(The following is republished from NextFifty Initiative, with permission.)

In April 2023, Changing the Narrative, a leading U.S.-based initiative that seeks to increase understanding of ageism and to change how people think, talk, and act about aging and ageism, and NextFifty Initiative, joined forces to strengthen both organizations’ efforts to end ageism. As a campaign of NextFifty Initiative, Changing the Narrative will continue its critical work, which includes evidence-based strategies, community education and organizing, strategic communications, and innovative public-facing campaigns.

We asked Janine Vanderburg, the founder of Changing the Narrative, to share her thoughts on progress made over the past five years, what the partnership with NextFifty means for Changing the Narrative, and how her own role within the organization will change.

NextFifty Initiative has always been supportive of Changing the Narrative. What does it mean for Changing the Narrative to now be a campaign of NextFifty?

This campaign can bring more visibility, leverage, and opportunities for alignment and national partnerships around ending ageism. For example, NextFifty Initiative has funded more than 450 organizations in the last five years. Imagine that all of these organizations now have ageism on their radar if they hadn’t previously. How might that affect their thinking, communications, policies, and practices to the benefit of their older adult constituents?

I also see many extended opportunities for partnership with public and private funders through the combination of our networks and partners. At the end of 2022, over 40 people from around the U.S. and beyond joined us to create a vision of a world without ageism (see image below). As a campaign of NextFifty Initiative, the door is open for Changing the Narrative to work with many additional individuals and organizations to advance this vision.

Additionally, with the strong infrastructure of NextFifty Initiative behind us, the Changing the Narrative team can be even more efficient, bringing additional focus on our work to end ageism, rather than on day-to-day operational details.

What is different and what is the same?

Changing the Narrative will continue to adapt and innovate, learn from the community, and engage with supporters to create new resources and campaigns. By leveraging NextFifty’s thought leadership, reputation, and reach to grow this work, we believe that we will make significant progress in our collective end game: to end ageism.

I’m also excited to announce that, while I’ll still be very involved in the campaign, Kris Geerken and Sara Breindel, who have occupied various roles with Changing the Narrative since 2019, will be co-leading Changing the Narrative moving forward, and they both have lots of great ideas that I can’t wait to see develop.

Want to reach out to one of us? That part hasn’t changed at all! You can reach us using the same phone numbers and email addresses you’ve used in the past.

What did you set out to do when you launched Changing the Narrative five years ago? How have your goals or aims shifted?

Great question! We started out in 2018 as a Colorado initiative to reframe aging. Our first-year goal was simple: Conduct 20 reframing aging trainings in Colorado.

We ended up doing 42 workshops, all across the state, covering urban, suburban, rural and frontier communities. From that we learned what a huge issue ageism was, and that narrative change (reframing aging) is a necessary, but not sufficient, strategy for tackling that. And our goal changed from changing messaging alone to “Ending Ageism.”

By continuing to listen to the voices of older adults (and younger ones), we’ve added:

  • Employer education about the benefits of older workers and intergenerational teams, as well as workshops for jobseekers age 50+
  • Intergenerational conversation toolkits
  • Education and tools for addressing ageism in healthcare, and how to make care more age-inclusive
  • Workshops for the general public on ageism, and what we can do about it
  • Championing public policies that reduce challenges like workplace age discrimination
  • Events to introduce the topic of ageism to broader audiences, e.g., our conversations with Elizabeth White, Dr. Becca Levy, and Tracey Gendron
  • Awareness campaigns that challenge people to think about aging differently, like our anti-ageist birthday cards, and our Becca Levy Book Club

And, in the last three years, our reach and impact has grown significantly. In 2022, people from all 50 states in the U.S. and 43 countries outside participated in one or more of our programs.

Clearly, Changing the Narrative has become quite well known for its anti-ageism work. To what do you attribute your success in reaching such a large and diverse audience?

Since our inception, certain core values have guided our work, and I believe those together have resulted in the success we’ve had in reaching large and diverse audiences.

  • Community leadership. We believe that, in the words of civil rights leader Grace Lee Boggs, we are the leaders that we are waiting for. Our work has been shaped by listening to the voices of older adults, not just the experts. I believe this is very consistent with NextFifty’s trust-based approach toward grantmaking
  • Co-generation. We believe that it will take all generations, all identities, all zip codes to end ageism. We’ve developed toolkits for intergenerational conversations, and in ALL of our work we emphasize how ageism affects younger people as well as older adults.
  • Innovation. We try a lot of things, based on the latest research on ageism and the suggestions and challenges we hear from people on the ground. We constantly field-test ideas, keeping what works and learning from what didn’t.
  • Action. We believe it’s not sufficient to raise awareness of an issue; we need to motivate and activate people to take action. We make calls for action in all of our programs, and more important, create we concrete, actionable tools for people to do so, like our Guidelines for Age-Inclusive Communications and our “Speak Up” charts.
  • Reframing. We believe in the principles of reframing and in calling people in, not out. It’s always “we” not “you”. The goal is to come together with new, inclusive, and realistic stories about aging and to do that we have to listen and learn, as well as challenge.

NextFifty has made ending ageism one its primary goals. Why do you think so few funders are willing to fund anti-ageism work?

This is a complicated question. I suspect there may be a number of reasons.

  • Many people don’t know what ageism is, and don’t link ageism to lack of funding (private and public) for older adult programs, or public policies that exclude or otherwise disadvantage older adults. Most of us suffer from our own internalized ageism and it’s hard to see past that.
  • Some people feel that it’s a complicated issue, too big, and hard to see the finish line. When we are creating logic models and evaluation plans to end ageism, how do we measure progress along the way? We’ve done some of that at Changing the Narrative, and we know that education does lead to changed attitudes and motivation to tackle an issue. And when we couple that with concrete, actionable tools, it can lead to changed behavior.
  • In the joint workshops that Chandra Matthews (NextFifty’s Director of Programs) and I have done on why funding aging is every funder’s business, she cites that less than 1% of overall philanthropic funding goes to aging programs. In that climate, I imagine there are grantmakers in aging who feel that the limited dollars need to go to direct services, as opposed to systemic issues. What’s important is that we do both, which creates our greatest area of opportunity.

What is the greatest area of opportunity for Changing the Narrative as a campaign of NextFifty Initiative?

A book that really influenced my thinking in my prior career running a social sector consulting firm was “Forces for Good”, in which the authors share their research that highly effective nonprofits both serve and advocate. For example, we learned from older adults who attended our reframing aging workshops that many of them faced workplace age discrimination. This led to our advocacy with employers about the benefits of hiring older adults, as well as partnering with other organizations to recommend stronger age discrimination laws.

This is one of the many reasons I’m so enthusiastic about joining forces with NextFifty Initiative. You fund direct services, you fund policy work, and you are funding anti-ageism work. If we create the space for these buckets of work to inform each other, our combined efforts will have real impact.

You’ve said your role with Changing the Narrative will be changing. How do you expect your involvement to look different in the future?

While I’m stepping back from my role directing Changing the Narrative, I’m not stepping back from the fight to end ageism. Moving forward, I’ll be focused more on:

  • Strategy. How can we best engage more people in the movement to end ageism, and encourage them to take action?
  • Collective impact. With the growing interest in tackling ageism, and a number of individuals and organizations working on the issue, how do we align our efforts toward common goals?
  • Capacity building. In the last few years, we’ve received numerous requests from people across the country who want to start anti-ageism initiatives in their communities. Through documenting what we’ve done, and designing more “training of trainers” programs, I’d like to build capacity in different communities to tackle ageism.

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