Rethinking Social Entrepreneurship

For the past 3 years, I have been a juror for the Purpose Prize, a $100,000 cash prize awarded annually to each of five winners, all of whom have chosen to pursue an encore career focused on social impact. The winners are extraordinary men and women who are redefining what life over 60 can look like. In doing so, they are also redefining what social entrepreneurs look like.

These are not the 20-something idealists whose youth, passion, and relative inexperience allow them to see new solutions to solve society’s problems.

Instead, they are the 60, 70+ year olds whose wisdom, commitment, and relative wealth of experience enable them to create change where others couldn’t.

Who are they?

B.P. Agrawal’s upbringing in a poor rural village in India, PhD in engineering, and subsequent 27-year career as a technology and telecommunications executive enabled him to envision and then develop a sustainable and practical way to bring safe water to thousands of villagers in his native country. By leveraging partnerships among non-profits, for-profits, and governmental organizations and by securing community funding and village buy-in, his system of water catchers and underground reservoirs captures rain during the short-lived monsoon season for use throughout the year.

Susan Burton: Released from prison in Los Angeles at age 46 after a series of incarcerations for nonviolent crimes and years of struggling with addiction, Susan developed a program to give newly paroled women the kind of support that she had lacked. Her own age and experience fires her urgency. “I think we all want to make an impact,” Burton says. Even though her opportunity to do so happened later in her life, it “didn’t mean it was too late. It meant if it was going to happen, I had better get busy and make it happen.”

Tom Cox: In the wake of the savings and loan scandals of the 1980’s, Tom worked as a bankruptcy lawyer foreclosing upon small business owners who had put their house up as collateral. Fast forward 20 years later to the biggest economic downturn since the great depression and corresponding historic rates of foreclosure. He’d heard about a nonprofit program to help low-income families. Referring to himself, he explained “The guy who wrote the manual on foreclosures walks into this place on the day they’re looking to set up a program,” he says with a laugh about that day in April 2008. “I knew how to put better [loan] deals together because I knew how they came apart,” he says.

Tom’s work took over where our High Impact Philanthropy in the Downturn guide left off, eventually exposing the fraudulent practice now known as “robo-signing” and leading to the $25 billion settlement to help those who had lost homes or were at risk of foreclosure stay in their homes.

Judy Cockerton: After a career as a teacher, business owner, and foster mom, she saw a problem she needed to solve. There were so many children in the foster care system who needed support. But for those who wished to help, only two options existed: Become a foster parent or adopt, both of which seemed too much to ask of most people. Judy sought to change that. By joining forces with a private housing developer and a provider of children’s services, she created Treehouse at Easthampton Meadow, a community of people ranging in age from 4 – 93 that supports families with foster children by linking them to volunteers, mentors, programmatic services, and elders in an approach designed to allow one generation help another.

Lorraine Decker: A canceled trip to the Middle East on September 11, shifted financial consultant Lorraine Decker and her husband’s outlook. “We both felt a profound need to help recreate the future.” As a result, she and her husband expanded their company’s corporate practice to include free financial, career, and college planning courses to hundreds of low and moderate income students and families. Through the modules such as the “Game of Real Life”, they are teaching the kinds of life skills that allow people to create their own futures.

Who’s next?

Recently, it seems the mainstream media (e.g. Wall Street Journal, CNBC, The Daily Beast, The Atlantic) has been filled with articles highlighting the changing, aging demographics of developed countries and the toll that this demographic shift will take on society.

The Purpose Prize offers an alternative—What if all those aging baby boomers considered “a second act for the greater good”? For donors, finding and backing such social entrepreneurs may represent an overlooked route to high impact.