By Corita Brown

“People are always asking me, ‘Why do you hire people over 60 to be on your team?’”

Angela Bovill — the CEO of Ascentria Care Alliance, a New England-based organization that provides wraparound services for vulnerable children and families — has a ready answer.

“Having older people on staff creates a calming force for an organization,” she says. “There is less panic. They have seen a lot and are less jittery, less anxious than they may have been earlier in their career. Our organization provides a lot of services to people in crisis, and that kind of calm is crucial.”

Angela often hears from people having a hard time finding qualified staff, which really baffles her. “How are people not seeing older workers as a solution? How are people not pursuing this? We have an opportunity sitting right in front of us!”

Angela’s question underscores the powerful obstacle of ageism. A recent study from AARP found that nearly 2 out of 3 workers ages 45 and older have seen or experienced age discrimination on the job.  Among those who reported age bias, 91 percent said such discrimination is common.

But new survey data from the Second Acts for Strong Communities Initiative suggests that intentionally including older adults as part of the workforce can change the attitudes of organizational staff and leadership about the value older people bring. 

Second Acts is a three-year initiative taking place at nine demonstration sites, within the Alliance for Strong Families and Communities (a strategic action network of social sector organizations). The pilot sites, including Ascentria Care Alliance, implemented a range of strategies for engaging and leveraging older adult talent within the organization as volunteers and/or staff.

Twice in two years, the initiative presented organizational staff (both those working closely on the pilot and those less familiar with it) with four statements. Note the difference between the percentage agreeing with the statements in year one versus year two.

50+ talent will help our organization meet its mission.

Year One: 47%
Year Two: 76 %

50+ talent will contribute to the sustainability of their organization.

Year One 39%
Year Two 73%

Our organization will be better able to serve our community because of 50+ talent.

Year One: 50%
Year Two: 86%

50+ talent will help our organization better reach its intended audience.

Year One: 49%
Year Two 78%

What accounts for the striking shift in perception? Angela, and other members of the national initiative, suggest three contributing factors:

Hiring Encore Fellows: Each demonstration site hired an Encore Fellow, an older, experienced professional contributing their skills in a part-time role to the organization, to provide leadership on the project and support the recruitment and placement of additional older adult talent.

The most effective Fellows recognized that their success requires working within organizational culture, while also working to change it. Laura Melvin, director of human resources at Lad Lake, describes how Encore Fellow Harry Muir approached culture change:

“Harryis humble and understands the culture and context that was there before he got there. He is patient and figures out how to work within our culture to achieve his goals. That makes staff more receptive to his ideas. For example, he spent time listening and observing our meetings, talking to the staff and finding out about their work. By doing this, he was able to offer suggestions on how to change the structure of our meetings and how to make the older volunteers and the staff more comfortable.”

Creating a cohort: Many of the pilots that engaged volunteers 50+ brought them together as a group, so they could develop relationships with and support one another. Angela describes the cohort design like this:

“It gave them another tribe… For a group sometimes feeling left out and devalued, this was critical. This support network made them more resilient in working with clients and program staff. The strength they developed among themselves helped build their credibility; they became a force to be reckoned with! This was much more powerful than if we had engaged them individually.

Building on success: By starting small, staff members who were more skeptical about engaging adults 50+ were able to quickly see tangible benefits. “This work is changing the thinking of our staff,” Angela says, “from thinking volunteers are a burden…to rather seeing them as an opportunity.”

After watching these shifts in perception, Angela and her team are exploring how to integrate older adults into both the volunteer and paid workforce and scaling the work across the organization. Angela notes, “We have to equip the organization with the tools and and training to leverage this resource.”

Interested in engaging more adults 50+ as volunteers, staff or Encore Fellows in your organization?

A slightly edited version of this article first appeared Next Avenue
It was then published by Forbes

Photo by S. Smith Patrick