Purpose Prize 2013: A “MacArthur Genius Award” for the Encore Years


“Angling,” mused Washington Irving, “tends to produce a serenity of mind.” As it turns out, he may have been right. The link between fishing and inner peacefulness has been put to the test by Ed Nicholson, one of the winners of the 2013 Purpose PrizeProject Healing Waters uses fly-fishing to help disabled veterans along the path of emotional and psychological rehabilitation. As one participant explains, “The therapeutic value is that it’s not therapy.”

Nicholson developed the idea when he was recovering from prostate surgery at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It was during the Iraq War, and he thought that sharing his passion for fly-fishing might help hospitalized military personnel. The program creates links with local fly-fishing clubs, raises funds for equipment and training, and has now extended to 47 states across the United States.

“Ed Nicholson is one of seven winners of this year’s prize,” explains Marc Freedman, CEO and Founder of Encore.org, the organization behind the award given to social entrepreneurs in their “encore careers.” The program is funded in part by an $8 million grant from the John Templeton Foundation. “Nicholson embodies the spirit of the prize. The winners aren’t superheroes who have magically transformed themselves. Rather, they are problem-solvers, drawing on real experience and tackling concrete problems. Because our winners are so practical, they are also genuinely inspirational. Anyone can imagine focusing their expertise, and using it to make a tangible difference in other people’s lives.”

The awards will be honored in Sausalito, California on December 5, in an evening hosted by Jane Pauley, former anchor of The Today Show and one of the 21 Purpose Prize judges. The awards include two prizes worth $100,000 and five worth $25,000.

The other 2013 winners are:

  • Ysabel Duron of Latinas Contra Cancer, who taps into her own experience as a cancer survivor to shine a spotlight on cancer for Latino communities.
  • Vicki Thomas of Purple Heart Homes, who developed a project to renovate foreclosed homes before making them available to veterans.
  • Barbara Young, an immigrant domestic worker who now champions the cause of domestic workers across the United States.
  • Carol Fennelly, who runs a unique summer camp behind bars that is transforming federal prisoners into involved parents.
  • Elizabeth Huttinger, of Project Crevette, working to eradicate human schistosomiasis, a disease infecting millions of the world’s poorest citizens.
  • Reverend Violet Little of The Welcome Church, Philadelphia, who is pastoring the city’s homeless in a church without walls.

Encore also named 42 Purpose Prize Fellows, who were finalists for the Prize.

“The prize is in its eighth year,” continues Freedman. “There are now 430 winners and fellows, our runner-up award, and some 8,000 people have been nominated. That in itself is quite a comment on the widespread desire of people to make an impact later on in life. I’ve noticed that often there is an ‘encore moment,’ when someone makes connections between know-how, passion and a problem. Out of that alchemy comes a new purpose and calling.”

The prize attracted widespread media coverage, including being likened to a MacArthur genius award in a Wall Street Journal blog. Another story carried by Forbes detailed how each prize recipient is changing the world, and The Washington Post reported that the winners feel they are only now discovering their real life’s work.

“Research shows that that about a quarter of the population in the second half of life are interested in becoming entrepreneurs, half of those as social entrepreneurs,” says Freedman. “An estimated 9 million Americans have moved into ‘second acts’ focused on the greater good. Some 31 million more have said they want to follow that path and express a kind of practical idealism aimed at solving problems in areas like education, health, and poverty.”

The Purpose Prize aims to highlight and celebrate such stories. Nominations for 2014 are now open and must be received online by January 17, 2014.