From Nothing to Something – How BHV Made It Happen

By Karen Cord Taylor

“Conversations with ...” a Monday evening program that features a guest speaker. Beacon Hill residents Tom and Judy Bracken and Frank Mead and Penny Bragonier attended a recent program. Judy Bracken is on the program committee for Beacon Hill Village and Frank Mead was a founder.

Entrepreneurship is trendy these days. It requires innovation. Everyone wants to be the person who takes an idea, gets it going, and comes out a winner.

Downtown Boston has such a winner. Beacon Hill Village, celebrating its 10th anniversary this year, serves 375 members 50 years or older who live on Beacon Hill, in the Back Bay, the West End, the South End, Charlestown and the North End/Waterfront.

It started with a loose idea about the need to solve a problem. It has spawned 63 villages throughout the United States, Australia and the Netherlands. ABC anchor woman Diane Sawyer and others have branded it and its progeny “the Village movement.”

There must be lessons here for others who have an idea for starting a business or an organization, or finding a solution to a problem.

I talked with five Beacon Hill Village founders to discover the ingredients that went into their recipe for success. They didn’t agree on a lot of things—when or where critical steps were taken, who took them or what happened next. After all, it has been more than ten years since the idea took shape.

But they agreed on the factors that made their efforts pay off.

First, they said Beacon Hill Village was an idea whose time had come. People were living longer. Older people’s expectations were changing to a more active and healthy form of aging. The new breed of older folks did not want to live in retirement villages isolated from younger people, varied styles of life, and people of different colors and economic classes. Just as has happened in the local and organic food movement, older people were rejecting corporate America’s solutions for something more home-grown. They considered retirement communities such as Sun City, Arizona and Fox Hill in Boston’s suburbs warehouses for the elderly. They wanted to find individualized, grassroots solutions that addressed both the problems and satisfactions of aging. The new breed of retirees were affronted, not comforted, by the often patronizing manners of caretakers, whose employers did not understand that the elderly were changing.

“Older people were intelligent, better educated, more mobile,” said Susan McWhinney-Morse, a Beacon Hill Village founder. “The last thing they wanted was for some little chick to tell them how to grow old.”

It took some false starts, which many successful ventures endure, often to their benefit. That happened here.

Nancy Myers Coolidge recounted a story of Massachusetts General Hospital’s efforts in the 1990s to conduct studies of people as they aged and form a geriatrics practice, making a “wellness” center the first step in its plan. Instinctively, Coolidge, a social worker by training, agreed that improving health was an important factor in aging.

But some community members objected to an organization run by the hospital, saying it should spring from the community. And at a community presentation, MGH officials focused on such problems of aging as incontinence, rather than presenting steps toward good health and activity, not recognizing how the aging population in its neighborhood was seeing itself.

After that inauspicious start, MGH gave up the wellness center idea, but ultimately built a successful geriatrics practice and created other services that now work with Beacon Hill Village.

But this false start planted an idea with some people. With others, the idea emerged as they faced their own aging. They kept thinking they wanted to stay in their own homes in a neighborhood that had nurtured them as younger adults. Surely it could do the same for them as they grew old. But how to make it happen?

They called a meeting. Who did it, when and where? Was it ten people? Thirteen? Some thought the monthly meetings lasted for several years. Others maintained they occurred for only a year or two. On these matters everyone differed, as people do when recalling the first iterations of a plan the outcome of which is unknown. But some things they agreed on.

One critical piece was the kind of people who were in at the beginning. Their values, talents, experience, connections, follow-through, passions, and effectiveness were attributes that make for success in any venture. Some people connected the group with experts. Others knew state and city officials who could be helpful. The financial people made a budget. One member wrote a business plan. A few members were venture capitalists in their work life. As they grew to believe in the mission, saw it as rational, and realized they had the capacity to manage such an organization, they provided capital for the venture. They got by with a little help from their friends, as when Jamie Seagle of Rogerson Communities gave them free office space.

At one point, David Arnold remembered, they ran out of money and had to pass the hat. Other founders also remembered that critical moment. “We had enough faith in our plan to fund it,” Coolidge said bluntly.

They agreed they needed to educate themselves, starting out with what McWhinney-Morse characterized as “muddy” ideas, gradually becoming more sophisticated—an exercise most entrepreneurs go through. They interviewed cab drivers about transporting the elderly and caretakers about caring for them. They enlisted Harvard Business School professors whose specialty was non-profits. A survey showed that what older people said they needed most was a handyman. They asked restaurant owners how they felt about offering discounts to seniors. “You can’t know what to do until you know what is already being done,” said McWhinney-Morse.

They rejected some ideas. “The issue that kept arising in the early days was that we needed to pick out a place to buy for housing,” Bob Owens recalled. “But people kept saying no. They wanted to keep their real estate. And it would soak up an enormous amount of capital. It was not where we wanted to be.”

No one could pinpoint the exact time when the group came to a consensus. They would return to an old idea: people would stay in their own homes as they had in times past, but the circumstances would be recast. “It became an idea of connecting things, providing services to people where they were,” said Owens. “That idea got stronger as time went on.”

Rather than providing services themselves, they created a membership organization that acted as a clearing-house. A professional staff would connect members to the services they needed, provide opportunities for socializing and education, and foster healthy styles of life. Their early investigations had acquainted them with agencies, organizations, and individuals who provided the best services, and these would become the network of providers who would discount their services in exchange for a steady stream of work.

The process was similar to starting a company. “It required the same kind of imagination,” said Arnold, who was involved in several start-ups in his working life. “Two people working in a garage. It grows. You think on your feet. You get advice. Hewlett Packard had no model to go by.”

The group realized that not all the members would need services when they joined, but they would still be accommodated. “I always saw it as an insurance policy,” said Nancy Coolidge.

They decided early on that the operation’s quality had to be first-rate. To show they were serious and professional they chose Woody Ives, a well-regarded figure on Beacon Hill who had run several companies, as the first president of the board of directors.

Ives said members of the founding group did not have all the information they needed when they started Beacon Hill Village, but at some point they jumped in, hiring staff and putting programs in place. Ives said all successful ventures get to a point where they need to stop talking and act. “It’s true in venture capital,” he said. “It’s time to get at it. Freeze the product and stop making it 100 percent perfect. Ninety-eight percent will do.”

Like any good idea with a civic mission, the outcome had what trend-watchers now called social capital. “It was an enhancement to have a program where you can keep older citizens in the community,” said Coolidge. “They add value.”

And isn’t adding value to society what everyone who has an idea wants to accomplish at the end?

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