AARP sprang into action when COVID-19 ravaged people from every walk of life and across the age spectrum, none collectively harder hit than folks older than 50. They were among the many stuck at home during the monthslong lockdown, and many were ill equipped to pick up prescriptions, groceries and other household necessities.
Just 10 days into the pandemic, AARP Innovation Labs, the nonprofit’s innovation arm, launched its Community Connections website to help connect AARP members in need with the volunteers and mutual-aid groups that could best assist them. And it is a key reason why AARP was a finalist for Fast Company’s third annual Best Workplaces for Innovators list, which recognizes the role that innovation plays as part of an organization’s operations.
Last year, AARP was No. 14 on the list. This year, Fast Company created a separate category for nonprofits and noted that innovation has been part of AARP’s DNA since its founding more than six decades ago.
“To be able to move at such a quick pace and to be helping millions of people across the country in a short period of time was amazing,” AARP CEO Jo Ann Jenkins told Fast Company. “We do everything we can to make sure people over 50 have what they need to live a long, fulfilling life.”
Pitches inside, outside AARP
As part of that mission, each year AARP Innovation Labs invites start-ups to Shark Tank–like pitch competitions to help find tech solutions to medication management, menopause, brain health and other issues that affect aging Americans.
A winner earlier this year, Richmond, Virginia, start-up Naborforce, connects older people to a network of “Nabors,” composed mostly of vetted and insured empty nesters, schoolteachers and retirees who are eager to help on demand.
At Jenkins’ behest, AARP staffers are encouraged to submit ideas for novel solutions. “We talk about being an everyday innovator” and “to think about what our members and their families are going to need in the future.” Jenkins has been CEO of AARP since 2014.
A year ago the winning staff idea was an augmented-reality app that lets people scan a room to learn how the space could be used more efficiently to support aging in place. This year a staffer’s winning idea is designed to open up professional development opportunities within AARP, allowing employees to try new roles when there is a gap in available resources.
Hundreds of companies applied
Nearly 900 companies and nonprofits applied to be part of this year’s Fast Company list. Applicants were asked to provide detailed examples of how innovation originated from a surprising source within the organization, changes to budgets and programs made during the pandemic to support innovation, and steps that the organization takes to encourage innovation.
A panel of magazine editors and researchers at Accenture separately assessed the applicants, with finalists presented to outside judges for their review. “These leaders and teams created cultures of innovation and sustained them even as remote work extended into 2021,” says Stephanie Mehta, Fast Company’s editor in chief.
Edward C. Baig is a contributing writer who covers technology and other consumer topics. He previously worked for USA Today, BusinessWeek, U.S. News & World Report and Fortune and is the author of Macs for Dummies and the coauthor of iPhone for Dummies and iPad for Dummies.
Evolving to Better Serve Its Members
by Fast Company magazine
Last year, as the U.S. went into lockdown, a clear need arose: Many older Americans needed assistance with simple tasks like picking up prescriptions and going to the grocery store. At the same time, volunteers around the country had raised their hands to let the organization know they were ready to help. The problem was connecting the two groups.
Just days after the pandemic was declared, AARP Innovation Labs quickly developed and launched its new Community Connections platform within 10 days, with a Spanish-language site coming just five days later.
“To be able to move at such a quick pace and to be helping millions of people across the country in a short period of time was amazing,” says Jo Ann Jenkins, CEO of AARP.
In fact, such innovation has been part of AARP’s DNA since its founding 63 years ago. AARP is constantly pushing boundaries both inside and outside the organization, challenging staff and start-up organizations to think creatively and take risks in order to transform industries and disrupt the notion of aging.
“We do everything we can to make sure people over 50 have what they need to live a long, fulfilling life,” Jenkins says.
Change from within
For AARP, innovation starts at home. “As everyday innovators in aging, every employee is committed to thinking of new ways to help older people,” Jenkins says. Over the past two years, the organization has embarked on a campaign of digital change, unifying 30 years’ worth of data systems and creating programs to better meet members’ rapidly changing needs. This has allowed the organization to manage member information more efficiently and has given rise to new products such as AARP Perks, a web browser extension launching this year that alerts members to valuable benefits and content as they browse the internet.
The organization also runs an enterprise-wide pitch contest, tapping employees for ideas to help deliver on AARP’s mission. One past winner was an app that allows an individual to scan rooms in their home to receive retrofitting recommendations on making it more senior friendly. This year, employees are working on ideas for career development that enable AARP staff to work at their full potential and better serve their members.
Disrupting the market
AARP also collaborates with start-ups through AARP Innovation Labs to create new products and services that address the needs for everyone as they age.
“We’re working on how to get the market to not just focus on the young but to really create ageless products and services that allow all people, regardless of their age, to live their best life,” Jenkins says.
To date, AARP Innovation Labs has attracted hundreds of start-ups and worked directly with 45 of them. One product to emerge is Zibrio, a smart scale that gathers information on a person’s balance and postural stability to help assess whether they’re at risk for falls.
“We are becoming a center of age tech, and challenging the outdated beliefs about what it means to be older in this country,” Jenkins says. “In everything we do, from our advocacy work and services to our content and platforms, we continue to evolve in terms of what we deliver, how we deliver it and who we can help.”