Thousands of groups of senior citizens around the country are somewhere in the process of developing what have come to be called "villages" -- networks of like-minded seniors who join together in neighborhood-centric groups to benefit from shopping discounts, social activities, transportation, home repairs, and a variety of volunteered support activities. Even five years ago, the Internet had not evolved to the point where such networking could be so easy to provide. But today, the village movement is a textbook example of how technology can help older Americans improve the quality of their lives, remain in their homes as they age, and possibly save a bundle of money in the process. And with the government facing enormous deficits for the foreseeable future, villages also represent a welcome, cost-effective way for citizens to take responsibility for themselves during an era of declining public resources.
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It is the intensely local nature of these villages that makes them successful. Budgets are modest if not austere. Memberships of 100 or even less are common, although some large networks have several times that many participants. The small scale means that people can get to know one another. It also enables a village to be developed on a relative shoestring, supported fully by member dues or augmented in some cases by foundation money and other social-service supports. And as programs pop up across the country, they are being aided by development of a centralized and evolving Internet support system called the Village to Village Network.
The Network is being developed by NCB Capital Impact, a non-profit near Washington, and Beacon Hill Village in Boston, generally considered the first village program and now, only about nine years after its founding, the doyenne of village programs. Right now, roughly 50 village programs have been identified as being actively open and operating, according to Candace Baldwin, co-director of the Network and a senior policy analyst atNCB Capital Impact. However, that is literally the tip of a large and growing movement. Baldwin says representatives from 600 communities have attended various village meetings in the past year. And the Network's contact list includes 3,000 communities, she adds. Many of them likely will be developed into sustainable villages, and she says the Network's support tools can help speed the process.
The Network provides a growing inventory of guidance and "how to" tools, from sample business plans to job descriptions for common staff positions to online forums and "webinars" where villages around the country can share problems and successes. "One of the things we've found through our experiences with the villages is that they all have this real strong desire to use technology" to run their programs, Baldwin says. TheMetLife Foundation recently provided a $250,000 grant to further develop the Network. Part of these funds are being used for development of customized tools by a membership-group software vendor named Club Express. Over the next several weeks, Club Express will begin rolling out expanded website capabilities for Network members. A Network membership costs $350, Baldwin says; villages will pay Club Express $150 to use its customized website capabilities.
The Club Express module will permit Network members to manage common village activities -- membership, events, vendor services, and other details -- from any computer with a browser. Baldwin says the tools will include an events calendar that can be linked with registration capabilities. Vendor services can be arranged by service category, and people who belong to that particular village can either find information about specific vendors or actually make a service request of the vendor. Vendors and any participating service volunteers are sent automated reminders to follow-up with village members. Their experiences will be entered onto the website as well, creating a growing knowledge base to help village members determine the best vendors for meeting their needs.
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Village programs that join the Network will be asked to agree to share their Club Express intelligence, although not to identify specific individuals. By aggregating this information, Baldwin says, the Network will be able to do national research demonstrating the effectiveness of village programs and pointing the way to village models that can best meet people's needs.
For people interested in developing a village program where they live, Baldwin reeled off several initial steps that need to be taken even before becoming a Network member:
- Have a founding group of three to five people willing to assume leadership positions and do the early development work.
- Develop a solid understanding of the needs in your community, and especially those needs that are unmet and which could be provided by a village program. A community needs assessment survey is a recommended step to obtain this knowledge, and also can begin to build a list of potential village members.
- Define the service area you wish to serve and possible strategic partners with interests in that service area -- non-profits serving an elderly population, perhaps, or healthcare organizations, social service agencies, and even retail merchants with large older clienteles.
- If these steps produce positive results, the next series of actions includes appointing a board of directors, creating a business plan and budget, and beginning to explore staffing needs and fund raising support.
Corrected on 02/08/10: An earlier version of this article said that NCB Capital Impact is owned by NCB, a banking cooperative. NCB Capital Impact is an independent nonprofit that is affiliated with NCB.