The Montgomery County Foundation
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Learners to Leaders:
Civic Engagement of Older Adults Initiative 2008-2011

Executive Summary

Adults 55 years of age and better are America’s fastest growing and most significant human resource for creating the future we envision to keep our communities genuinely vital.

The Montgomery County Foundation, Inc. has undertaken a comprehensive direct service project, initiated and funded by an Atlantic Philanthropies grant, focused on changing how the community perceives the skills and experiences of individuals 55-plus. The principal objective is to create a paradigm shift from the traditional perception of older adults as a population of need, vulnerability and net resource consumption to one which recognizes their voluntary efforts as a critical asset for community improvement and enrichment.

It is intended that this initiative will also establish an ongoing corps of voluntary leaders committed to changing community perceptions and to viewing aging populations as a precious resource by developing, testing and disseminating programs and strategies that deploy experienced adults to address priority community problems and needs.

Phase One of The Learners to Leaders: Civic Engagement of Older Adults Initiative instituted the study and asset-mapping of the community and Phase Two introduced a preparatory pilot stage that acted as a trial for early assumptions. Phase Two chose to target the linking of this vital human support with the needs of nonprofit organizations dedicated to low income residents and to creating increasingly effective roads to sustained self-sufficiency for the most economically vulnerable members of the community.

The foundation partnered with Coming of Age at The Intergenerational Center at Temple University Critical for the training aspects of Phase One. Critical to the pilot was the design and presentation of a training session for prospective volunteers, 55-plus, interested in playing a leadership role in the capacity building of local agencies. Also key was the facilitation of a highly interactive, three-day training series for regional nonprofit organizations designed to attract and retain older volunteers to community service. Post-training both parties were brought together for a “matching” event and ongoing project analysis and evaluation.

Phase Three focuses on the development of a Civic Engagement Task Force and the formal implementation of a refined training model that will test the validity of the lessons learned earlier. The first Task Force project has been chosen as a the result of a pervasive, key finding of the Phase Two pilot wherein the need for regional nonprofit organizations to institute formal volunteer management structures and procedures in order to take best advantage of the assets and resources of older adult volunteers was made clear by all stakeholders. The Task Force will in time also identify and address the collaborative resolution of a wide range of identified community challenges such as the creation of a region-wide arts council, the tackling of urban planning and environmental concerns and perhaps the showcasing (or “spotlighting” or “exploration of”) of early childhood and new immigrant literacy issues.

The Montgomery County Foundation is confident that the evolution of the Civic Engagement Task Force will mark a crucial turning-point in the support of the ongoing capacity building of the region’s agencies and institutions and the care with which the myriad calls for specific attention to community needs are met. The reputation for bringing together the best the 55-plus population has to offer – intellectually, professionally, personally, politically and socially – combined with a strong will to be a meaningful part of the solution is certain to render a blueprint for positive social change in Montgomery County and beyond.

Please call (610) 313-9836 or email execoffice@mcfoundationinc.org for:

  • More information on volunteer opportunities for those 55-plus;
  • Training sessions for individuals and nonprofit organizations;
  • Interest in becoming a Civic Engagement Task Force member;
  • How to support the Learners to Leaders: Civic Engagement of Older Adults Initiative, financially or otherwise.

Background:
Adults* 55 years of age and older are in fact this country’s fastest growing and most significant human resource for creating the future we envision to keep our communities genuinely vital. At the heart of the LEARNERS TO LEADERS project is the opportunity to employ an “assets inventory” of individual older residents in Montgomery County and to initiate a change in perception of the capacities of this population, as well as those of the region’s associations, businesses and institutions. We intend to increase the community’s ability to create positive social change by capitalizing on the untapped resource of older adults’ time and experience. We are engaging in a community planning effort to identify a pressing community need, problem or public policy issue and develop innovative and sustainable interventions utilizing older adults as a key resource.

The objective is a paradigm shift in this community’s traditional perceptions of older adults from a population of need, vulnerability and net resource consumption to one which recognizes older adults as critical sources for community improvement and enrichment. Ideally, this initiative will also establish an ongoing community of learners dedicated to changing perceptions, viewing the aging population as a vital community resource by developing, testing and disseminating programs and strategies that deploy experienced adults to address priority community problems and needs.

Public Launch:
The Montgomery County Foundation recently invited local community, nonprofit, business and government leaders to come together for the formal launch of LEARNERS TO LEADERS INITIATIVE. Close to 70 highly motivated local nonprofit, business, educational and government leaders met in enthusiastic discussion of the benefits of supporting the growth of the increasingly critical Civic Engagement of Older Adults movement in our region.

The agenda primarily focused on deliberations related to Phase Two of the Atlantic Philanthropies project for which The Montgomery County Foundation has recently been awarded support for a three-year pilot project. We are excited about an opportunity that is certain to have a substantial impact on our community, connecting the invaluable personal and professional assets of those 55 years of  age and older with the compelling range of needs long since identified for resolution in Montgomery County.

We shared a very productive “brainstorming” discussion aimed at prioritizing the range of challenges in Montgomery County that would benefit from the support of a newly created “Think Tank” focused on identifying and addressing achievable goals in several areas of concern during the first year. Further, we explored the range of roles those within  the group and beyond will play as we roll out the project in the autumn.

This newly-convened coalition will be designed to eventually recruit and retain interested older volunteers with highly varied personal and professional experience and skills sets, committed to a significant, ongoing process of community evaluation, selection and advocacy. However, initially, members will be the recipients of comprehensive presentations from community leaders/experts focused on the description of need and the measurable outcomes for each of the prospective issues considered for assessment and action.

Opportunities to Participate:

Would you like to explore being involved in the ongoing “Think Tank”?

Maybe you would like a chance to join the workgroup set to tackle a specific Montgomery County challenge this fall and winter?

Perhaps you might wish to offer your personal or professional expertise or to learn a new skill?

Please contact the Foundation at 610-313-9836 or execoffice@mcfoundationinc.org.

RESEARCH FROM PHASE I OF PROJECT (2007-2008).

Learners to Leaders;  Engaging Elders in Personal and Community Change Through Civic Engagement

Executive Summary

Objectives:
The initial phase of the Learners into Leaders project is based upon demographic data analysis and other results for the  50+ population resulting from Montgomery County’s award winning Boomer*ANG Project. Results from a County-wide Visioning process which explored a variety of issue and opportunity areas, including Civic Engagement, were used as a starting point for activities related to this project. That Visioning process identified two major objectives regarding civic engagement for continued attention in Montgomery County, one of which was:

  • Create a clearinghouse to identify, engage, organize, and recognize the unique skills of a broad base of senior volunteers

The current project, Learners into Leaders, is directly related to expressed community objectives, using asset based community development methods as its approach. It also reflects our intent to initiate the development of a core of learners who will evolve into community leaders at the local level to promote the continued mission of changing the perception of and about older adults and civic engagement.

The specific objectives for this project include:

1)  Undertaking a community building/civic engagement process and project in Montgomery County.  At the heart of the project is developing and using an inventory of the “gifts” of individual older residents in Montgomery County, to initiate a change in perception of the capacities of the 60+ population, as well as those of Montgomery County’s associations, businesses and institutions;

2)  Training a cadre of individuals to undertake community asset mapping.  This cadre will form the core of the expansion of this phase to a County-wide civic engagement project;

3)  Developing and refining the tools to undertake a County-wide asset mapping project which will continue as a central portion of an expanded civic engagement project;

4)  Creating an asset mapping process centered on the development of a County-wide Civic Engagement project for older adults in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania;

5)  Contributing to the new Montgomery County Web-Based Resource Directory project, with data collected by older adults growing from learners into leaders.

Methodology:
The Montgomery County Foundation, Inc. has undertaken a comprehensive community asset mapping process to initiate the creation of a County-wide civic engagement project.  To develop and guide the process the Foundation has engaged and Maturity Mark Services Co. to undertake the first phase of this project to include:
 
- discussions and interviews with key individual and group stakeholders in the community including municipal and county government representatives, businesses, faith-based groups, service agencies, ethnic minorities, and citizen groups throughout the County

- Identification and training of a cadre of community-based “asset mappers”, whose activities took place in an asset mapping process described in greater detail below

- an initial asset map of individuals, associations, and organizations within the County using principles and tools developed in conjunction with the Asset Based Community Development Institute (ABCD) at Northwestern University

Asset Based Community Development starts with a framework that in any community “the glass is half full,” that is, the community has an abundance of resources in its citizens, associations, organizations and businesses to address its own needs, and that by identifying and organizing these innate community capacities the community itself can and will initiate self directed action and responses to its own needs. The approach has been used internationally to successfully create more vibrant, responsive and progressive communities.

More specific to this phase of the project, an asset map is an inventory of the strengths and gifts of the people who make up a community. Asset mapping reveals the assets of the entire community through identifying gifts of the “Hand; Head; Heart; and Human (friends)”, and highlights the interconnections among them, which in turn reveals how to access those assets.

After recruiting 50 community volunteers primarily from community based service organizations, local employers, and interested citizens, these initial “learners” were introduced to the concepts and practices of asset based community development, trained in the use of asset mapping tools for individuals, associations, and organizations which they used to engage residents, etc. in their local community in an initial asset mapping process. They were encouraged to pass this training and its tools on to others in the community, thereby becoming local leaders in community capacity building and development.

Key Findings:
The most significant findings emerging from this project encompassed insights regarding both information about the civic engagement capacity among the citizens, associations, organizations and businesses of Montgomery County as well as the process of identifying and using the assets that the community has available to it for the civic engagement project.

The asset mapping process confirmed the great abundance of all of the “gifts” of the citizens age 60+ in the county. One-hundred seven personal asset mapping interviews were conducted by the trained mappers, 315 community associations were identified as potential resources for civic engagement activities, and potential resources for use by the community in 30 institutions/organizations/businesses were identified. Aside from the specific gifts and capacities identified, there was also a more informal sense of the eagerness of those who participated in the asset mapping as either asset mapper or interviewee to encourage and become more involved in civic engagement activities. Their informal comments in the asset mapping process about how to prepare for enhancing the opportunities for civic engagement were also very revealing in that there was a steady theme for a concerted and coordinated effort to alert residents 60+ about civic engagement opportunities, and to encourage and organize more opportunities for the civic engagement aspirations of the citizenry.

The recruitment for and actual conduct of the asset mapping process was also revealing in two ways: one regarding the enthusiasm on the part of the service agencies about the concept of citizens being capable of creating and maintaining community based projects using their own resources and gifts, and the second regarding the perception that this same process is a potential threat to the funding and a potential reduction in the need for the services many agencies provide. Some of these agencies were reluctant to actually complete the asset mapping process in their own communities despite a capacity to do so, while others with an orientation to seniors as something other than “needy” readily accomplished their objectives for community asset mapping for civic engagement opportunities and resources.

Conclusion:
This phase of the project offered clear evidence that asset based community development approaches are an appropriate and effective way to initiate civic engagement activity and mobilize capacity building within the community. Such a process clearly articulates one method for changing the perceptions about older citizens from a needs driven, service focused view to that of a more robust and available resource for the community. In the future, the process should initially rely more on direct action by citizens and informal associations while service agencies are trained and influenced on the benefits of civic engagement as the expression of the capacity of those 60+ for act on their own behalf and at their own direction. The “needs-based” approach to older citizens is firmly entrenched in the service network, and further education and reassurance about asset based approaches to civic engagement are a necessary and high priority for future expansion of the project.  Promoting the E-Generation’s (Experienced Generation) assets will make a positive change in the community.

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