AARP/Allen Russ /Hoachlander Davis Photography
People around the world are living longer, healthier lives. So it's no surprise that the ways older Americans live, retire and enjoy their later years is changing. AARP has transformed in recent years to keep up with those changes, pivoting to become a future-focused nonprofit that helps its 38 million members — and all people 50 or older — reimagine their lives.
"We have the opportunity to live longer than our parents or our grandparents,” says Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP. “What worked in the past isn't good enough for us to meet our members’ needs in the future."
To achieve this transformation, AARP has expanded its reach, building a nationwide presence in every state to help handle a wider range of aging-related issues. One of its key initiatives is the AARP Innovation Lab. Members of this team discover some of the best and brightest start-ups through accelerators and pitch competitions and employ design thinking to promote healthy aging, support caregivers, and help older Americans build financial resilience and combat social isolation. For such forward-thinking actions, AARP has been named one of Fast Company magazine's best workplaces for innovators.
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A rapid response to COVID-19
When COVID-19 was declared a pandemic in March, AARP employees, along with legions of workers across the U.S., packed up their laptops and began working from home. At the same time, the organization recognized that its audience faced an outsized impact: The virus disproportionately affected the over-50 population, and widespread stay-at-home orders left more vulnerable people in isolation.
An idea emerged from the Innovation Lab for an interactive tool that could help people easily find needed support, such as grocery delivery, financial relief and phone check-ins. Over the next four days, employees across the organization developed and launched a website to help users access, organize and join local mutual-aid groups. Within two months, the site had more than 275,000 users and had helped form 700 such groups.
While AARP could not have anticipated COVID-19, the organization's focus on innovation had prepared it to serve a critical function in a moment of crisis. “It was exciting to stand up this platform in a matter of days and see how it was helping and changing people's lives all over the country,” Jenkins says.
When Jenkins took over as CEO in 2014, the organization was nearly 60 years old and on solid financial footing. Rallying behind Jenkins’ commitment to innovation, the organization now has annual pitch events and partners with start-ups to develop new ways to address issues such as medication management, menopause and brain health. And it taps the creativity of its own staff through internal innovation events, where employees submit their ideas for novel products. “We talk about being an everyday innovator,” Jenkins says. “That means that it's every employee's responsibility to constantly innovate and think about what our members and their families are going to need in the future."
For instance, last year's winning staff idea led to the development of an augmented reality app that allows users to scan a room and learn how the space could be improved to support aging in place. It's a product that reflects how the nonprofit is answering Jenkins’ driving question: “How might we redesign our life course if in fact we have this opportunity to live to be 100?"