The Innovators of Tomorrow (and Yesterday)

We need to nurture the next generation of problem-solvers, whether they are at the beginning of their careers or looking for an encore.
by , | August 1, 2011
 

We celebrate individuals from time to time for breaking new ground or delivering creative, efficient solutions to public problems. But rarely do we pay attention to where tomorrow's innovators will come from.

Let's change that trend. To make real progress on our toughest social challenges, especially at a time of ubiquitous budget cutbacks, we must constantly inspire and support new generations of innovators from all backgrounds, cultures and experiences.

At City Year and Civic Ventures, this "new pipeline" approach is built into the mission of our organizations. We share an expectation that we should be engaging people in solving, or building capacity to solve, their communities' problems.

Civic Ventures finds new ways for America's 78 million baby boomers to make an impact in their communities. Its Encore Fellowships create new pipelines by changing how America thinks about what happens after retirement and by providing opportunities meaningful enough to unleash the latent potential of boomers. We hope that these and other pathways will enable more people to move into encore careers that combine personal meaning and social impact with continued income in the second half of life.

Since 1988, nearly 14,000 City Year corps members have served in 21 cities across the United States. City Year's attention and its 1,900 corps members are now directed toward high-poverty schools with high dropout rates. The program deploys diverse teams of 17-to-24-year-olds to provide support as a "second set" of caring adults.

Few would argue that we need all the help and new ideas we can get to tackle today's challenges. Less clear is how we can be more inclusive and engaging of as broad and diverse a group as possible. In the case of City Year, it is by seeking to create an organizational culture that recruits and helps build the leadership capacity of diverse, talented young adults as well as the off-track students they serve. And it appears to be working. In the last four years, public-school funding for City Year volunteers has more than tripled, as have applications to City Year.

Here are four key steps we suggest taking to create these new pipelines for social-change innovators:

Find the right people. Innovator pipelines should be inclusive of different backgrounds and experience, but more exclusive in terms of passion to affect change. From the beginning, City Year viewed national service as a vehicle for continuing the civil-rights movement, creating opportunities for young people from all backgrounds, cultures and places to share a civic experience.

To become the most diverse youth corps in the country--over 50 percent of corps members are young people of color--City Year considers individual characteristics most amenable to an intense, full year of volunteer service. Some of these you might expect, such as idealism, empathy and leadership. But other important traits include team skills, self-regulation and continuous learning. City Year calls the ideal corps member a "boundless idealist." Importantly, all of these characteristics eschew traditional markers of leadership and cut across demographics.

Identify the right work. At the other end of the age spectrum, the country's 78 million baby boomers are finishing their midlife careers. Huge numbers are interested in an encore career in education, health care, government or the nonprofit sector, and in other ways to invest their talent, passion and time to leave the world a better place for the next generations. Traditional volunteer roles leave many unsatisfied and wanting a better use of their professional skills, and most still need some form of work to supplement other sources of income for lives that can extend into the 80s and 90s.

Civic Ventures works to change policies and create pathways to make it easier to transition into an encore career making a difference. It works with government and nonprofit organizations to help change attitudes and policies toward older workers and volunteers. Encore Fellowships directly connect highly skilled and experienced boomers to social-purpose organizations for paid, time-limited assignments. The organizations benefit from fellows' corporate experience, while the boomers can use the assignment as a stepping stone to the highly meaningful work and flexibility they seek.

Develop the right capacities. City Year prepares its corps members to become a significant force in solving problems. In addition to providing the experience of full-time community service in schools, it supports corps members with leadership development and training, technical support, regular opportunities for reflection, and performance management. Further, City Year connects alumni to graduate schools and corporations that recognize the value of service.

One longitudinal study found that 90 percent of alumni reported that their City Year experience contributed to their ability to lead others. City Year alumni are also three times more likely than their peers to belong to a community group or civic organization.

Create the right culture. A key goal of Civic Ventures is create a new social norm for the years between midlife and old age, something to replace outdated notions of retirement. In addition to Encore Fellowships, it runs an annual Purpose Prize that recognizes social innovators like Hubie Jones, who created Boston Children's Chorus and Higher Ground after retiring as dean as Boston University's School of Social Work (and serving as one of the founders of City Year).

Civic Ventures celebrates those who have begun new efforts to solve social problems in their communities after the age of 50. And thousands more might join them if we could re-envision what retirement looks like and create a new culture that gives people permission to use their talents for social good.

Similarly, City Year wants to shift the view of the year after high school graduation to a "leap" year instead of a "gap" year. Culture change is written into its vision: that one day the most commonly asked question of an 18-year-old would be: "Where are you going to do your service year?"

Both of these programs started as efforts to bring new people into volunteer service, but over time we have learned that to make the greatest impact, service must become a pipeline for social innovators from nontraditional backgrounds and experience. We hope you will join us as we take these steps to recruit, prepare and deploy tomorrow's most promising social innovators in communities across the country, and to share the lessons and experiences of your own efforts.

Jim Balfanz  |  Contributor
Jim Emerman  |  Contributor

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