In 2011, we were pleased to announce that the NC Center for Creative Retirement was awarded a $100,000 grant from the Bernard Osher Foundation; this grant allowed us to provide integrated technology for all of our classrooms in the Reuter Center and to enhance our Appalachian studies and civic engagement programs. In 2013, we were awarded a $2 million endowment and changed our name from the NC Center for Creative Retirement to the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) at UNC Asheville, joining a network of 119 OLLIs across the country, linked with universities and focused on programming for older adults. Our Osher endowment generates additional income of $80,000-$100,000 per year to allow us to continue to offer high quality programs at a relatively low cost to our members. The new source of funding will sustain the work of our organization but will also allow us to take some risks on new programming directions.
Bernard Osher, the founder and treasurer of the Osher Foundation, grew up in southern Maine, where his family operated a hardware store and a summer amusement park. He attended Bowdoin College and began his career in New York as a financial analyst. In 1963 he purchased the two-branch thrift which ultimately became one of the largest savings institutions in the US. In 1970, Mr. Osher purchased the fine art auction house Butterfield and Butterfield, and, under his leadership, it became the fourth largest auction house in the world. He sold Butterfield and Butterfield to eBay in 1999. In 2006, Mr. Osher was listed as the 746th richest man in the world and the 11th most generous philanthropist. The Osher Foundation focuses on improving the quality of life for residents of California, Maine and elsewhere through student scholarships (specifically a national program to target the needs of people between the ages of 25 and 50 who wish to return to college to finish a degree) and arts, cultural, and educational grants and support of programs in integrative medicine and lifelong learning.
Mr. Osher came to his interest in lifelong learning as the result of personal experience. Sometime around the year 2000, when he was in his late 70s, he visited Maine and found that many of the people he had grown up with were active and engaged, while others were feeling isolated and without direction or purpose in their “golden years.” It turns out that those who were thriving were part of the University of Southern Maine’s Senior College, a program for lifelong learning very much like OLLI’s College for Seniors. Mr. Osher turned his philanthropy to funding institutes for learning in retirement, initially setting out to sponsor two in every state. At this time, there are 119 Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes (OLLIs) across the country; in North Carolina, Duke, NC State University and UNC Wilmington have OLLI sponsored programs. Each program is very different, but all have the mission to help participants thrive in life’s second half.
The Osher Foundation allows the staff and members of each individual program to design their program offerings to meet their unique needs and enhance their unique strengths. We will be free to register students as we wish and to govern the organization as we see fit. In other words, the Foundation gives complete autonomy to programs, so long as they focus their efforts on providing programming to people who are 50 or older. The Foundation and the Osher Lifelong Learning Institutes National Resource Center (housed at Northwestern University) do offer significant support to members of the network. OLLI at UNC Asheville gains not just income through its connection with the Osher Foundation; we become part of a national dialogue with colleagues and peers who provide programming to adults in life’s second half. Organizations in the network share best practices and engage in debate about new ways to meet the needs of a large and diverse population of older adults. The financial support provided by the Foundation and the learning opportunities provided by the National Resource Center mean that we will be able to sustain the ground-breaking work and forward-thinking vision of our founders and to continue to dream big and act boldly.