I’m pleased to share with you that, together with other foundation leaders from across the nation, I was invited to author a piece as part of a Stanford Social Innovation Review (SSIR) 11-week series, produced in partnership with Mission Investors Exchange. SSIR describes this series as one that is exploring what’s next in impact investing and what we can learn from some of the most innovative foundations. It is a privilege to be published as part of this group and to present a rural, place-based perspective from “Middle America.” Read the full post here.
At Incourage we
turned inward over the past two weeks. Inward to examine our core values and
work. Inward to consider what it means to pursue our vision – ‘a community that
works well for all’ – in a nation divided.
Our collective discussions
began to restore and affirm a sense of hope and connection among Incourage team
members with different perspectives and life experiences. We share our
experience with the hope that it will inspire you to pursue self-reflection and
Reflective Practice – stopping to assess what we’re learning,
sharing knowledge, and making course corrections along the way – is embedded in
the way we work at Incourage. This practice is represented well by a favorite quote
from Maya Angelou:
“You did then what you knew how to do,
and when you knew better, you did better.”
We began this work
with each of us sharing our personal values. Preparation for this exercise was
not easy. It required deeper reflection inside ourselves and the willingness to
be vulnerable among our colleagues. It required everyone to listen deeply and
refrain from judgment.
‘personal values’ led to a deeper and nuanced understanding of individual differences
and similarities. We learned things about each other that we’d not known in the
course of every day work and community life. “My values have been refined over
time and with experience” was a frequent sentiment with an accompanying story
to illustrate the point. In many cases, values were clarified – or made real –
when we felt like we were made to be ‘the other’ or in an instance when we were
angry about something that we felt was unjust. Or, conversely, when we were
able to experience deep empathy and compassion for another human being.
There is greater
appreciation, compassion and empathy within Incourage for the various roles and
identities we each have and how they inform our world view, values and
behavior. We have a deeper understanding that our relationship to one another
is the real work of building community: our shared humanity, interdependence
and connected futures by virtue of our shared place.
builds community: the Tribuneas resident-centered development
focuses on shifting the sense of responsibility for our economic future from
“they” to “me” to “we”; Blueprints for Tomorrow economic
development training for key, local institutions focuses on interdependence and
shared vision; and Workforce Central represents nearly a decade of investment and
collaboration with a connected approach to manufacturing workforce that recognizes
the interdependence and relationship of business, worker and community.
Speak Your Peace, a program supported by Incourage since 2008 – with materials
available in English, Spanish and Hmong – is particularly relevant and a
timeless resource to support civil dialogue and behavior in all areas of our
work. So, at Incourage,
we paused. We dedicated time to listen to each other. To seek deeper wisdom
about difference. To discuss connections to our work and what it means to be a
values-led organization. To affirm that our futures are connected by virtue of
this place we call home.
As a result of this
listening and learning there is knowing.
And - as Maya says
- when we know better, we must do better.
You have our
commitment to always strive to do better as we seek to realize a community –
and nation – that works well for all people.
plays a unique, valuable and vital role in our community. This was reinforced
for me while reviewing the first collection in a series of Impact Papers
designed to serve as a periodic “Report to the Community”. The papers describe
Incourage’s work and changing role over the last two decades in south Wood
County. I have paused repeatedly – impressed by the people and organizations
who have supported Incourage and our community – and thought, “How lucky are we?”
A clear pattern of learning and adapting by
Incourage over the years has led to a wide spectrum of activities that touch
many aspects of life in our community. It is no wonder we are regularly asked “What is Incourage?” To effectively answer the question, I must
begin by sharing our origin story.
Virginia Brazeau established the former
“South Wood County Community Foundation” (now Incourage) in 1994, with support
from the Richard S. Brazeau Family Foundation.
Virginia, her family and advisors were visionaries. They were champions
of the ‘community foundation’ concept and created an innovative plan to launch
ours. It was designed to be an organization that would serve and reflect the
interests of not just one wealthy family or one corporation. It was designed to
be created by the people, for the people. It was incorporated as a “permanent
charitable organization with a long-term perspective” to “meet the changing
needs of the community”. Vision, flexibility, a commitment to learning and
innovation were embedded in our DNA from inception.
It is these very traits – vision, flexibility,
learning and innovation – that have served us well in ‘meeting the changing
needs of the community’. There has been no greater change for our community
than globalization, automation and downsizing of the paper industry; the
backbone of our economy for over a century.
Incourage drew on these organizational
strengths and sought input from residents to determine what role we should play
in meeting the need. We conducted community focus groups in 2002 after the sale
of Consolidated Papers in which residents asked us to do more. They asked us to
create jobs and focus on growing a strong, local economy. Again, in 2012
through the community survey, over 4,000 respondents identified the top four
priorities for our region: a strong, local economy; attract and retain young
adults and families; natural
resources and recreation; openness to new ideas and change – priorities that
continue to inform our strategic direction today.
“Meeting this changing need” – to rebuild
and diversify an economy – is not easy work.
This is long-term, generational change. It requires new thinking,
flexibility, persistence, innovation, collaboration and a sense of shared
destiny among the people, businesses and organizations that call this place
then, “What is Incourage?”
Incourage is a community economic development
organization. But not just any community developer.
We are a community developer that uses
philanthropy as a primary tool, is anchored in this community and uniquely
suited to lead long-term, multi-generational work.
We are a community developer that stewards
and connects community capitals – moral, social, human, intellectual,
reputational, financial and natural – toward a powerful shared vision: a
community that works well for all.
We are a community developer that uses our
values of equity, opportunity and shared stewardship to guide our investments.
We are a community developer with a central
belief that the greatest asset we have is our people, many of whom are featured
in this 2013 presentation recognizing Incourage as a national “Big Bet for the Future of
We are a community developer with a belief
in the wisdom of residents to determine and shape the community they desire.
So, how do you accomplish this? What does the
day-to-day look like?
Incourage has and will continue to invest permanent
charitable funds and distribute grants for the benefit of the community…and, we
do so much more.
Incourage will continue to learn, adapt and
be responsive to the changing needs of south Wood County. We will seek partners
and model shared leadership. We will respectfully challenge ‘business as usual’
thinking. We will embody courage and take prudent, values-aligned risk. We will
be transparent and share both successes and failures. We will test new
approaches that capitalize on learning, build trusting relationships, reflect
resident priorities and maximize resources to realize a community that works
well for all.
If you are a resident of south Wood County
or have an interest in its future, I do hope you’ll take the time to read the Impact Papers.
Economic Growth is a great place to start. You might be surprised and impressed
by the involvement and support of so many in this journey – engaged board
members and staff, donors, residents, former residents, volunteers, businesses,
community organizations, national foundations, state and federal funding
Perhaps you’ll consider Virginia’s foresight
in creating an organization that is “by the people, for the people”, and join
me in thinking “How lucky are we?”
Incourage believes that a healthy community
is an informed and engaged community. We’ve worked in partnership with John S. and
James L. Knight Foundation since 2009, to understand and invest in the
connected concepts of information and engagement as key drivers of economic
health and the vitality of a community.
A recent example of this work is a
partnership with Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) to
co-host “Community for Us, By Us,” elevating the voice and opinion of all
residents on community issues that matter to them. The first two meetings
surfaced three priorities: Creating a Public Forum for Authentic Dialogue
on Community Issues, Community Aquatics and Downtown Development.
It’s unfortunate, however, that the options
were presented as seemingly mutually exclusive – one or the other - with no
opportunity to ask questions, clarify information or voice opinions. Attendees
were told to submit questions online or to call a council member to express an
opinion. Given the format and delivery of the presentations, an “apples to
apples” comparison of the information was difficult and a polarizing frame was
created – are you for indoor or outdoor?
The thirdWIPPS Meeting was held on
August 9. An engaged group of 44 individuals showed up to discuss aquatics –
not to talk about indoor versus outdoor options, rather, to fully explore this
as a community issue.
Various opinions and perspectives were
represented with civil dialogue and respect. Assumptions and questions were
surfaced, including “How do we understand the options presented and make informed
comparisons? What are the sources of funds and specifics of financing?
How can we assure aquatics are available to all? Is this really a choice of
indoor versus outdoor facilities? How can we have both?” The process also
encouraged individuals to think with a broader lens on the issue: to assess
their own interest in aquatics, the benefit to the community and the impact on
future generations. I encourage you to review the WIPPS Meeting report.
The issue of aquatics also presents an
important learning opportunity that can inform future progress. In the last
fifteen years, there has been research, leadership development projects and
citizen action groups formed, all to address aquatics. Yet all failed to come
to fruition. This is not a statement to cast blame. It is a statement that
invites inquiry and examination of how we address community issues and take
action. How do individuals participate? How do institutions receive input
from the broader community and make decisions? What barriers were
encountered in previous efforts? Do they still exist today?
these questions will accelerate our ability to make progress in realizing a
community – and an economy – that works well for all. One in which residents
are informed and engaged, funders respect the wisdom of the user and don’t
exert undue influence to achieve outcomes they believe are best, and organizations
are committed to inclusive processes and working together for the common good.
Five years ago Incourage made a
bet on the people of south Wood County. We
bet that if we replaced our traditional annual meeting with acommunity
assets and designed to be welcoming and open to all, you’d show up. We hoped you might support the event
in some way over time and might even help it grow into an annual,
community-owned and led effort.
Here’s to the people of south
Wood County. You not only showed up, you asked
“What can I do to help next year?”. We
have over 400 volunteers registered for this year’s picnic! There are now more volunteers for the
picnic than we had attendees at our traditional annual meeting. And, the composition of the volunteers
and attendees at the picnic is more diverse and reflective of our community. People of all ages, income, professions, political views and ability are coming
together to donate time, talent and resources to make the community picnic a
A local farmer, Harold Altenburg,
called the first year and asked, “What can I bring to the picnic?”. He showed up with 1,000 ears of corn,
a roasting machine and volunteer help. Harold
will likely exceed 20,000 ears of corn donated since the event began at this
year’s picnic. Corn that is
grown with love, served with a never-ending smile and a positive comment about
our great community. Harold’s
enthusiasm is contagious –take a look
at his comments from a past picnic.
Partner organizations, including
food vendors, have increased every year. As of this morning, 60 community
partners are contributing time, labor, product and services.Although the picnic is offered
at no cost to attendees, many people want to make a financial contribution –
especially after experiencing the event. Free will financial contributions are
accepted onsite at the picnic oronline.
Every year the number of people
attending has increased – we expect over 6,000 this year – and, perhaps, we’ll
even hit 7,000. The people
of south Wood County are showing up and we’re happy to welcome all to this
Importantly, this picnic is about
so much more than food.
It’s about transitioning an
economy, celebrating our assets and restoring a sense of pride and hope in our
Healthy communitiescreate enabling conditions for all people to meet their full
potential.We can’t support
all people in meeting their full potential if we don’t know them.
Healthy economiesare local and inclusive. Local
and inclusive means we know the people who live in our shared community.
Look around at the picnic andreally seethe diversity of people that live in
our community. Ask people
to share their story. Why
do they live here? What are
their hopes for the future? What
do they love about this place? What
are their challenges?
Join us on the riverfront in
downtown Wisconsin Rapids this Wednesday at 4:30. Get an ear of corn and a smile from Harold, food from
generous local vendors, enjoy local talent and meet someone you don’t
know. You’ll be building a
healthy community and economy in the process.
The Tribune buildingmay appear quiet at the site
these days, however, appearances can be deceiving as activity levels remain
high and moving forward on all fronts. Incourage is committed to making good
decisions about moving to the next phase of capital construction in a fiscally
responsible manner. In the context of
these discussions and decisions, funding is important but only one factor in
forward movement – and, frankly, one of the easier factors to address. The building will get funded. It’s one thing to renovate a building. It’s another to create the conditions in the
community for success and sustainability.
As we’ve said repeatedly, this is about so much more than a
our vision – ‘a community that works well for all people’ – requires a holistic
and long-term perspective on change that encompasses more than the Tribune
building.Rest assured – we’d like to
see workers on site and renovation accelerating, and it will happen.However, fostering community change is not
quick or easy work. It requires long-term perspective, commitment to values,
perseverance and patience.
to securing financial support for the Tribune and broader community, we are focused
in areas of work that are interdependent and when approached simultaneously
create conditions for long-term success – not only for the Tribune, but for all
development projects and investments.These include:
at the fulcrumof downtown development – or more broadly,
how we approach business and decision-making as a community.
In our role
as a ‘community developer’ we’re learning a lot about the need for changing the
way we do economic development and conduct business as a community, state and
nation.Some of the changes are
technical – a change in policy or procedure in terms of how financial capital
flows to good projects and to different parts of the country.Some needed changes are much more challenging
– especially those that are cultural and embedded in old practice, privilege
particularly evident in local downtown development – the very environment
within which this $14 million investment will be made.Optimal development conditions are not those
in which you feel compelled to be at every public meeting in case your project
is compromised in some way because of opaqueness or individual agendas.This is not conducive to engendering trust,
collaboration and alignment toward a shared vision.The analogy of a chess game comes to
We will not
realize positive community change with legacy practices and thinking.Concentrated power and control in the hands
of few was a widespread practice of the past century – not just here, but in
many places across the country whose economies were anchored in single
industries and embedded structures of hierarchy.
stakeholders in decision-making, strategy and determining desired outcomes –
not just lip service in terms of conducting a nominal survey or a one-time
focus group – is one of the most important cultural changes needed in our
downtown processes, our broader region and across the nation.
At its core,
Tribune is about people.Putting people back at the center of
And on this
measure, Tribune has achieved significant success without the next shovel
turned or new window installed.In a
mid-term evaluation report informed by over 225 engaged residents, it is
consistently described as ‘hope’ for the future.“A shining example of inclusion” – where some
say they felt truly welcome for the first time.It is described as an accelerator of new
ideas, relationships and networks.Residents indicate greater desire to support entrepreneurial activities,
local business and increased environmental awareness as a result of their
participation in the Tribune process.These are baby steps, but important milestones on the path toward
We – every one
of us that calls this place home - can strive to preserve that which is good
about our past practice and shape a new future – one that is anchored in trust,
transparency, user-centered process and shared power. Stewardship of this place
and each other is a defining characteristic of a community that works well for
I commit to delivering an imperfect, honest chronicle of our journey towards realizing a simple yet bold vision: A Community That Works Well for All People, including the commitment to embody our values: Equity, Opportunity and Shared Stewardship.
I’ll share our journey to redefine the potential of place-based philanthropy from my lens: a CEO with nearly twenty years of experience in a very special community and innovative institution. I’ve been here long enough to see resilience emerge after crisis. Residents are gaining self-confidence and a greater sense of agency; institutions are acknowledging the need for collective action and relationships built on trust and a general shift from a mindset of “I cannot” to “I can” to “We can do better”. I have deep pride in the people I’m privileged to work with, both at Incourage and in our community, for their commitment to one another and our shared future.
Incourage itself has adapted over the years. We’ve worked with great intentionality to create an organizational culture of reflective action: challenging embedded orthodoxies, examining our own behavior, policy, practice and power, as well as framing strategy and decisions through a values lens with a vision objective. When we assessed our investment portfolio through this lens, the choice was clear. The board moved quickly to a position of full support for what one member deemed, “the logical next step”. If we were to truly realize our commitment to place then our financial resources should be values-aligned to maximize mission impact and realize vision. This prompted deeper dialogue and reflection on the full range of resources Incourage possesses - how we assign value to them and in what ways they had been utilized to shape new economic opportunities and cultural norms.
In early 2014, the Incourage board of directors approved and subsequently led an organizational commitment to align 100% of all Incourage resources or capitals to mission. Driving change happens not just through financial currency, but rather through all of our capitals—moral, human, intellectual, social, reputational working together with financial. The ensuing work resulted in a strategy map articulating guiding principles, capitals, key levers and desired short-, mid- and long-term outcomes toward realizing vision.
February 16, 2016 marked the unanimous approval by Incourage’s board of a 100% mission and values-aligned Capital Deployment Policy—what some call an Investment Policy Statement. Twenty-four months in the making with the wise expertise of individuals willing to forge relationships outside their respective fields to work collaboratively in place: impact investment advisor, traditional investment advisor, and cultural anthropologist.
An early exemplar of our connected capitals strategy is the Tribune – a “community accelerator” designed with deep resident participation. Tribune is more than a building: it is testament to the resilience of a community. It represents hope, inclusiveness and development strategies that conserve, restore and leverage resources for generations to come.
“We did then what we knew how to do, when we knew better we did better.” ~Maya Angelou This favorite quote serves as a constant reminder. Realizing a community that works well for all people requires a commitment to not only ‘knowing better’ but also ‘doing better’. This guides our work at Incourage and it seems that it should be applicable to philanthropy writ large. When we know better we must all do better. We must practice reflective action in philanthropy: constantly examining our structures, business practices and cultural norms within our institutions and the broader field. Not just an episodic focus on the issue of the day or minor tweaking of practice.
Join me in this blog as we build on experience, learn, adapt and implement a place-based strategy that challenges embedded orthodoxies and redefines philanthropy to nurture communities that work well for all people. Our communities and the nation need and deserve nothing less.