How to Put Your Philanthropic Cause Into Action

Reported by Dawn Reiss, with narration by Jane Hamilton
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Seniors Tutor High School Students_article

Listen to this podcast to hear how one senior acted on local high school dropout rates and find out how you can start your own volunteer foundation.

Length: 8:16

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MySilverAge: Thank you for joining us today. The following podcast is brought to you by MySilverAge, a website for seniors developed by, one of California's largest nonprofit providers of senior living communities.

Eighty-eight-year-old Andrew Gutierrez knows what it's like to be economically and academically deprived. As a child, he went to school in a one-room schoolhouse in New Mexico, his father working on the railroads to put food on the table.

He grew up to be a Presbyterian pastor in Kansas and Missouri, marching with Cesar Chavez and Martin Luther King Jr., as part of their human rights work. Gutierrez and his wife, Esther, retired 13 years ago to Westminster Gardens, a senior living community in Duarte, Calif., 10 miles east of Pasadena.

Gutierrez: Duarte's a community of about 25,000 residents. A majority of them are Latinos and African Americans with a high rate of dropout among students in junior high and senior high.

MySilverAge: As Gutierrez learned more about the dropout rate and the community's problems with gang violence, it bothered him. He says he felt like it represented a waste of great young minds.

Gutierrez: It just breaks my heart to know that human beings who are not given the opportunity to develop skills suffer so much, as individuals, in their families and in the community.

MySilverAge: So he decided to do something about it. Working with the schools' district superintendent, the city mayor and city council members, Gutierrez helped launch a tutoring program in 2008 to serve both children in the community and young adults working toward a high school diploma. Some of those first students are now in college, thanks in part to scholarships provided by residents at his senior living community.

Gutierrez: A lot of our students come from monolingual families, families that don't speak English—only Spanish. And it's difficult to expect a child who is having academic problems in school, it's difficult to expect them to get help from their parents. As a result of that, they fall behind in their studies.

MySilverAge: So the volunteers (among them, Gutierrez's wife and 20 of their neighbors) help get the students up to speed. Today the program is providing tutoring services to 250 students at Andres Duarte Elementary, and Mount Olive and Duarte high schools.

Gutierrez: Some of these tutors tutor every day. And you know, people think that tutoring is easy. It isn't easy because it's intensive trying to educate these children and young people to learn math, English, history. And some of them tell me that it's probably one of the most rewarding tasks that they've ever done in their life.

MySilverAge: It's a task that's not only rewarding as a philanthropic activity but also rewarding in its social aspects.

Gutierrez: An older person who lives in isolation loses track of family and friends and neighbors, and eventually this is going to have a very detrimental effect in their own life. I urge people—especially those who live by themselves—to get involved in a community, whether that's in adult day care centers in multiple senior centers. Get out there and know what's going on; stimulate your intellect. It's been said that those people who continue to read and educate themselves live longer than those who do not.

MySilverAge: But how do you get involved in your community and put your own cause into action? Tim Bresnahan, second vice president of philanthropic advisory services for Northern Trust in Chicago, advises individuals on setting up smaller causes. He says it all starts with having a mission.

Bresnahan: So what is it that the individual or the client feels passionately about that they want to change? And that might be something to the effect of they have a family member who's been affected by cancer, or they've seen the state of the public schools in their community deteriorate over time and they want to jump in and try to make a difference. So our first step always with the people that we work with is asking, "How do you define your mission? What is your mission, and what difference do you want to make." And that's sort of a really broad step, but it's one that we find is really important that sometimes people jump over.

The second piece of advice that I would give in sort of turning a philanthropic idea into reality is along the same lines, and it's network. So, clients will come to us and say, "I'm really excited about X, Y or Z. I'm really excited about raising money for my local animal shelter, or I want to start a nonprofit to help animals in my community." We often will say, "You know, why don't you take a step back, and interface and speak with individuals in the community who are already doing some of the same work that you're talking about?" That way you're not reinventing the wheel. You're not spending the time and the money to create a nonprofit, put that legal entity into place, have to maintain it and think about long-term stability. Let's sort of walk before we run.

MySilverAge: Once you have your mission down and you've spoken to people who have done what you'd like to do, you may have to tackle legal and financial matters if you're setting up a nonprofit.

Bresnahan: For people who really feel passionately about starting an organization, they need to think carefully about the time and the financial commitment that it takes to operate a nonprofit. At the front end, they're going to have to work with an attorney and an accountant to file the proper paperwork with the IRS, to make sure that they're registered with the state, to ensure that they have the requisite number of board members. So for instance in a state like Illinois, you have to have at least three board members in order to have a valid and approved nonprofit organization, nonprofit corporation. So there are lots of legal ins and outs that you really need to be willing to pay somebody who's experienced to help you through that process. And next, you need to be willing to tap your own network to get friends and family and acquaintances to join your board, to help fundraise, to put that passion into play.

MySilverAge: It may seem like a lot of work. But these steps offer a chance to go deeper, make a larger impact on your local community and leave a lasting legacy.

Bresnahan: You know, we see lots of clients that we work with who are thinking about new and exciting ways to solve some of society's biggest problems and they're willing to think outside the box. So while in the past philanthropy may have just been writing a check to a large national organization or a local food bank, philanthropists more and more are thinking about ways that they can have the same positive impact, but do it more effectively and efficiently.

MySilverAge: It's that chance to drive effective change that pushes Gutierrez to give up relaxation time and instead spend his time tutoring students.

Gutierrez: It's a sacrifice that you don't mind making because you realize that you are contributing to the welfare of individuals, the welfare of the community and the welfare of our country.

MySilverAge: For more information on successful aging activities, visit

Publication Date: June 20, 2013