NEW YORK TIMES' NICHOLAS KRISTOF: The new social entrepreneurs

Robert Chambers. Photo by Alex Harris.

There’s one word that cries out for a red pencil in Nicholas Kristof’s otherwise excellent Sunday column about social entrepreneurs, ”The Age of Ambition.”


Kristof could easily have deleted the word when he wrote: “Growing numbers of young people are leaping into the fray and doing the job themselves.” And: “Today the most remarkable young people are the social entrepreneurs, those who see a problem in society and roll up their sleeves to address it in new ways.”

Just as an increasing number of young people see social entrepreneurship as a viable and exciting career path, so too an increasing number of older adults see social entrepreneurship as a viable “encore career” path. Ashoka, which practically invented the field, is awarding more and more fellowships to social entrepreneurs over 50.

And the Purpose Prize which offers investments of up to $100,000 to social innovators over 60, each year attracts more than 1,000 nominations. (Nominations for this year’s Purpose Prizes are open through March 1.)

These older social entrepreneurs are no less creative or passionate than their younger colleagues, but also bring their lifetime of experience to their new endeavors. A former used-car sales Robert Chambers, 63 years old was so fed up with the industry’s exploitive tactics that he formed Bonnie CLAC in New Hampshire, which has helped more than 1,000 low-income families get low-interest loans to buy fuel-efficient new cars. Reliable transportation helps them keep their jobs, escape debt and take care of their families.

A neo-natal nurse in St. Louis, Sharon Rohrbach, 65, watched too many newborns return to the hospital with life-threatening medical conditions. Nurses for Newborns sends experienced nurses to the homes of at-risk infants, a low-cost, high-impact way to reduce infant mortality, strengthen families and reduce social costs.

After serving as mayor of Philadelphia, Wilson Goode, Jr., 69 years old, went to divinity school and now is helping break the cycle of incarceration that afflicts many African-American families. Mentors affiliated or inspired by Goode’s organization, Amachi, have helped 30,000 children of prisoners, as many as 70% of whom could have been expected to follow their parents to jail.

And Gary Maxworthy, 70 years old, gave up a six-figure salary in the food industry to find a way for farmers to provide fresh produce through community food banks to low-income families that previously had received only processed foods. This year Farm to Family will distribute 60 million pounds – about 2,000 truckloads of 38 different crops -- to more than one million families each month, nearly double the amount delivered in 2007.

With tens of millions of members of the baby boom generation now hitting their 50s and 60s, the fact that so many of them are starting to apply their time and talent to developing new solutions to society’s toughest challenges is itself a major social innovation.

As Kristof wrote, “Only one person can become president of the United States, but there’s no limit to the number of social entrepreneurs who can make this planet a better place.”

Just as importantly, there’s no limit on their age.