September 19, 2016
My grandmother, Brooke Astor, was a role model and ahead of her time when it came to philanthropy. Well into her tenth decade of life, she was known as "New York's First Lady" and a "humanist aristocrat with a generous heart" who immersed herself in a form of engaged philanthropy decades before the practice was mainstream.
As president of the Vincent Astor Foundation from 1959 until she closed the foundation in 1997, she worked to advance the "quality of life" in her beloved New York City. But in 2006, at the age of 104, she unknowingly became an advocate for elder Americans, for "quality of life at the end of life." That year, after I learned she had been a victim of elder abuse perpetrated by her own son — my father — I sought her guardianship. However, the press discovered the contents of my guardianship petition, leading to lurid front-page headlines and the harsh spotlight of unwanted publicity. While my grandmother would never have wanted to be known as one of America's most famous victims of elder abuse, it may be one of her greatest and most lasting legacies.
I came to the cause of elder justice through my grandmother's sad personal circumstances. It was a situation that informed and touched me, firing my commitment to lend support to the cause and join with others to enact meaningful change.
When I first sought to assist my grandmother, I didn't know what resources were available to me, where I could turn for help, or how I could help those who had helped her. To say I found it confusing and overwhelming is an understatement.
In 2010, after a six-month criminal trial that ended in my father's conviction, I began to speak at events and conferences across the nation in what eventually turned into a multiyear listening tour. Over these last half dozen years, I have learned much from the professionals who do so much — for so many — often with so little. I have come to realize that elder abuse is a systemic problem that demands systems-based solutions.
It Takes a Village
Informed by my grandmother's work at the foundation — and having been involved in regional, national, and international organizations myself — I have come to see how philanthropy is defining and addressing elder justice and building support for the cause. But while the notion of "strength in numbers" isn't new in philanthropic circles, organizations are still feeling their way as they identify and pool resources from among human service organizations, the legal system, healthcare organizations, the financial industry, and, of course, concerned and committed individuals willing to give generously of their time and money.
Elder justice is a relatively young cause, and organizations that address awareness, advocacy, research, and practice must work together to build a stronger security net for vulnerable seniors while providing needed resources for family members and caregivers — seniors' circles of support. A key component of my commitment to the cause has been identifying individuals and organizations that already work to bring these elements, professions, and sectors together in a meaningful way.
One of those organizations is JASA, a New York City-based nonprofit agency founded in 1968 that, in the decades since, has created a powerful network of professionals and donors committed to addressing the problem of elder abuse. I was introduced to JASA in 2011 by my grandmother's court-appointed lawyer (who started her career as a social worker) and was impressed by its innovative Legal Social Work Elder Abuse Program (LEAP), which brings attorneys and social workers together to assist more than six hundred victims of abuse each year. In addition, hundreds of professionals, healthcare system gatekeepers, and community members are trained through JASA's Elder Abuse Training Institute, as well as its annual NYC Elder Abuse Conference and its neighborhood workshops.
Whether here in New York or in communities across the country, it is organizations like JASA that are doing the critical work of forging collaborations between community stakeholders and legal, financial, and healthcare professionals to address elder abuse in a comprehensive, holistic, and compassionate manner. It is my privilege today to be able to work closely with the wonderful people there to spread the word about elder abuse and help leverage the power of an organization that is delivering real, meaningful results for the vulnerable elderly.
Defining Need, Opportunity, and Success
Elder justice is in its infancy as compared to other realms that define our social, legal, and moral obligations. Elder justice can help complete, not compete with, other causes.
In its formative stage, elder justice demands a formative assessment. There are lessons to be learned from other social justice work (notably in child abuse and domestic violence). However, elder justice initiatives must be informed by, not conform to, these lessons, for elder justice has distinctive needs.
Through analytics, systems-based solutions will help address and assess need and opportunity, bridge critical gaps along the way, and forge connections between multiple — even seemingly disparate — professionals and community stakeholders.
This assessment must recognize that the philanthropic landscape today is much different than the environment that shaped older, more established causes, including that of the Vincent Astor Foundation. We should see this as a great opportunity to envision emergent elder justice through an entirely new philanthropic lens.
Before dying in 1959, Vincent Astor, my grandmother's husband, established the Vincent Astor Foundation for the "alleviation of human suffering." The model for the foundation he settled on was typical of the time: from 1948 to 1997, the $200 million awarded by the foundation in support of social and cultural causes was derived exclusively from the Astor fortune.
Early on, the foundation focused on providing seed money to projects, with the foundation's due diligence acting as a "seal of approval" and a catalyst for investments by others. In the world of philanthropy, this was a traditional exchange, starting with a nonprofit applicant asserting need and identifying an opportunity and, on completion of the proposed work, internally assessing its efforts and self-reporting the outcomes. This twentieth-century philanthropy promoted a siloed, "self-serving" approach, with nonprofits pitted against each other having to substantiate the merit of their individual work.
Much has changed in the decades since in terms of both measurement, means, and results. Today, more than ever, measurement is a mission-critical tool that funders from both the public and private sectors require, resulting in a more rigorous and transparent accounting of need, performance, and outcomes — and potential for lessons learned to guide future partnerships, including partnerships with the private sector.
Today, private-sector impact investments are a powerful, purpose-driven means of engaging all sectors in social and environmental causes while leveraging entirely new assets. As Jean Case, president of the Case Foundation, has said, impact investing is "a new way to solve old problems" — including the problem of elder abuse.
Increasingly, impact bonds and other hybrid approaches to our social and environmental challenges are being shaped and guided by data-driven performance metrics — which, in turn, are more directed when coupled with a systems-based approach.
My grandmother's philanthropic and social justice work over four decades laid the foundation for thinking about and exploring new ways to address and advance our shared concerns and commitments.
To advance elder justice, it is urgent we work together to assess needs and opportunities, using a systems-based approach informed by emerging analytics to harness the engagement and investment of all sectors.
Philip C. Marshall is a professor and director of the Historic Preservation Program at Roger Williams University and an elder justice advocate. To learn more, visit beyondbrooke.org.