Grantmakers in Aging: John Feather

Philanthropists Improving Quality of Life for Older Adults
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Today in the U.S., approximately 13 percent of the population is over 65. And the growth rate for the oldest of the old, 85-plus, is twice that of those over 65 and four times that of the general population. The silver tsunami is here, and there's no turning back. What can communities and family members do to prepare for this unstoppable trend of an aging population?

Grantmakers in Aging (GIA) is a membership organization comprised of funders dedicated to improving the experience of aging. GIA is leading the way in the philanthropic community, connecting members with resources, ideas, and thought leaders who are actively seeking solutions to the challenges faced by caregivers, family members, and communities. Whether the focus is on senior housing, age-friendly communities, or diverse populations, the GIA is the only organization that brings together the philanthropic community to identify and support strategies that will improve the quality of life for all older adults. John Feather is chief executive officer of Grantmakers in Aging.

What inspired the creation of GIA? What is its current mission and purpose?

John Feather, CEO: Grantmakers in Aging (GIA) celebrated 30 years last year. For the first 15 years it was a very informal and small, all-volunteer group. About 15 years ago, a group of us decided that it was extremely important to move the organization from an organization of funders that were already actively involved in aging support to evangelizing to the rest of the funding world about the importance of aging. We asked, "How can we bring in others to consider aging as part of their portfolio?"

Our mission and vision are very similar: We are an association of grantmakers -- foundations and other kinds of funding organizations, like United Way, quasi-government organizations, and private funders that are interested in aging issues. Our goal is to increase the number of funders to consider aging as a priority in their efforts.

We do that by starting where the funder is to start with -- for example, senior housing if they are focused on housing. It's not about focusing on aging but expanding their priorities to include the issue of aging.

What are GIA's current priorities?

JF: We provide more focused attention on particular issues. The largest issue is the growing interest in age-friendly communities. If older people are going to live where they are, how do we make the community better for them to grow up and grow old? We are also very connected to those issues around the world.

We also have an interest in the connection between adequate and appropriate senior housing and seniors' health. In the past, these were considered separate and distinct issues and were funded separately. Services and housing didn't intersect. We are now seeing the two federal agencies that work in these fields -- HUD and Medicare/Medicaid -- starting to work together more closely. I used to work in an organization that had senior housing, but there were no services there, and it was impossible to get the government to provide them. For example, there was a meals program, but it was miles from the housing facility. The good news is that funding sources are starting to work together in more coordinated way.

On a smaller, more local scale, we are interested in age-friendly communities that are focused on the linkage between senior housing (including those still in their own homes) and their neighborhoods. How do you make a neighborhood accessible to things seniors need? One of the first things you should do is ask old people what they think will make their neighborhoods more accessible.

We've also worked with other foundation groups on issues like the interaction between the creative arts and aging; how do you engage professional artists in their working life as they retire? How can we use that resource? There's an interesting program in L.A., a senior living complex with a focus on bringing in people involved in the visual arts and music. Not everyone there is an artist, but the facility is designed with the arts in mind. It has performance spaces, and people at the expert level teaching classes, and so on. They are also engaging with the local school system, because with the cuts to funding for the arts, these folks can provide that missing piece to the schools.

We recently released a series of publications to help communities learn more about where to start in making themselves more age-friendly. You can find them at asaging.org.

We also have a general introduction to funding in aging called "For All Ages: The GIA Guide to Funding Across the Lifespan." The publications act as a guide for potential funders on what they can fund. What we find, especially with local funders, is they are completely overwhelmed. The publications give them information about where to start.

GIA is a leader in policy advocacy with regards to aging issues. What are some of the issues you're tackling, on a national, regional, or local level?

JF: Because we are an organization that serves charities, we don't take political positions. As an association we provide materials, analysis, and research papers. We act as an aggregator of policy analysis and information from a variety of sources that is reliable, not biased, and useful.

GIA is also an educator in the field of philanthropy, helping to shed light on the importance of philanthropic investment in aging issues. What are some of the ways you're encouraging your philanthropic colleagues to become more engaged in this work?

JF: One of the things that is particularly striking to me, after many years working on aging issues, is that the issue of "aging" is a very difficult discussion to have. It has a lot of negative connotations. It's considered overwhelmingly depressing, with endless problems, and reminds people of their own mortality. That's why we keep looking at how we can help funders see, given the demographics, that the work they do will have some impact on aging. We know that everything they fund is, in some way, connected to aging. We tell them that they can make a difference now through more conscious thinking about the aging dimension to this work.

For example, if they have a priority in community development, instead of talking about aging, we start with their priority, and what we want to do to make it better for everyone. We find that if you focus on the needs of older people and small children, you make it better for everyone.

There is goodwill around this issue, and they understand the demographics are changing -- but they still want to know, what specifically can we do? We talk to them about how there are other funders like them, in similar positions, and we offer them ideas of what's possible.

What trends do you see developing in regards to aging and philanthropy -- in other words, what issues seem to be coming to the forefront that philanthropy may play a role in helping to address?

JF: What we see are things that are specific to aging and things that aren't. On the aging side, there will continue to be an interest growing in this arena. We are seeing a lot more positive focus from the business community, even more so than from the philanthropic community right now. We also know that this is the most diverse older population ever -- we need to consider race, whether they are rich or poor, gay, etc. The big question is how do we make use of all these folks who want to continue to be involved in their community, and should be?

Another trend is the village movement. It's a self-help movement that provides structure for neighbors to help neighbors, bringing people together to trade services and so on. There is usually a trigger point that leads to an older person not being able to stay in their home. For example, it might be because they can't shovel their walk anymore. But if someone could do that for them, they'd be able to stay. That's the kind of thing that the village movement is trying to address. It goes back to some pretty basic stuff, but gets to the question about how to make this work when there's no more money coming. The recession has taught us that the government is not going to support this work. That means that private philanthropy is called on to replace that support. But there is no way private philanthropy can do that. The question is, how do you move this forward in a way that makes use of the resources we have, that is, older people themselves?

What do you want caregivers and older adults to know about your work?

JF: It is very important for folks working in aging services to reach out to the funder community, not just for funding but also for resources. They need to build those relationships with funders! They have tremendous resources and information to share.

We have lots of information we can share with people, including a lot of resources on our website. For those seeking funding, they can learn more about successful fund-raising techniques on giaging.org.