How the ReServe Program Helps Older Workers

Matching retired professionals with nonprofits supports important community work.

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BOSTON—Alan Greenfield has leverage and he loves it. A serial community volunteer for many years, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology engineer is one of the Boston area's earliest participants in a new program called ReServe. It places older professionals who are often retired (Greenfield, 65, is not retired) in part-time jobs with nonprofit and government agencies.

The leverage Greenfield has stems from his work as a site coordinator for a volunteer income-tax preparation program aimed at helping low-income people with their taxes. Using his decades of business and entrepreneurial experience, he fills a spot the program would otherwise not be able to afford and certainly not be able to fill with someone nearly as experienced.

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For his efforts, the nonprofit pays Greenfield $10 an hour plus another $5 an hour to help defray ReServe's administrative costs. As a rule, ReServe does not place ReServists, as they're called, in full-time positions that would deny a job to someone else.

In his role as site coordinator, Greenfield oversees the work of 19 other volunteers who he says are mostly college students. Among other services, the program helps low-income clients qualify for earned income tax credits (EITC) that can total $1,000.

"The average client gets $1,000," he says. It's money they would not have gotten back without the office's help. "Last year, the site did 200 tax returns," he recalls. The volunteers work for free. Greenfield's compensation during tax season was $3,000, so he figures an expenditure of $3,000 generated a $200,000 return to the community. "That's payback, and that's leverage," he says. This year he expects the site to prepare 350 returns.

Boston is the newest of seven ReServe sites. The others are in Baltimore, Miami, Milwaukee, Newark, New York City, and Westchester County, N.Y. "We would love to be working with 25 communities in the next year," says Christine McMahon, president of ReServe and head of its parent organization, Fedcap. It provides training, job placement, and counseling services to people with disabilities.

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As in ReServe's other six areas, the Boston program is sponsored by an area nonprofit. Here, it is JVS (formerly Jewish Vocational Services), which provides job training and placement services to about 20,000 people in greater Boston.

"During the recession, we were finding that older workers were getting hit particularly hard," says JVS CEO Jerry Rubin. "Not only had they lost their jobs., they had lost their careers."

During the same period, JVS and many other nonprofits were getting squeezed by reduced funding support while receiving soaring levels of service requests. "We, as a nonprofit organization, have lived through particularly challenging times," he adds. "So, we weren't just a sponsoring organization" for ReServe. "We hired ReServists ourselves."

ReServe was founded in 2005 and is modeled, in part, on Encore, begun and developed by Marc Friedman to encourage older people to become social entrepreneurs. Originally called Civic Ventures, Encore supports the development of social activism and the notion of older people "paying it forward" by helping others.

"I credit Encore to a great degree," McMahon says. "Encore began a discussion of what's next." ReServe "becomes one of the ways you operationalize that. We're trying to convince communities to support the model of supplying not-for-profits and government agencies with high-level resources to solve problems for which there is no model."

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In the process, she says, ReServe has seen the value of its programs for the ReServists themselves. "We're seeing the whole phenomenon of people 'pivoting' at the age of 65," she adds, discovering new ways to do things, and finding new interests and even careers through their work experiences with ReServe.

"People will come to understand they can pivot into something where their value is very high ... It's all about pivoting. Not only do older people need to pivot, but our communities need to pivot as well."