Charlotte Frank

Ashoka Fellow
United States
Fellow since 2006
Ashoka commemorates and celebrates the life and work of this deceased Ashoka Fellow.
This description of Charlotte Frank's work was prepared when Charlotte Frank was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2006.


The first generation of women to attain success in business and the professions is now facing retirement. Charlotte Frank brings these trailblazers together to change the way accomplished professional women experience “third age” and are able to contribute to their communities.

The New Idea

Charlotte created The Transition Network (TTN) to help women embrace their retirement as a period of growth and renewal when they can channel their considerable skills, experience, and energy into their communities. TTN is a new model for retirement that recognizes and celebrates older women as a resource. Its basic structure of small peer groups allows women to explore their options for the next stage of life and also allows TTN to absorb growing numbers while preserving the intimacy and personal relationships that are central to its effectiveness. Charlotte is building TTN as a national organization of chapters for women over 50 that combines grassroots community-building, advocacy, empowerment, and service for the generation of women who “made room at the top”. Charlotte, through TTN, aims to transform the retirement options for older women and build the capacity of the citizen sector to embrace and utilize their talents and experience.

The Problem

American society is aging rapidly and yet government and public institutions have been slow to prepare for the impact of this demographic shift. Traditional retirement sidelines and isolates talented, experienced individuals. Although society needs new structures and resources to meet this challenge, only 2 percent of all philanthropic funding goes to issues of aging; of that, less than 3 percent supports efforts to promote the civic engagement and productive activity of the elderly.The majority of these older Americans will be women. 85 percent will be healthy, active, and well-educated—and will remain so for many years. Thirty years ago, these women broke new ground for their gender in many fields and sectors. Once retired, many lose their work-based identities and social networks, and must face the challenges of retirement and aging without models, guidance, or a network of support. They encounter attitudes reminiscent of the sexism they faced in the workforce: that people of retirement age are on a downward slope toward frailty and dependence. Stereotypes about old age are deeply entrenched in American society. Yet these women are doers, risk takers, and entrepreneurs—a huge untapped resource for citizen sector organizations—who are struggling to find opportunities to contribute to their communities. Due to the lack of philanthropic investment, the citizen sector is not prepared to tap this enormous social capital. Working within an outdated institutional framework, most volunteer programs fail to draw upon the wealth of experience of older people. They offer tasks and roles that do not require innovation, do not provide a social outlet, and tend not to fit the interests and lifestyles of older volunteers. Educated, skilled retirees often try in vain to volunteer at schools and other organizations. Harvard’s School of Public Health predicts that many agencies will not have the resources to attract and retain these volunteers; new mediating institutions will be needed to recruit, train, and manage them.

The Strategy

The Transition Network inspires older women to expand their personal horizons and draw on their experience to contribute to their communities. A survey of women who are in the Network’s target group revealed that their top retirement concerns are sustaining a sense of achievement, replacing workplace identity and structure, and having fun. TTN is built on small peer groups that make up the local chapters. Each chapter engages in its own activities but also participates in national-level initiatives. For service opportunities, TTN develops collaborative community partnerships at no financial cost to the organization. Furthermore, because TTN supervises the volunteers, the receiving organization can deploy its scarce resources elsewhere. Peer groups are TTN’s core operating units—groups of 8 to 12 women who provide intelligent, empathetic attention as they discuss careers, relationships, and health, and engage together in creative, social, intellectual and spiritual pursuits. In these small groups, women encourage each other to take risks and team up to tackle personal and shared challenges. Each TTN peer group self-organizes within clearly defined policy guidelines. TTN is adding interactive features to its website to facilitate online peer groups of women in different chapters with shared interests. Through these virtual peer groups the organization will serve women of diverse backgrounds from rural areas, small towns and cities. The peer groups are an important entrée for attracting new members: women often join TTN for the peer groups and then become engaged in its other activities. TTN steps in to help establish new chapters when several peer groups have formed or at least 40 women are attending meetings. A guide to chapter formation, “TTN in a Box”, facilitates this process. Each chapter offers monthly meetings, special events, peer groups and access to the website with job postings and updates on TTN programs. In just 6 years Charlotte and her co-founder, Christine Millen, built the flagship chapter in New York and a second in Washington, DC, followed by Chicago. Chapters are forming in San Francisco, Long Island, Westchester County (NY), Philadelphia, Houston and Boston. The national network numbered 2,500 in 2006.Charlotte has embarked on a major effort to diversify the membership, including all women approaching or beyond 50 years of age. TTN engaged 25 female community leaders of color as a leadership group dedicated to helping TTN expand and diversify its membership, better integrating women of color into the organization. This committee is reaching out to organizations serving African American, Asian American and Latina women (e.g., the Puerto Rican Hispanic Elderly Institute) to develop joint programming and encourage membership. In the first of a series of joint programs, TTN, the National Coalition of 100 Black Women (Manhattan Chapter), and the Asian Women’s Leadership Network offered a program on non-profit board service, with great success. Charlotte believes that “age is the great leveler” and that this approach can break through old barriers to create a new model for multi-ethnic collaboration around the issues of aging. As of 2006, TTN sustains two major initiatives, in health and advocacy. Because wellness is essential to positive aging, the Health Initiative aims to make health planning as important as financial planning. Health issues are addressed at chapter meetings, in peer group activities, and at citywide events. TTN is also developing ways to help women age with autonomy, largely through self-help strategies and a circle of support. Peer group members pair up to work on fitness goals, weight loss, and other health challenges. One woman’s “buddy” helped her through each step of breast cancer recovery. A kit for older women with reliable information on fitness, nutrition, being a smart patient, and creating a “health portfolio” (e.g. medical history, advance directives) is also in development. The Advocacy Initiative works to challenge age and gender bias, as well as other barriers that limit the potential of older women. TTN starts within its own ranks to dispel women’s perceptions about their capacity and then works on many levels to eliminate stereotypes in the broader society that marginalize older women. TTN has been featured in various national media outlets, as well as at conferences on aging. Charlotte presents a new vision of women over fifty through speaking engagements and by collaborating with other organizations (e.g., Civic Ventures, AARP, the 92nd Street Y, and the Institute of Retired Professionals). TTN is creating an award to honor a positive aging exemplar at their annual Pride of Aging event; they have also started planning a conference in New York City to celebrate aging. Both the Health and Advocacy Initiatives have an internal and an external mission, exemplifying how TNN encourages members to support each other and engage the wider community. At the heart of this community engagement is a robust volunteer and service work program, which goes above and beyond traditional volunteer opportunities for older people. A survey of TTN members showed that 70 percent either want or need to continue working. To expand opportunities for older women to find paid work appropriate to their experience and scheduling preferences, TTN teamed up with the Center for Work-Life Policy Taskforce (formed by Fortune 100 companies), and with ReServe, which offers stipends of $10 per hour to older volunteers. TTN also works with community organizations to develop service projects that match the programs’ needs with the needs of TTN participants: interesting and meaningful projects, flexible scheduling, and autonomy. The volunteers work in teams so they can spell each other and enjoy the company of their peers. Each chapter develops its own volunteer projects. The DC and New York City chapters are partnering with Global Volunteers to place women in service projects in developing countries. Volunteer engagements span the fields of education, public service, health and employment. They engage women in their areas of expertise but also their passions: building a new library from start to finish, mentoring job seekers, or navigating the national prescription drug program.Shaping the network’s operations and strategy are 80 volunteer leaders: outstanding women including noted authors, professors, opinion leaders, columnists, and former CEOs. They develop and test new programs in New York. To date TTN has been funded by dues, individual and corporate donors, as well as sponsorships, pro bono meeting space and legal services from a major law firm. Mission-driven enterprises generate earned income. The first book in a series Transition Network Guide to Life and Work Options, What Will I Do All Day and Other Questions for Women on the Verge of Retirement, is under contract with a major publishing house for early 2008 publication. A book tour will give TTN a national platform for its message and help the organization reach a wide, diverse audience. In conjunction with the book, TTN will market workshops on life option planning for individuals nearing or at retirement age to corporations, university alumni associations and non-profit organizations. TTN will also reach out to elected officials to increase credibility, build strategic partner relationships, and seek funding opportunities. Charlotte has most recently led the organization through a five year strategic planning process, an expansion of the Board of Directors, and is building and diversifying funding sources for continued growth.

The Person

Charlotte was born in Minneapolis during the Great Depression to lower middle class parents with no college education. Her family lived in public housing until after WWII, when they bought a house in a working class area. Her mother—who never wrote a check or drove a car—had three children in 5 years. As the oldest, Charlotte became a “junior mother” at age 5.During high school, Charlotte’s family began moving into the middle class. Voted most likely to succeed, she addressed social issues by shaping student organizations and as a skilled collaborator who could build effective partnerships. To escape a community which placed a premium on conformity rather than innovation and risk taking, Charlotte graduated early from the University of Minnesota and eventually earned her Masters in Political Science after a stint at the University Of Chicago School of Social Work. Charlotte then wanted to work for community organizer Saul Olinski, but in a then male-dominated field, that proved difficult. She was inspired by Amy Isgrig, one of the few women leading a public agency, who was tackling racial discrimination in segregated cities. Charlotte moved to New York in the 1960s to join the War on Poverty. She bucked the establishment to set up urban renewal projects and community action agencies with strong local governing boards.Charlotte then joined the leadership team of Eleanor Holmes Norton, chair of the New York Human Rights Commission. As director of a gender discrimination project, Charlotte led the investigation of New York-based law firms that opened up new career paths for women lawyers. When Norton became chair of the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Charlotte moved to Washington to help revamp it. She devised a way to reach no-fault settlements in most cases, helping thousands of people resolve their claims quickly, and freeing resources for precedent-setting cases against corporations. Her other Washington roles included Deputy Commissioner of the Administration on Aging under President Reagan and Affirmative Action Director of the Social Security Administration, where she designed a process to get minority and female backroom workers into front office jobs. Returning to New York in a leadership role at the Child Welfare Agency, Charlotte created systems to track child abuse victims and perpetrators, and developed programs to prevent abuse and keep at-risk families intact. At age 50, Charlotte started a career in procurement, overseeing $1 billion in purchases for the city, making the process open and competitive. At the Port Authority, she led equal opportunity programs for minority and women-owned contractors and promoted the Purchasing Buyer's Exchange so these firms could sell goods and services directly to Port Authority buyers. She required a wage floor in all service contracts to protect the interests of low-wage workers. Based at the World Trade Center in 1993, and again after 9/11, Charlotte rallied staff and delayed her retirement to help restore operations. Deeply affected by those tragedies, when she retired she felt “an urgency of purpose…a fierce resolve to create a legacy of significance to others—my gift to society.” In 2006, Charlotte was named one of the first Purpose Prize Fellows over age 60 who was using her creativity and talents to address critical social problems.