When Gary Maxworthy's wife passed away in 1993, he began to ponder his own mortality and the imprint he would one day leave on the world. He was 56. The kids were grown. "I was never really motivated by money," he says. "I like to make things happen." So he gave up a six-figure salary in the food-distribution business and launched the nonprofit Farm to Family, which this year will deliver 34 million lbs. of fresh produce for free to low-income neighborhoods throughout California.
Maxworthy is part of a small movement of folks leaving a solid career at mid-life to rediscover a sense of purpose. They could work longer and possibly stash away enough to enrich a favorite charity upon their death. But rather than leave a legacy at life's end, they choose to live their legacy now. For Maxworthy, that meant using his connections to reclaim tons of fruit destined for the dump because, though perfectly edible, it wasn't supermarket grade. "There's plenty of fast food," he says, "but [those with low incomes] have very limited access to fresh produce."
Rolling up your sleeves and doing good for others have become almost trendy, as indicated by the near instant best-seller status of Bill Clinton's new book, Giving, which celebrates numerous individuals who have traded in their corporate careers for the satisfying experience of volunteer work. By many accounts, the number of midlife meaning seekers is exploding, as more and more boomers move out of the workforce. "Giving back broadens the dimensions of what we call retirement," says Cicily Maton, a financial planner in Chicago. She says nearly all her post-50 clients give either money or time.
The decision to forgo future earnings is clearly uneconomic. It may even backfire in terms of providing maximum good. After all, a well-endowed foundation can endure for many decades and fund charitable acts beyond a benefactor's vision. Yet for someone seeking purpose right now, there may be nothing like abandoning the corporate ladder and wading into the do-good weeds. "Baby boomers have always been in the how-do-I-find-meaning business," says Howard Husock, who directs the Manhattan Institute's Social Entrepreneurship Initiative, which honors innovative charitable actions annually. Now, he says, with many reaching retirement age and expecting to live another 20 or 30 years, "they have the luxury of being able to reflect on what meaning is and act on it."
Paid volunteer work--an oxymoron for the ages--is increasingly the norm. Maxworthy takes a $2,000-a-month salary from his operation to make ends meet. It was that, or keep his old job--and last year alone his organization says the program touched 3 million lives. "So many people think if they don't have an enormous sum of money to leave to a philanthropic group, they can't leave an important legacy," says Marc Freedman, CEO of Civic Ventures, a nonprofit that promotes active aging. "But the way we use our experience--something we all have--may be a more enduring gift to future generations than money." Civic Ventures is recognizing Maxworthy this month with a Purpose Prize grant of $10,000.
The fast-growing nonprofit sector faces a shortage of senior leaders estimated at 640,000 over the next decade, reports executive search firm Bridgestar. You may not be able to leave a financial legacy, but here are three ways you can live a fulfilling one:
BE A SOCIAL ENTREPRENEUR. Start your own nonprofit, if you've got the energy and see a need that isn't being served.
USE YOUR SKILLS. Charities need a full complement of skill sets--operations managers, fund raisers, marketers, writers, board members, printers and financial and legal advisers.
GET YOUR HANDS DIRTY. Many volunteers want a connection with the folks they help. You can still put in time at the soup kitchen or mentor a child. Indeed, as foundations grow ever larger, there is ever more need for volunteers to put the programs into practice.