President Obama Champions Social Innovation and Encore Careers

Robert Chambers at the White House.

President Obama met with social innovators at the White House on June 30, including a half-dozen winners of The Purpose Prize, and lauded them for "succeeding where others have failed; getting real, measurable results; changing the way we think about some of our toughest problems."

The president specifically called out "young-at-heart people like Robert Chambers, who finish out careers in business or health care or education, and instead of transitioning into retirement, they're just too busy, they're too restless, so they come back for an encore, plowing a lifetime of experience into helping people in need."

>>C-Span video of the White House event.
>>White House press release.
>>Transcript of the president's remarks.

Chambers, a 2006 Purpose Prize winner, was 57 when he founded Bonnie CLAC to provide low-income car loans to the rural poor.

“I was old enough to understand the injustice I saw and experienced enough to do something about it,” he said, speaking before the president. “Given the size of our baby boomer population, it’s time to figure out how to build on all that experience coming out and use them to tackle our nation’s most pressing social problems.”

Obama articulated a new kind of partnership between government and innovative nonprofit organizations: "Government should be seeking out creative, results-oriented programs like the ones here today and helping them replicate their efforts across America."

"If Bonnie CLAC can help working people purchase cars and manage their finances in New Hampshire, then they can probably do it in Vermont or all across New England, or all across America," the president said.

At the event in the East Room of the White House, Obama pledged to rigorously evaluate outcomes, and then invest in organizations that can deliver, through mechanism such as the $50 million "innovation fund" in the Serve America Act and a $650 million What Works fund at the Department of Education.

He cited an initiative at the Department of Health and Human Services that connects nurses and other trained professionals with at-risk families "to ensure children get a healthy, safe, and smart start to life." The program is similar to Nurses for Newborns, the organization launched by Sharon Rohrbach, a 2007 Purpose, who also attended the event.

Obama called on the private sector "to provide that critical seed capital to launch these ideas. We need you to provide those matching funds to help them grow. And we need you to serve as a partner, providing strategic advice and other resources to help them succeed."

David Bornstein, who has chronicled the growth of social entrepreneurship in How to Change the World and other books, said Obama performed a valuable service delineating the role of government "to actively seek out solutions from communities and not supplant them, but to support them."

"Where innovation is needed, social entrepreneurs are required, but where massive resources are needed, the government is required," Bornstein said.

The president's support is a big boost not only for social innovation but for encore careers, said Gary Maxworthy, a 2006 Purpose Prize winner. Maxworthy's Farm to Family is on pace to distribute 78 million pounds of fresh produce to families in need across California. "This kind of thing inspires you to really redouble your energies," Maxworthy said. "It’s so nice to hear it, comgin from the person who has the ability to make the biggest difference."

Other Purpose Prize winners who were invited to the White House included Martha Rollins, who eases prisoner re-entry into the community with job training and support; and Gayle Porter and Marilyn Gaston, who empower African-American women to improve their health.

>>Read more about The Purpose Prize innovators at the White House.