AARP Experience Corps

What do you get when you combine Experience Corps, a lauded child literacy program utilizing adult volunteers age 50 and over, with AARP, the nation’s preeminent organization representing adults in that same age demographic? In 2011, the two sat down to the table to ask–and answer–that very question.

With a shared vision of engaging age 50-plus adult tutors to help improve the reading skills of 100,000 K-3 students by 2017, Experience Corps and AARP engaged in a strategic restructuring and business planning process that resulted in the formation of AARP Experience Corps, which is now better positioned to go to scale nationwide.

Starting from Strength

Experience Corps had received national recognition and numerous awards before entering into partnership with AARP. It had established active programs in 19 cities, involving 2,000 senior volunteers in tutoring 20,000 children each year. It also had commissioned research demonstrating its efficacy in improving student outcomes, as well as studies showing that the program yields measurable quality-of-life benefits for the adult volunteers. Based on these strengths, Experience Corps was eager to exponentially scale its program nationally. Yet it faced the challenge of securing the resources, building the organizational capacity and developing the on-the-ground community relationships needed to grow rapidly to scale.

AARP, well known today for its national policy voice, was built on the values of volunteer service and community engagement. With a growing population of age 50-plus adults interested in making an impact in their communities and sharing their talents with coming generations, AARP wanted to offer its members meaningful and high-quality volunteer opportunities–just the kind that Experience Corps represented. Seeking a multigenerational program to bring under its brand banner, AARP was attracted by the proven impact of the Experience Corps model. It was confident that it could help contribute the reach, resources, relationships, and reputation needed to rapidly scale the tutoring program, enabling it to enhance members’ experience and prepare a generation with a critical skill necessary for future success.

Lester Strong, Vice President and CEO of AARP Experience Corps (and CEO of Experience Corps prior to the affiliation) recalls:

“We knew we had something that worked. So the question, and the real mandate for me coming in, was how to get this ‘literacy vaccine’ to as many children as possible who needed it. We realized we needed a larger infrastructure, lift capacity, to really distribute our program with as much adherence and devotion to its efficacy as possible.”

What began as informal conversations among like-minded individuals at Experience Corps and AARP soon became a catalyst for articulating a shared goal of audacious proportion: to expand the program to serve one million children nationwide.

Reality Check

The two engaged La Piana Consulting to help them determine what form their partnership should take and what they would need to scale up as desired. This included developing a detailed business plan for the new venture, which revealed that even with the combined strength of both organizations, reaching one million students in ten years would be a highly ambitious goal.

The business planning process provided a framework enabling both organizations to surface and examine the variables involved in delivering the tutoring program, and to test their own assumptions about how many communities, schools, and volunteers they would need to engage to reach so many students. They agreed to break their million student goal into smaller chunks, building the business plan around a five-year “proof of concept” phase during which they would ramp up from 20,000 to 100,000 children. Strong says of this proof-of-concept approach:

“We realized there were certain components of our business model that really had to change, to get the kind of lift we were trying to achieve. To shift from 20,000 to 100,000 students in five years was an enormous cultural change as well as structural change, [requiring] alignment and integration of a small organization into a large structure like AARP.”

If this goal is successfully reached and sustained, AARP Experience Corps can be confident in developing plans for further scaling up.

Cementing the Partnership

It took a leap of faith on the part of both organizations to give themselves to this partnership–for Experience Corps to entrust its valued program to an organization for which it would be one of many activities, and for AARP to devote the time and attention to creating space for and nurturing the new endeavor as a priority undertaking. But there was strong support from both boards as well as from AARP’s CEO, A. Barry Rand, and the process was bolstered and guided by a steering committee composed of board members and key staff from both organizations.

An important question was how to approach the cultural integration of a small, hierarchically “flat” organization like Experience Corps and a very large, complex organization like AARP. Wisely, the two did not try to force an assimilation of one culture into the other, but opted instead to position AARP Experience Corps as a distinct “division” within AARP with a great deal of flexibility and self-determination. In this way, the program has retained key aspects of its original culture, which includes an entrepreneurial spirit that will be essential for its ability to make decisions and act swiftly to seize opportunities in order to grow. Additionally, as an “affiliated entity” of AARP, AARP Experience Corps’ retains its own 501(c)(3), allowing it to continue to accept federal grants–a critical advantage which would not have been possible under a full merger. 

What's Next

AARP Experience Corps officially announced the consolidation in September 2011. Since then, it has received several awards and accolades, including the 2012 Eisner Prize for Intergenerational Excellence, a place on the Social Impact 100 (S&I 100) a new investment platform and index of high-impact nonprofits, and a $1.7 million grant from the Corporation for National and Community Service. It has spent the past year putting essential systems and structures in place to support program expansion and is now fully engaged in the process of adding new program delivery sites. For example, it recently began recruiting for volunteer tutors in Chicago, where Strong says “our goal is to serve 25,000 students in four years in 100 schools–to do in one place in four years what Experience Corps couldn’t do on its own nationally in 17 years!”

(This client profile was first published in the La Piana Consulting blog in February 2013.)