Robert Chambers, 62, wanted to scale back his work hours and responsibility. So he left his career in computer services and began selling cars, seeing it as a fun way to stay as busy as he wanted while generating some income. But he quickly grew disillusioned with his new job. "I got sick of watching guys high-five behind glass walls" after they had bullied someone "who probably makes $10 an hour" into overpaying, he says.
That's when Chambers discovered his calling. He founded Bonnie CLAC (Car Loans and Counseling), a nonprofit that attempts to negotiate fair car prices for the working poor and offers them low-rate loans. Since launching his firm in Lebanon, N.H., five years ago, Chambers has underwritten $10 million in loans, and his clients have saved an average of $7,000 over the life of their loan, he says.
Chambers and others like him are an emerging face of philanthropy in the U.S. Individually, they will never have the impact of, say, Bill Gates, whose foundation can lay claim to assets that dwarf the gross domestic product of many not-so-small countries. But collectively, regular people who have just retired or are approaching retirement age are making their distinctive mark as social entrepreneurs.
And why not? They are part of the healthiest retirement generation to date. "A second, noncore career with a focus on service will be their hallmark," predicts Marc Freedman, founder and president of Civic Ventures, a think tank dedicated to helping people find personally rewarding careers and volunteer work as they age.
Chambers, for his part, takes a salary for his do-good efforts. But that's a small reason he's in the game. "It's changing people's lives," he says of his loan and counseling service. By making reliable transportation affordable, he helps clients hold a job, which builds their credit.
Civic Ventures recently established a $100,000 Purpose Prize to reward five people who are over 60 and making a difference in the world. They will be named in September, and all finalists are eligible for a grant to further develop their ideas. Freedman was worried that he might not get enough nominees, but he has received more than 1,500.
Chambers is a finalist. Among the others are Martha Rollins, 63, of Richmond, Va., who runs a furniture store and café staffed by ex-convicts; June Simmons, 64, of San Fernando, Calif., whose nonprofit trains social workers to cut down on life-threatening errors in their care of the elderly; and Charles Dey, 75, of Lyme, Conn., who places high school students who have disabilities in paid internships that provide a workplace mentor. Chambers hopes to use any prize money to expand his New England auto-loan operation across the U.S. If more folks can afford to get to work, more will, he reasons. That's making a difference.