in aging, but it's very hard to get a handle on it.

PND: What makes it so difficult?

CF: Two things: Working across different levels of government and liability issues. A lot of work has been done by the Beverly Foundation and AARP to improve the understanding of what makes older adults comfortable with different kinds of transportation, and I don't necessarily mean public buses where you have to worry about standing outside in the elements and whether they're going be on time or not. The informal transportation networks seem to be the ones that work well for older adults. A lot of older adults are looking for safety and reliability; they want a clean vehicle and a polite driver. It gets back to their comfort level and their fears.

PND: And old-fashioned respect?

CF: Absolutely.

PND: Tell us about the Hurricane Fund for the Elderly. What made you decide to set up a fund for hurricane victims?

CF: Well, when Katrina and then Rita hit, we tried to share with our members what others were doing with respect to older adults. But we were not in a position to do much more than that, and we did not want to stray too far from our mission. So, we looked at what foundations were doing, what our members were doing, at various funding opportunities, and we convened a conference call once a month and had people from the region talk about the devastation that had occurred and what the needs of the elderly in the region were. But as it became more evident that the elderly, because of their vulnerability, were suffering disproportionately, we were contacted by a staffer for Assistant Secretary for Aging Josefina Carbonell, who said, "Our aging networks have been devastated in those Gulf Coast areas, and we're trying to talk to national organizations about how they could help." We also had several of our larger foundation members indicate they wanted to do something that would be targeted to the elderly. So, Jane Isaacs Lowe, our president, and I went to our board and said this is something we should do, and the board agreed. The funders were looking not just at short-term relief, but at what the needs were likely to be over the intermediate and long term, which is really tough to predict and which continue to emerge.

PND: Is it something you'll continue indefinitely?

CF: No, it's not. We set it up with a very definite time frame in mind, a year to eighteen months, and that's it. It's hard for us as a small organization to continue these new initiatives, especially because it does take away from our core work, which is about promoting and strengthening grantmaking for an aging society. But the need was so great and the opportunity so compelling that we felt we couldn't sit back and not act. And because it's not a large fund, we felt that if we focused it on capacity building, disaster preparedness, and advocacy, we could make a difference down the road. In fact, we've said to other foundations, our members included, that we want to share the results of the research we've done, and if they want to fund something directly that we've discovered through our needs-assessment process, well, by all means. It doesn't have to go through us, although we do want to try to keep track of those kinds of transactions so that we can show the work we did made a difference. It could be that there will be some follow-up, but we don't anticipate that we'll be staffing it for more than eighteen months.

PND: In terms of aging services, how do other areas of the country fair?

CF: Well, there are areas of the country that are extremely strong, and there are other areas that are not as strong due to funding limitations. The difficulty comes when we encourage our members to partner with their local Area Agencies on Aging because they presumably have a good read on the needs of that area or that community. Obviously, that works well where you have a strong agency, and it works much less well where you don't. In the latter case, foundations have to do a lot of the work themselves.

PND: Is that because the public-sector infrastructure in many parts of the country isn't robust enough to handle a sudden influx of private-sector dollars?

Foundations like to look at new and different ways of doing things....

CF: The infrastructure may be in place, but it has all it can handle simply trying to sustain existing projects and initiatives. Foundations, on the other hand, like to look at new and different ways of doing things. And in some cases, foundations say they've thought about aging but haven't received any compelling proposals. If you don't get good proposals, you may need to create an RFP — which many foundations do — but because it's labor-intensive, that can be a deterrent.

PND: What are some of the other obstacles to funders who want to work in this area?

CF: The key issue is that there are not enough foundations focused exclusively on aging. On the plus side, we're seeing that funding for aging isn't necessarily being done in isolation, that increasingly it is viewed as a cross-cutting issue. Talk about health, education, the environment, and you can insert aging. Our experience is that you usually have one person in a foundation who is the aging person, the person who needs to make the case for funding. And if he or she can connect with colleagues in other program areas and create those linkages, it usually produces a better strategy to sell aging in a positive way.

PND: Is there one best way to sell funding for aging in a youth-oriented culture like ours?

CF: It's difficult, but there seem to be two tracks. One is to focus on the frail elderly, the poor and vulnerable, and to approach it from the need-based side. The other track looks at healthier, wealthier, better-educated older adults as resources. So, you have a lot of energy and money going into healthy aging, successful aging as a keystone of civic engagement and a community resource that can be tapped to make a difference. Both tracks are important, and both will continue to be important for at least the next twenty to thirty years.

PND: Any final thoughts you'd like to share with us?

CF: Your readers have probably heard this quote: "You can tell the civility of a country by the way it treats its elders." That's something that's worth thinking about, and I hope that over the coming decades we begin to treat our elders in a way that makes all of us proud.

PND: Well, thanks for your time today, Carol.

CF: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

Matt Sinclair, PND's editor, spoke with Carol Farquhar in March. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at