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Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust

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Building Community Engagement with and for Older Adults

Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust’s commitment is straightforward: Older adults in Maricopa County must have the chance to remain healthy, independent, and productive. 

Carol Kratz, a program director for the Phoenix-based Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust, still remembers the first time she heard the term civic engagement at a 2001 Grantmakers in Aging Conference. “I was a green program officer… and I had the responsibility for developing Piper Trust’s older adults’ grantmaking approach.”

Civic engagement, a concept that refers to directing older adults’ energy and experience toward positive social purposes, resonated with Carol. It also aligned with other emerging ideas she had gleaned from various sources, including the essentials for successful aging outlined by authors Rowe and Kahn in their book Successful Aging (among which was “meaningful engagement”), local perspectives on aging from the Trust’s own community conversations, and data from a survey confirming that Maricopa County had a large contingent of Boomer generation older adults who offered a broad spectrum of skills that were going unused.

The key question for the Trust’s strategy, then, was how to involve Boomers in meaningful and purposeful activities. The concept was so new at the time that Maricopa County communities, including Greater Phoenix, did not know where to begin. When the foundation first launched its grantmaking in this area, there were few models or tested programs to take from the shelf.  As a result, the Trust sought advisors, convened community partners, and funded unproven programs—all the while keeping an eye on its goal of helping the community envision and embrace a concept of engaging older adults, primarily through volunteerism and “re-careering.”

By 2002, with the assistance of Civic Ventures (a nonprofit think tank specializing in civic engagement) as technical advisors, Piper Trust was helping launch programs such as Experience Corps, the Next Chapter (now Tempe Connections) initiative, and Experience Matters.

     The pioneering work we do now to help Boomers sort out new ways to
live a productive later life will define aging for the generations that follow.
- Virginia G. Piper Charitable Trust

Experience Matters: Deepening Community Support

Recently, Piper Trust has facilitated planning a hub to work both sides of the older adults’ opportunity equation: helping nonprofits offer Boomers meaningful activities and helping Boomers find these meaningful activities.

With two one-year planning grants of $250,000 and $20,000, the Trust helped develop Experience Matters, a planning initiative with a 15-member public/private task force. The goal was to identify leaders and champions in the community to advance the cause, align current and future efforts, define strategies, and ultimately create an organization that would implement civic engagement organizing in the community.

The Experience Matters Consortium, created in 2010, has two purposes: first, assist community organizations to develop high-level volunteer opportunities; and second, link older adults with these opportunities. This membership organization helps connect older adults with paid and unpaid job openings developed by nonprofit members. To date, Experience Matters has accomplished the following:

  • Convened eight Learning Lab workshops for 120 nonprofit organizations to build their capacity and engagement of highly skilled adults.
  • Offered five Explore Your Future workshops to 57 older adults. This program helps employees age 50+ explore their futures and effectively connect and contribute to their communities.
  • Matched more than 70 adults age 50+ with classroom volunteer opportunities in 14 schools through Your Experience Counts.
  • Increased its memberships and is on track to include 30 nonprofit organizations, 20 corporations, and 50 individual sponsors as members of the Experience Matters Consortium.

Creating a Vision for Maricopa County—Lessons Learned for Funders 

Piper Trust’s investment has helped to deepen community support for Boomer engagement. But this effort also comes with several lessons learned for grantmakers:

  • Innovation is not a smooth path, and some seemingly well-conceived projects do not always succeed as planned. Embracing risk and experimentation is essential. Even less successful projects are critical for learning.
  • Change is difficult unless it is driven by the organization itself. Community institutions have their own needs and agendas. Funding them to implement an entirely new model of service is challenging, unless there are continuing resources and internal champions.
  • Technical assistance by national consultants can help funders conceptualize and implement new models, as well as identify gaps in their program planning. Providing technical assistance to nonprofits helps improve performance and sustainability.
  • Organizational capacity and committed leadership are two predictors of success. A grant, no matter how large, will not necessarily ensure transformational change.

The most recent addition to the Trust’s initiative is to offer a local Piper Trust Encore Prize, modeled on Civic Venture’s Breakthrough Award. Up to three organizations may receive $5,000 and one of the three may also receive a $50,000 enhancement grant.

Engagement of older adults with nonprofits in Maricopa County brings a wealth of talent and experience to the organizations and provides older adults with the types of opportunities they seek to make retirement meaningful. Piper Trust is committed to this strategy and will continue to explore ways to expand its efforts.


Help us pursue our mission and strengthen grantmaking to support the needs and potential of older people.