Growing But Not Sustainable? Villages at a Crossroads

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Along Los Angeles’ coastline the affluent Palos Verdes peninsula is heavily populated with older adults. Nearly one in four citizens living there is over 65 — almost twice the state average.

With growing concern about how she and her neighbors would age successfully, Sherry May last year helped organize a community meeting to discuss the popular Village Movement, a growing national trend to help older adults remain in their homes while connecting them with a web of local services, classes, and assistance like transportation and repairs.

“We hoped we’d have 35 or 40 people,” says May.

Over 200 people showed up for the meeting, held in a room with half the capacity. Two more meetings were quickly organized to meet demand.

“So then we knew that there was a tremendous need in the community for something like this,” says May.

A whirlwind 2015 saw 60 devoted volunteers organize a fall charter fundraising drive supported by committees ranging from governance to marketing.

In February, that network — the Palos Verdes Peninsula Village — had its debut.

Four years ago there were only a handful of these virtual Villages in the state; there are now over 50 active villages in California, with another 30-40 in development.

Yet all is not well in the land of Villages. Despite their continued growth in California, the movement is at a fiscal crossroads.

“None of us could afford this solely on membership fees,” says Kate Hoepke, executive director of San Francisco Village. “The cost per member exceeds what they pay.”

San Francisco Village charges individual members $600 a year, or $750 per household. Support also comes from fundraising efforts and the city of San Francisco — most recently from the office of Mayor Edwin Lee.

“We have 375 members,” laments Hoepke. “Why don’t we have 575 members or 1,000 members? And I think it’s the price point.”

And there’s the rub. Only 25% of Hoepke’s operating budget at San Francisco Village is covered by membership dues.

“People are excited and want to be a part of it, but we haven’t broken through the ceiling on how it can be sustainable,” says Andy Gaines, head of Ashby Village in Berkeley. “We’re representing a more noteworthy movement that will impact people’s ability to age successfully.”

“We haven’t found a mechanism that either supports us from a financial basis or integrates it into broader health and social services,” says David Lindeman, director of Oakland’s Center for Aging and Technology.

What’s going on? Why is a movement considered fiscally unsustainable growing so rapidly?

For one reason, the Village Movement is a powerful response to the American myth of independence.

After San Francisco’s Bill Haskell retired at age 69 two years ago, he began to explore housing options for his aging partner and himself.

“I wanted to create some new community in which I could participate,” says Haskell. “And the Village felt like the best fit for me.”

Soon after joining San Francisco Village in 2014, Haskell’s partner needed open heart surgery and the Village responded: members recommended home care providers, brought meals, and offered respite care so Haskell could take a break from caregiving — help coming often from people he didn’t even know.

“We got through it,” says Haskell. “But we got through it with the help of the Village.”

“People want to keep their independence but they can’t keep it alone,” echoes Hoepke.

In late 2014, San Francisco’s Hoepke met with Berkeley’s Gaines to discuss ways to make the two villages more sustainable.

Those meetings eventually spawned The California Village Coalition, a loose organization of villages throughout the state launched this year whose goal is to share resources, expand membership, and become more financially solid.

Yet before the California Village Coalition was established, San Francisco and Ashby villages sought business advice from a Social Sector Solutions team at UC Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.

”(Our) team found that companies would be interested in partnering with the Villages, but only if there were a larger market of Village members to achieve scale,” says Nora Silver, faculty director for Haas’ Center for Nonprofit and Public Leadership.

Hoepke summarized the Haas message this way: “You guys are too small. You need a coalition.”

Other advice from Haas: polish your image, market your services, build your membership to at least 1,000 per village, then pursue new funding partnerships — especially in healthcare.

The Village Movement responds to the impoverished choices available for older adults wanting to remain in their homes yet stay connected — what some have called “connected independence.”

While senior co-housing requires relocation, and Green House nursing homes can be expensive, older adults fare much better health wise when they are woven inside a larger community.

After the village concept was first launched in Boston’s posh Beacon Hill district in 2002, The Village Movement exploded across the country.

Meanwhile, the diversity of California’s villages — from rural Plumas County to the urban sprawl San Francisco with members in 25 different neighborhoods — are world’s apart from tony Beacon Hill.

“None has the depth, history and strength of the original Beacon Hill village,” says June Simmons, president and CEO of the Partners In Care Foundation. “The concept is great – but needs some kind of neighborhood and leadership that creates sufficient scale to be workable at the local level.”

Today’s villages are largely viable because of their huge reliance on volunteers.

Existing heavily on membership fees, long-term survival will depend on other funding sources and business partnerships.

California’s movement was sparked by The Archstone Foundation*, which funded nine villages in 2012. Today, Archstone helps underwrite efforts by the California Village Coalition, which included meetings earlier this year among village representatives and other interested aging advocates.

What does the future hold for the coalition of villages?

More branding, marketing, partnerships and membership drives.

May says that besides existing alliances with local senior services providers and Loyola Marymount University, Palos Verdes Peninsula Village is now exploring partnerships with local hospitals, universities and faith-based communities.

“The villages need to be seen as a major player in the community,” she says.

Hoepke says the villages are essential to rebranding aging as a whole.

“We have a lot more potential to help change experience of aging,” she says. “To create a positive image of aging. We have the audacity to do that.”

* The California Health Report’s coverage of aging issues is funded in part by The Archstone Foundation.

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