Recent decades have witnessed an explosion of social entrepreneurship and innovation, as passionate change-makers tackle the world’s most urgent problems. Traditionally, the field was viewed as primarily—if not exclusively—the province of the young. The Purpose Prize was created to rectify this imbalance, to demonstrate that older people comprise an undiscovered, and still largely untapped, continent of solutions to an array of pressing societal challenges.
The verdict is now in. Over the past 10 years, we’ve received nearly 10,000 Purpose Prize nominations, recognized more than 500 people, including just under 100 winners and hundreds of fellows, and awarded over $5 million in prizes to social entrepreneurs working in fields ranging from early childhood learning to eradicating homelessness. We set out to tell a story about creativity and innovation in the second half of life and the work of the Purpose Prize winners and fellows have done so in ways exceeding our wildest dreams.
Sep, Encore.org launches The Purpose Prize.
Oct, Bill Clinton sends video greeting to Purpose Prize ceremony.
Nov, Sidney Poitier presents Purpose Prize awards.
Nov, First Purpose Prize awarded for international work.
Oct, NPR compares Purpose Prize to MacArthur genius awards.
Nov, 5th Anniversary of Purpose Prize at National Constitution Center.
Oct, Three Purpose Prize winners receive Presidential Citizens Medal.
Nov, AARP sponsors first Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Innovation.
Nov, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor keynotes Purpose Prize.
Apr, Marigold Ideas for Good contest modeled on Purpose Prize sponsored by Participant Media/Takepart.
May, Piper Encore Careers Prize (Purpose Prize replication, Maricopa County).
Oct, Purpose Prize for Intergenerational Impact sponsored by The Eisner Foundation awarded
Oct, Purpose Prize for Financial Inclusion sponsored by MetLife Foundation awarded.
May, Cleveland Foundation announces its Encore Cleveland Prize modeled on Purpose Prize.
Feb, Purpose Prize finds new home AARP.
When the Prize was launched we wondered, to paraphrase the film “Field of Dreams,” If we build it, will they come? Would we receive high-quality nominations? Maybe there was something to the old notion that social innovation was a young person’s game, to all those articles featuring the 30 under 30? While some experts acknowledged the wisdom of older people, others tended to portray them as resistant to new ideas and adverse to change.
We knew this was wrong. From years of working with and talking to thousands of older adults committed to changing society for the better, we had become convinced that there was an overlooked vast and powerful source of innovation—one that we simply could not afford to sideline or ignore. We had no desire to detract from the stunning accomplishments of youthful social entrepreneurs, but we wanted to expand the tent, to look beyond the usual suspects for new ideas and creative approaches.
But for all our conviction, as the first nomination deadline approached, we began to feel uneasy. Was this too much too soon? Operating on a short time line, would we be able to identify five people who truly deserved this honor? We took an office pool to bet on the number of nominations. My guess: something under 200.
That first year, we ended up with more than 1,000 nominations—so many that we decided to expand beyond our original vision, and incorporate a group of Purpose Prize fellows each year simply to acknowledge the top 5 percent of nominees. The Prize has proven to be a powerful magnet for collecting stories of significance from every corner of America. Collectively, these stories tell a larger narrative about the possibilities of our aging society.
Over the past decade, the Purpose Prize has become widely known; it’s been likened to a MacArthur genius award for older adults – by both the Wall Street Journal and NPR. The Purpose Prize Jury is filled with luminaries from the arts, business, philanthropy, education, public service and nonprofits. Our stories have been picked up in hundreds of media outlets, including The New York Times and USA Today. An article in The Guardian cited the Purpose Prize as an idea that could help save the United Kingdom’s Labour Party (along with an Encore Investment Fund that would provide very low-cost loans for older entrepreneurs, commercial and social, to set up projects). And replication is under way around the United States; standout examples including the Encore Prize established by The Piper Trust in Arizona’s Maricopa County, and the Encore Cleveland Prize operated by The Cleveland Foundation.
As we move forward into the Purpose Prize’s second decade, new models and new stories continue to emerge. We’ve seen the vast array of forms that encore entrepreneurship can take, from founding or leading a traditional nonprofit or a newfangled social venture to “intrapreneurial” efforts designed to scale and enhance the impact of mission-driven organizations.
We’ve also seen that social entrepreneurship isn’t just a path for the well-educated or well-off. Indeed, a new study confirms that workers driven by purpose—the desire to help others and find personal fulfillment—are equally represented across all income brackets. As Ashoka founder Bill Drayton likes to say “Everyone can be a change-maker.”
Finally, and most importantly, we’ve learned that the most powerful agents for social change are neither young nor old, but rather partnerships that draw on the unique assets of all generations—a reflection of the fact that we are always stronger together than we are as individuals, and that a lifetime of purpose and contribution can become the hallmark of longer lives and long-lived societies.