Podcast

Episode 7: Problem-Solving through Partnership

Wednesday, November 18, 2020

AARP Foundation President Lisa Marsh Ryerson joins Jennifer to talk about the importance of partnerships to address the financial health needs of people as they age. In the midst of a global pandemic that is having an outsized impact on older people, forging these partnerships is more critical than ever. Listen in as they discuss the financial health, physical health, and racial disparities affecting older Americans, and how an integrated financial health ecosystem is key to finding solutions.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson

Lisa Marsh Ryerson is 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 implemented pioneering initiatives, explored new avenues for collaboration, and secured unprecedented funding to support programs and services that truly change lives. Lisa has also spearheaded innovative partnerships with other organizations to create and advance effective solutions that help vulnerable older adults increase their economic opportunity and social connectedness.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson

Watch the “Financial Lives After 50: Rethinking the Golden Years” video series and check out more episodes of EMERGE Everywhere.

Episode Transcript

Jennifer Tescher:
Welcome to EMERGE Everywhere. I’m Jennifer Tescher, journalist turned financial health champion. As founder and CEO of the Financial Health Network, I’ve spent my career breaking down silos by engaging with innovators across industries. And now I’m sharing those conversations with you. Meet the forward-thinking leaders challenging the status quo and unleashing creative new ways of improving financial health by seeing their customers, employees, and communities in 3D.

My guest today is a master at seeing the complexities in the world and bringing unlikely bedfellows together to tackle them. After nearly two decades as a college president working to improve the lives of young people, Lisa Marsh Ryerson shifted her focus to the financial challenges of older Americans when she took the helm of the AARP Foundation in 2013. Lisa is a strong believer in the power and the necessity of collaboration in order to address complex challenges. And she has brought leading companies and organizations from across sectors together to take on food insecurity, aging in place, and supporting the financial health of older adults. Welcome Lisa Marsh Ryerson. Thanks so much for being here.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Great to be with you.

Jennifer Tescher:
So you’ve been leading the AARP Foundation since 2013, but you actually started life in higher ed, at the other end of the age spectrum, if you will, as the president, I think for 18 years of Wells College in Upstate New York.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah.

Jennifer Tescher:
So tell us what led you to higher ed and to Wells.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah, no, thanks, Jennifer. I’m thrilled to talk about that because you’re right. I was president for almost two decades and then I was a dean and I’m a teacher, a literacy teacher by training. So education is in my DNA and it is what I was pursuing for my career. And I loved my work in American higher education and specifically at Wells College because what I know about myself is that serving important missions, bold missions, serving others is what I wanted to do and I have done with my life. So also what’s interesting, Jen, is that I’m talking with you today back up in Aurora, New York, the home of Wells College, giving remote work. So it’s great to be back here.

Jennifer Tescher:
Now, if I’m not mistaken, you actually graduated from Wells College. Is that true?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
I did, Jennifer, and I was the first alumna president. And a little bit of a fun fact. My mother-in-law was the first woman president of Wells College. So that is likely an entirely different podcast, but I’m proud to say that Sissy Farenthold, my mother-in-law, is 93 and continues as really a human rights activist.

Jennifer Tescher:
Wow, that is an incredible story. I think there’s a book there somewhere.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Truly it is. There may be.

Jennifer Tescher:
You mentioned though, that you were motivated by a career of service.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yes.

Jennifer Tescher:
Where does that come from?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah, definitely in my upbringing in Jamestown, New York in Western New York with my parents, who really… I’m a first-generation college student. It was important for our family that I and my five siblings had access to quality education. And we had a great public education in our hometown, but we were raised in a family that believed service to others and to other organizations was critically, critically important. That giving back really helps us live the most fulfilled lives. So that’s where it comes from. And then the model of Wells College, where I went for my undergraduate education and served, is to have and to share. So with that great liberal arts education, I was informed by how one uses the privilege of education to serve others and to improve the lives of individuals and communities.

Jennifer Tescher:
Got it. Wow, so I think I can see the through-line between young adults to then older Americans. Certainly, there’s certainly a service line that runs through that.

Talk a little bit about how you made the transition from working with college students and being in academia to now focusing on the challenges of older Americans as the president of the AARP Foundation.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah, it’s been on my mind a lot too, because it is seven years ago that I moved to AARP and AARP Foundation and retired after my long career at Wells College. And I remember almost the moment. So if I take a bath of that, at Wells though, primarily we were educating traditional-aged students, and for 136 years, Wells was a woman’s college. As a feminist, that’s important to me having a great life now as a co-educational residential liberal arts college as well. But we had a growing number of women, a program called Women in Lifelong Learning. Women who were returning to college because of course, they knew that in order to be financially resilient and to have the lives they intended to have, education would be important. And of course, we know from research that education is such a critical factor in an individual’s ability to thrive across the lifespan.

So that, Jennifer, was certainly a case of it. But actually, I remember the moment, the moment before a convocation, when I was in my office and looking in a mirror and putting on my rose, right? Garbing up, getting ready, where I would be giving another message that I had given for decades about the power of education to help students or learners lead lives of change and opportunity that they needed to be flexible, that their careers would need to change over time. And I truly remember looking in the mirror and thinking, “What about me to be the best possible role model? What about a next act for me to continue to be a lifetime learner?”

Now, I want to also say that what compelled me, and you know AARP, so you get this, is that AARP is led by an incredibly bold and visionary CEO, Jo Ann Jenkins. So, candidly, I want to just serve a big mission and ending senior poverty is a huge mission. But I met Jo Ann and I thought, “I want to work with this person and this team.” We’re focused on innovation, getting the job done, and being bold on behalf of a growing population.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, well, you’re right. Jo Ann is also an incredible leader like you are, and she definitely wants to make people follow and work with her. So you’ve mentioned older poverty and the work of the foundation is really focused on serving older adults struggling with poverty, but related issues of unemployment, food insecurity, inadequate housing, and social isolation. These aren’t new issues, but with COVID, we’ve realized just how pressing these issues are as older adults have really become the center of attention as among the most vulnerable in this pandemic. So as the head of a foundation that’s focusing on this population, I can only imagine that these last six months or so have been incredibly stressful as you’re navigating this crisis and navigating the foundation’s response. Talk to us a little bit about what this time has meant for you. What have been the biggest challenges and struggles and how is the foundation really leaning in at this moment?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah, it has been a stressful time, but working to end senior poverty is such an urgent factor. But our work is always urgent. You know that we focus intently on driving for outcomes and that we’re hyper-focused on financial resiliency, increasing economic opportunity and connection as a way to end senior poverty. But over the course of the pandemic, and then, of course, Jennifer, with the other pandemics that have converged together, so the pandemic of structural racism and systemic inequities, the economic downturn in our nation as well has heightened the need for the work of AARP Foundation. So what we’re seeing is that a growing number of older adults. And we serve people who are 50 and older. So many, many segments within that population, AARP studies are confirming what we know in the economy. Well over 30% of people 50 and older have either lost their work because their workplace has closed or they have fallen into the state of underemployment where their hours- Or they have fallen into the state of underemployment, where their hours have been reduced or their wages have been reduced. So the need for our services is ever more important.

Some of the challenges are around digital divide issues. So I have to say, when you asked that question around stress, it’s about how can we truly disrupt digitally so that we are able to continue to offer our direct service programs and our other tools and services to the growing population who need our work.

To put it in perspective, Jennifer, when we decided to suspend services for direct programs, you might remember that at AARP foundation, we run with the power of 36,000 volunteers.

Jennifer Tescher:
Wow.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
We were in the midst of AARP Foundation Tax Aid, which is a program where volunteers offer free tax preparation assistance for older adults. We were an operation in over 5,000 sites when we needed to suspend in-person services. So that tells you the scope of what we were dealing with, with just one of our programs.

So we quickly needed to close in-person and be sure that we could ramp up our digital services. That is, be sure that we were training enough volunteers to work effectively with phone assistance work for tax preparation or screen-sharing opportunities. But this is a big challenge, as you can imagine, on many levels. Certainly, we’ve worked with your team in this space. It’s a challenge of who has access to reliable internet services that are affordable? Do older adults have the actual tools in their hands that they need? And as it pertains to our work with your team, are those digital tools built in a way that educate users, all the while that we’re providing a digital service?

So this was true, both around our tax aid programs, but also our workforce programs.

Jennifer Tescher:
You really think in systems. You’re thinking about all of the interconnections and needs in someone’s lives, not just one need. And this podcast is really about the role of leadership in creating an integrated financial health ecosystem, and the importance of seeing people not as a two-dimensional stereotype, but as someone living in 3D. And I think that with older Americans in particular, we tend to fall back on stereotypes.

So I know you just mentioned that there have been issues in taking what was an in-person program and moving it to digital. I suspect that a lot of people are making the assumption that “Oh, old people don’t use technology.”

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
We know that stigma exists, don’t we?

Jennifer Tescher:
We do.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
It’s an embedded falsehood about older adults.

Jennifer Tescher:
Exactly. Or another stereotype that we have is from the old days, if you will: if you work hard and then you retire at 65, then your financial future is all set. But we know that that’s also a myth. And I think it’s the idea of busting these myths. It was part of the impetus behind our partnership between the Financial Health Network and the AARP Foundation to produce a video series on the lives of vulnerable older Americans, and a report on how to better serve older adults with technology. But you really were the visionary behind this work. So, talk a little bit about what you were hoping to accomplish with this work. Tell the listeners a little bit more about what we’ve produced, et cetera.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yes. Happy to, because I think our collaboration together, our partnership is ever more important, given what we’re going through as a nation collectively in society. Because as you’ve said earlier in our conversation, we tend to have this theory that life just goes as planned, right? Everybody has the resources that they need. They have access to family-sustaining wages in their job, access to work, and save programs, they own their home. They reach this age, the golden years as the series says, and then they can ride into whatever their what next is, and have all of their needs met. Now, we know that that has been a myth forever in society.

We also know that we have this sense that poverty is a personal failing. That it’s something that someone’s done wrong. That you just pick yourself up and try harder, try it again harder. And what you and I know is that poverty is a societal illness. It really is a national failing. And it really is about systems.

What became important to me in framing the work with you as the lead and Sarah and your entire team, Jennifer, was to be able to tell the stories, to go into individuals’ homes, to share the realities of the complex challenges that older adults face, and the series Financial Lives After 50: Rethinking the Golden Years, has done just that. And I’m going to urge everyone who’s listening to us today to head to FinTech.AARPFoundation.org, and watch this series. It is a set of conversations where individuals and families invited you into their homes and shared in gracious and generous ways what’s happened to them.

Jennifer Tescher:
Lisa, I think we’re going to now play a clip of Koren and Larry’s story.

Larry:
I retired about 62. That’s why I had to take early retirement. But I was unemployed for about a year before that.”

Koren:
It’s been tight, yeah. It’s been really tight. This place was not built very well. So after 20 years, things are falling apart. And after 20 years, air conditioning and heating needs to be replaced. Toilet needs to be replaced. And the heat here, because it’s so hot, our drapes need to be repaired. We can’t do anything with the credit cards anymore, because we weren’t able to make the payments. And they were small enough in the beginning, but now it’s getting to be too large. Can’t manage them because of things so expensive with cell phones and all that. These are stuff that we didn’t anticipate when we were growing up, right? So these things are our expenses that are out of our control after you retire. Our car died on us, but we’re waiting to get a new car this year, but without the money coming in, we can’t do that.

Jennifer Tescher:
The six episodes each focus on a particular theme or a challenge that older Americans are facing. Lisa, of all of the episodes, which one is your favorite, and why?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
It is so hard to choose one episode that would be my favorite. But I want to say our wrap-up episode where your team was asking all of our 11 participants to talk about the advice that they wish they had listened to, what would they be sharing as their advice. And the reason why that’s my favorite, so I think everyone should listen and watch all six, but if you’re choosing because you don’t have much time, go to the last episode. And what you will walk away with is the deep understanding that knowing is not enough. Without exception, all of the participants shared that they knew they weren’t saving enough, that they thought they should keep working longer than they worked, but that knowing was not enough.

But again, what I want to say about that is, not something they did wrong, right? That episode brings to the fore the inequities we have in society and the systemic challenges that we need to address around working and saving, around benefits and the portable benefits, around family-sustaining wages, to support caregivers, to just really develop solutions that address the complexities of people’s lives. So I’m going to say episode six.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, I agree. That was a very special episode.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Say, episode six.

Jennifer Tescher:
Yeah, I agree. That was a very special episode. Let’s turn our attention just for a moment to the other piece of work that we did together, which was really around designing for low and moderate income, older adults, designing for their financial needs and thinking about Fintech over 50. We published a report that you can read at finhealthnetwork.org. Say a little bit more about how that connects to the videos and why these two pieces of work together were so important for the foundation?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Hey, I begin again, Jennifer, by saying that these two pieces of work, it’s as if coming together as leaders, you and I and our organizations, knew that the work was important and timely, but my goodness, it is ever more timely when you take the combination of these research pieces because of the increased financial stress that we’re seeing.

Jennifer Tescher:
I should mention we conducted these interviews and did the videos before COVID.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
We did before anyone knew the name COVID-19.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s right. That’s right.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
So it was as if we had some foreshadowing, right. And you, and I certainly did. And our teams did. What I mean by that is that based upon your research, AARP Foundation able to confirm that there are, there were pre-pandemic, at least 13 million people, 50 and older, who were already financially vulnerable, 10 million living in poverty and millions more right? One event away from slipping into poverty. But so the combination is that you have provided for us and for other organizations and the public, strong, strong data points. But with the data points, like the ultimate end data visualization. By that, I mean, not just data graphics that are easy to consume, but really the stories of people’s lives. It’s the best of quantitative and qualitative research. And again, as an educator and someone who worked in the Academy for most of my career, you have to have both, you need quantitative and qualitative research to get it right.

What’s important to me about Fintech over 50 is that increasingly financial solutions will be based upon the best design and financial technologies. So managing stretching from paycheck to paycheck, developing and managing savings, all of those will become ever more dependent upon older adults’ ability to access really high-quality financial technology tools. And the report defined for us at ARP Foundation, that again, let’s fight the stigma. Older adults are not at all reticent to use financial technologies, but they’re over, they are like long passed over the stigma that society places upon them as incompetent when it comes to using technology or digital tools.

We heard that, right? You heard that your team and the research. So you’ve provided a roadmap that we are already using at AARP Foundation to develop financial services tools, financial technology that needs older adults where they are, that builds education into the tool, that builds safety into the tools. And that helps older adults who are moderate to low income, have tools that meet the immediate need they have. If savings is where you need help, those are the tools that you need.

Jennifer Tescher:
I’m pretty sure that you all have developed your own savings tool recently, am I right?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
You are right. We were able to launch in 2019, actually two saving tools that really underscore the need for financial resiliency. One is My Savings Jar, which is a coaching. So it uses the research really looking at coaching and behavioral changes. And also My Savings Jar connects the users to an online community so that they are able to share, the community boards are almost, it’s such a significant part of My Savings Jar, where individuals are talking with one another about their challenges and how they’re using the tool to meet their challenges. And we also have used this tool to partner with community-based organizations or CBOs nationwide as well.

And then the other is Self Saver, which recognizes that the fast and growing group of entrepreneurs are those over 50. And also recognizes that for moderate to low income, older adults who have lost their job or are underemployed, gig economy opportunities might be their only opportunity to continue to earn income and Self Saver helps them learn through using this digital tool, how to save, sidecar, and pay for their income taxes. For many older adults, it’s the first time they’re a 1099 employee, for example.

Jennifer Tescher:
That’s a need that frankly, all gig workers have.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
All ages, right? All ages.

Jennifer Tescher:
But that’s really interesting. So one thing that I’ve learned about you from our collaboration is how much of a collaborator you are. You really believe in partnerships as a way to solve complex problems.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
I do.

Jennifer Tescher:
And the fact is, you run a foundation and are part of a much larger organization that are big enough to do the work on your own. And listen, we all know that partnerships are harder and slower than going it alone. So talk to us about why collaboration is so important to you? Why do you think it’s so necessary given the challenges you’re trying to work on?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:

I’m so happy that in our collaboration and partnership together, you recognize how important collaboration is, strategic partnership development is for me. But you hit on it. That’s important for AARP overall. And if it’s all right, Jennifer, I want to go back to the very founding of AARP and remind everyone it’s in my DNA, but it’s in the DNA of this great organization that I am honored to serve, AARP and AARP Foundation. So little known story. Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus, the founder of AARP, was out looking for retired educators. She was an educator herself and she found a retired educator. And what’s important is that we pause and remember, this is a retired educator who served students and community for her entire career. And where did Ethel find her? Living in an abandoned chicken coop.

And at that moment, Dr. Ethel Percy Andrus made the decision that she would continue her work to fight injustice and to develop a marketplace that could help older adults thrive as they age and that is still the purpose of AARP. We want to have individuals be able to choose how they live as they age, but that entrepreneurial DNA and that drive to fight injustice remains important across all of AARP, so just as important, at AARP Foundation. Could we do it on our own? We’re large, AARP as you know, has nearly 38 million members. We are working hard on financial resiliency, health security, financial security, and personal fulfillment. But the point is, the way that one develops what I would call sustainable sticky solutions, is to recognize that individuals live whole lives in communities, and that we need to tap into the will and the expertise of multiple sectors and organizations, to be sure that we are developing solutions that actually get legs and are sustainable and are ongoing.

You might remember that the CEO of ProMedica, which is a really multifaceted not-for-profit healthcare organization that is in many, many States, but based in Toledo, Ohio, that Randy Oostra and I, found ourselves showing up at the same Hunger Summits, because we both knew that hunger was just a fundamental social determinant of health that was driving negative health outcomes for older adults. And we looked at each other and said, “Wouldn’t it be great? A large nonprofit – a nonprofit healthcare organization if we came together to fight social determinants of health.” And so, we created the Root Cause Coalition, which is about bringing healthcare, academics, public organizations, philanthropy together. And the why is because I know Randy knows, our organizations know, AARP knows, you know, that, is it harder to be in strategic partnership? Sure, it is. But will the outcomes be better and more sustainable? For sure.

Jennifer Tescher:
When you’re talking about the social determinants of health and this idea that healthcare alone is not actually enough to make people healthy, it’s about all of the other factors in their lives. You almost can’t approach that work without thinking about partnerships and collaborations. It’s interesting to think about how this Root Cause Foundation brought together, really, healthcare organizations primarily, but on the issue of hunger. Hunger was what brought you.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
That’s what drove us originally.

Jennifer Tescher:
Right. Which is just, you don’t necessarily think about that’s the kind of thing that healthcare systems and insurers are necessarily thinking about every day.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah. No, you’re right. And it was, I really credit Randy and his team at ProMedica for joining with us, and then, all of the other healthcare organizations that have joined. But it was based upon their experience that many, many people of all ages were coming in. They definitely had and were experiencing negative health outcomes. And then, they were finding that food is medicine, and that it becomes very important when we’re screening patients that we think about other social determinant issues, that so much of healthcare is outside of, whatever that formal setting is. And it’s how do we develop those very effective closed-loop systems where you’re having more than warm handoffs to other organizations, where you’re actually able to have patients be connected or anyone connected, any client or consumer connected with organizations who can help them, where you then are getting a closed feedback loop of what those outcomes are.

But it does require that we break down silos, and that’s the hard part, isn’t it, of strategic partnerships? And that’s the call or promise of a collective impact model. And we all say, “We’re not going to work as silos, that we’re going to bust those.” But then, we’re almost wired, organizationally or in society, to drive back into our silos. So, it has required a leap into and a commitment to trusting other organizations and doing our work in new ways, both sharing the work, sharing the goals, and sharing the successes.

Jennifer Tescher:
What’s interesting to think about is what you said about a closed-loop, not just a warm handoff. I think a lot of companies and organizations have today and can understand the importance or value of collaboration or partnerships, but it’s a very different thing to say, “This isn’t just some nice partnership we put on a press release. Oh, look at that. We’re going to refer to each other services.”

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
That’s right.

Jennifer Tescher:
This is actually these kinds of interventions, if you will, really have to be built into the system and to the way in which companies and organizations operate. That’s a much bigger ask. How open do you think or do you find companies and organizations are to really that level of action?

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Yeah. I found that largely open. Now, whether or not you can make it to the finish line is another story, as you’re indicating, Jennifer. So, I think the openness is there because the scale of the problems have increased so exponentially in society, and in communities, and that you have, whether it’s healthcare organization or nonprofit charities, public charities like AARP Foundation. There is such a focus now on overcoming poverty that there is definitely more openness. But you hit on the key because it’s about changing your practices, your standard operating processes as well, and figuring out ways that we can use effective tools to be sharing information up to our standards of privacy, but sharing that information effectively to increase community health. Given COVID, and the public health crisis around social isolation and loneliness, and around structural racism and systemic inequities, I believe there’ll be more drive to come together and solve.

It’s just hard to find any bright spots in what we’re going through right now with the convergence of so many pandemics, but one may be that more and more individuals and more and more organizations feel vulnerable right now. And what we are knowing, collectively, is that actually returning back to whatever was normal is not sufficient, that we were not meeting the needs. In my space, it’s meeting the needs of moderate to low-income vulnerable older adults. But collectively in community, we have this broader sense that people are in trouble and that it doesn’t serve us well, from a public health standpoint or a collective health standpoint, to return to systems and ways of being and doing that actually aren’t making a difference and aren’t providing more equitable opportunity.

Jennifer Tescher:
Lisa, I think that’s a fantastic way to end our conversation. Thanks so much for joining us on Emerge Everywhere.

Lisa Marsh Ryerson:
Happy to be here.

Jennifer Tescher:
This has been EMERGE Everywhere, a Financial Health Network production. I’m Jennifer Tescher, and I’d love to hear your ideas for future guests and your reactions to the show. You can connect with me on Twitter @JenTescher. If you liked this episode, please review the show and subscribe wherever you get your podcasts. To learn more about the work and research we do, please visit emerge.finhealthnetwork.org. See you next time.

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