Elevating Impact Stories: Marc Freedman

June 2, 2014 at 11:59 am Leave a comment

Leading up to the Elevating Impact Summit on Friday, June 20 in Portland, Oregon, we’ve invited event speakers, award nominees, and panelists to engage in a stories project. We believe that storytelling is an essential part of effective social innovation. How can we tell stories in a way that generates interest and creates connections? How can we listen to the stories of others with the empathy needed to achieve true understanding? We hope that by sharing the stories of our speakers, or pieces they have written reflecting elements of their journeys, you will learn more about each person, and explore the promise and challenge of social innovation.

Why John Gardner Is My Retirement Role Model
By Marc Freedman

MarcFreedman_headshot_500Seventeen years ago, I sat behind the wheel of a blue Volkswagen Beetle, speeding through the night on Highway 101 between San Francisco and Palo Alto. Seated beside me in the passenger seat was my hero and mentor, John W. Gardner. Dressed impeccably, as always, in a gray suit, with a felt fedora perched on his lap, Gardner was then 85 years old.

I took the late-night ride as the chance to ask him about his life and legacy, looking back from the perspective of one’s ninth decade. What was he proudest of? What did he feel had been his great contribution? Gardner’s answer was immediate and unequivocal: the book, “Self-Renewal,” first published in the early 1960s. I was so engrossed in Gardner’s reflections that I failed to notice the sea of taillights accumulating rapidly in front of us. I slammed on the brakes. John’s hands hit the dashboard, and I could hear him repeating the words, “Oh my God,” over and over again. The phrase repeating in my head was less uplifting: “You’re killing a national treasure!”

We survived, thank God, although I don’t think John ever drove with me again. But we remained close right to the end of his life five years later, in 2002. During that period he served as the founding board member of Civic Ventures (now Encore.org), the organization we started together to launch the program Experience Corps, and more broadly, to help transform the aging society into a source of personal and social renewal.

John’s own life was a marvelous example of renewal. In 1964, he was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, that ultimate lifetime achievement award, for his work in education and philanthropy. Already in his 50s with a long track record of achievement, he nevertheless refused to accept a ‘gold watch’ or an end to purpose—in fact, he was just getting started.

Over the next decades, Gardner served as Lyndon Johnson’s Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare, where he implemented Medicare and many other groundbreaking reforms, then went on to found Common Cause and Independent Sector, and to help preside over the creation of the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, along with authoring a series of books on leadership and civil society. It’s no wonder that The New York Times titled an article about him, “Father of Invention.”

Along with being an inveterate and lifelong social entrepreneur, Gardner was a master of the memorable phrase. During the Medicare battles of 1965, he observed, America today faces “breathtaking opportunities disguised as insoluble problems,” an apt characterization for the demographic and longevity revolutions unfolding today.

The last time I heard him speak publicly, a year before his passing, Gardner talked in very personal terms about the challenges and opportunities of renewal in the second half of life: “All my feelings about the release of human possibilities, all of my convictions about renewal,” he stated, “are offended by the widely shared cultural assumption that life levels off in one’s 40s and 50s and heads downhill, so that by 65 you are scrap heap material.”

Then he offered a closing wish, aimed at all of us middle agers in the audience: “What I want for those youngsters in their 40s and 50s is several more decades of vital learning and growth. And I want something even broader and deeper. I don’t know whether I can even put it into words. What I want…is a long youthfulness of spirit. It doesn’t seem much to ask—but it is everything.”

And it is.

This article was originally posted in the Wall Street Journal 


Marc Freedman is leading a movement to engage millions of baby boomers in encore careers by combining personal meaning, continued income, and social impact. Freedman is the founder and CEO of Encore.org, an organization investing in people over 60 who are changing the world, and the Purpose Prize, which is a set of $100,000 awards to celebrate and advance their work. He also created Experience Corps, one of the largest nonprofits in the US engaging people over 55, and is the author of several books on encore careers and volunteering.

Freedman has received numerous accolades for his work as a social entrepreneur. In 2003 he was elected as an Ashoka Fellow for his innovative idea that engaging millions of baby boomers in encore careers could produce a “windfall of human talent to solve society’s greatest problems.” In 2007, 2008 and 2009, Fast Company magazine named Freedman one of the nation’s leading social entrepreneurs, and in 2010 The Nonprofit Times named him one of the 50 most powerful and influential individuals in the nonprofit sector. That year he also received the prestigious Skoll Foundation Award for Social Entrepreneurship.

Marc Freedman will Keynote the Elevating Impact Summit on June 20, 2014 in Portland. Tickets are available at ElevatingImpact.com

Entry filed under: Elevating Impact Summit, Events, Opportunities for social innovators, Uncategorized. Tags: , , , , , , , , , , .

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