Community//

Lisa Marsh Ryerson: “Save for retirement”

This story touched me: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, we launched a rapid-response program to supply individuals participating in our programs with emergency food boxes — pantry essentials that added up to the equivalent of about two weeks’ worth of meals. One of our own staff volunteered for the very first round of deliveries. She sent […]

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This story touched me: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, we launched a rapid-response program to supply individuals participating in our programs with emergency food boxes — pantry essentials that added up to the equivalent of about two weeks’ worth of meals. One of our own staff volunteered for the very first round of deliveries. She sent this note to the team: “I spoke to a woman from Ohio yesterday afternoon, and after I explained the program, it was quiet for a few seconds on the other end. Then she said, ‘You are not serious. I thought I was days away from having to go hungry. I’ve had to go hungry before and I never wanted to do that again. This is like Christmas.’”


I had the pleasure to interview Lisa Marsh Ryerson, president of AARP Foundation, the charitable affiliate of AARP. A bold, disciplined and collaborative leader, she sets the Foundation’s strategic direction and steers its efforts to realize an audacious vision: a country free of poverty, where no older person feels vulnerable. Since she took the helm, AARP Foundation has developed pioneering initiatives, explored new avenues for collaboration, and secured unprecedented funding to support programs and services that truly change lives.

Ms. Ryerson has spearheaded innovative partnerships with other organizations to create and advance effective solutions that help vulnerable older adults increase their economic opportunity and social connectedness. These include The Root Cause Coalition, co-founded by AARP Foundation and ProMedica, which brings the full power of health care to bear in the collective fight to address the root causes of health disparities by focusing on hunger and other social determinants of health. The Foundation’s newest collaborative effort, Connect2Affect, draws together aging, volunteer and health care organizations to help end isolation and build the social connections older adults need to thrive. During her tenure, the Foundation has launched initiatives that include Age Strong, the Summer of Service to Seniors ℠, Work for [email protected]+, the Aging in Place 50K dollars Challenge, and evidence-based grantmaking.


Thank you so much for doing this with us Lisa! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

Working on behalf of mission-driven organizations is important to me. I am motivated by serving others and leading organizations to meet bold visions and missions. For 18-plus years I was privileged to serve as the president of Wells College (my alma mater) in Aurora, NY. One of the highlights of working at a residential college is knowing the community deeply. I often shared with our students that their lives and careers would be about change, opportunity, and embracing a lifelong learning mindset. So after almost two decades in my role as president, I remember a time when I looked in the mirror and asked myself what more I could do to lead by example — to model a life of greeting change, challenge and opportunity. When AARP Foundation approached me, I was deeply impressed with its commitment to making a difference through communal action. The opportunity to work on the bold vision of ending senior poverty was compelling and offered a huge challenge. It required me to study and learn about many critical issues low-income older adults have faced. Working on complex, deeply entrenched social problems is meaningful work. Saying yes to a new career propelled me to welcome and navigate the change that I had been talking with students about for decades. And I have loved the leap!

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

It is tough to call out one story or one connection with the individuals and communities we serve. Let me share a couple. Early in my time at AARP Foundation, I was honored to visit Haiti with a group of colleagues to see the impact of our donation after the earthquake. We visited many sites where older adults were working to empower each other and meet the needs of older people who had suffered an enormous loss. At one volunteer gathering, there were signs on the wall, and one read, “I have a voice.” This clear statement of individual agency and empowerment continues to move me. It is important to do our work with the people we serve.

In my first month at AARP Foundation, I was asked to lead a graduation ceremony for low-income older adults. They had completed a technology training program to help them use technology to remain connected with others and with critical community resources. I was still new and learning the details of our programs — but leading a commencement was a well-honed skill! At the ceremony, our participants shared stories about how they used their new tech skills. One woman explained that she believed she would never get a chance to go on a safari but because she could now use technology with confidence, she could go to Africa and see the animals virtually. She lifted up her screen and shared some of her favorite virtual safari photos with us. Here was a powerful example of lifelong learning and connection.

I find time throughout each year to visit with staff across the nation and see our work in action in communities. On several visits to our Senior Community Service Employment Program locations, I have heard participants speak to the power of the opportunity to learn the new skills needed to reenter the workforce and live a life of dignity and purpose. The generous sharing of personal stories of job loss and hardship, and the empowerment of our programs, is incredible. I am continually amazed at the dedication and focus of our staff who work to achieve measurable economic outcomes for low-income older adults. Finally, every day I celebrate the generosity and hard work of our tens of thousands of volunteers who lift up their hands and their hearts to fight senior poverty. Witnessing the ongoing journey of giving to help others is always interesting to me.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

Oh, I have made a number of mistakes on my journey and some are more humorous than others. Going to the punchline — always clarify your role for any event. Some years ago, I learned right before an event that I was actually a speaker. I happened to run into a colleague and I congratulated him on having the honor of introducing our esteemed speaker. He looked at me with surprise and said; “I was told you were giving the remarks.” You can imagine my shock. I immediately put the adrenaline rush to good use, writing on a cocktail napkin one of the best introductions I have ever given. Be sure you clarify your role and confirm details in advance!

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Everything we do is directed at making a difference in society, at having a social impact — and moving to outcomes. We do that most effectively when we listen carefully to the needs and wants of the people we serve: low-income people age 50 and older. What we hear most consistently is that they want a helping hand. They want to be equipped with resources that will empower their own resilience. So, in our various workforce programs, we give unemployed and underemployed workers the resources they need to compete effectively for today’s in-demand jobs, through job-training workshops, job-search guidance, and coaching support. We give budding entrepreneurs the tools they need to make a success of working for themselves. Through our online platform Connect2Affect, and our volunteer-based tutoring program that helps underserved children succeed at reading, we are helping older adults be an integral, contributing part of their communities. We are helping older adults build and maintain connections that are needed for well-being and our work makes a significant difference in their economic security. For example, over the past five years, our Senior Community Service Employment Programs have generated over 260 million dollars in income for 55,000 participants and AARP Foundation Tax-Aide generated over 8 billion dollars in refunds to 15 million people.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

This story touched me: In response to the coronavirus pandemic, we launched a rapid-response program to supply individuals participating in our programs with emergency food boxes — pantry essentials that added up to the equivalent of about two weeks’ worth of meals. One of our own staff volunteered for the very first round of deliveries. She sent this note to the team: “I spoke to a woman from Ohio yesterday afternoon, and after I explained the program, it was quiet for a few seconds on the other end. Then she said, ‘You are not serious. I thought I was days away from having to go hungry. I’ve had to go hungry before and I never wanted to do that again. This is like Christmas.’”

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

  1. Up your senior poverty knowledge and recognize that many seniors are struggling through no fault of their own.
  2. Ensure older adults have access to quality jobs and sufficient income.
  3. Be the best neighbor you can be by getting to know your older adult neighbors and volunteering to support them. Social connection is good for their health and for yours.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

I try to walk my leadership journey as a visionary, action-oriented, courageous and servant leader. I believe being a leader means being a champion, demonstrating to others the worthiness of your mission by your own commitment and accountability to it. Coaching and lifting up others is also a key skill leaders need to embrace. And as I often say to my team, I am the Chief Clarity Officer. It is hard for our teams to do their best work if they do not have clarity about strategy and sightlines to how their contributions are integral to meeting goals. As an educator by training, I know that to be a teacher is to be a learner and learning requires active listening. Although I love to give talks and rally support for our cause, I spend a lot of my time listening to and learning from my talented colleagues, leaders of partner organizations, our volunteers, and our program participants.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why. Please share a story or example for each.

  1. Ask questions. Curiosity is the primary driver to learning and asking questions is the essential tool to understanding. Building relationships with colleagues and working in teams requires listening, which builds trust. Asking a question forces the discipline to listen rather than to be heard.
  2. Take breaks. It’s a good idea to take your breaks during the day. Too often we think that being busy is what is noticed as opposed to understanding that meeting goals is what is important. Knowing what provides you fuel and keeps you energized and focused is important for success. Make it a habit to take a short walk, meditate for a few minutes, or eat your lunch away from your desk. Once you set a pace for being constantly on at work, it is hard to press the reset button on your schedule.
  3. Ask for feedback. The best way to know if you are on track is to request and welcome feedback from others. Guessing isn’t productive and building a continuous improvement mindset supports growth.
  4. Save for retirement: Participate in all work and save options as soon as you are eligible. Retirement seems so far off when we begin our careers and budgets are often tight. However, I can assure you that many people regret missing the opportunity to optimize saving opportunities at work.
  5. Enjoy the journey. Hard work is rewarding, and it can be joyful too. Don’t miss the joy!

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

It would be very close to what I’m actually doing, what we are doing, at AARP Foundation. #EndSeniorPoverty. To do this work as a movement, we need to come together to call out and address deeply embedded inequity and injustice. As a society, we cannot accept it and we must overcome it together. What has struck me about the terrible crises we’ve been living through in the past months is that perhaps more people better understand what it means to be vulnerable. Rather than create a new movement, we need to complete the work of long-standing movements that have sought to address racism, discrimination and inequity. What we need is to realize that we can and must make a difference together. We have the power to change the outcomes with a shared commitment and focus on empathy and equity. We all suffer when we lose, subtract, or impede the talents and contributions of marginalized people and communities — particularly older adults.

Can you please give us your favorite” Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?

Many wonderful life lesson quotes from great women resonate with me, including Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s words: “Truth is the only safe ground to stand upon.” In my personal and professional life, I have learned that knowing and caring about truth is central. We can move forward and make strong, courageous decisions — we can do better work — when we put the truth as the foundation. Last year I had the pleasure of meeting Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative and author of “Just Mercy,” and I proudly quote his words (and wear a T-shirt with these words): “The opposite of poverty is not wealth…. The opposite of poverty is justice.” This quote reminds me that eliminating senior poverty is more about establishing justice than anything else. And the words of Fred Rogers are endlessly relevant and inspiring: “When I was a boy and I would see something scary in the news, my mother would say to me, ‘Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.’” In all the scariness and the despair that haunts our modern world, I always remember to look for the helpers, to look to BE a helper.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them:-)

You have encouraged me to invite Oprah Winfrey for lunch. What an extraordinary woman whose passion is contagious. For years I have been inspired by the breadth and depth of her talent. Excellence is her guide in all endeavors — as an actor, an author, an entrepreneur, an active philanthropist, an ardent spokesperson and so many other accomplishments. And at 66 years old, she has more acts ahead!

How can our readers follow you on social media?

Please follow me on Twitter at @PresRyerson. On LinkedIn at Lisa Marsh Ryerson. In addition, I encourage you to visit the AARP Foundation page on Facebook.

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