Tuesday, December 5, 2017

Better Together

In this season of renewal, I’m reflecting on our value of ‘shared stewardship’ and its importance in the midst of change and transition.

Shared stewardship implies we all have a responsibility to take care of each other and this community. Incourage believes our role in shared stewardship requires an approach that seeks balance between change and preservation – with an unwavering commitment to the common good.

With the passing of time, I see our community transitioning and beginning to shape a new identity: an identity that reflects an appreciation of community assets, a sense of possibility and engaged residents, businesses and organizations. An identity that respects the past and looks to the future.

Tribune represents both our past and our future. And, as I’ve said many times, Tribune is about more than the building. The development process itself demonstrates this. Our motivation wasn’t simply to renovate a building or improve downtown. We set out to support new capabilities that enable resident-centered and community driven decision-making; the type of decision-making that is essential to realize shared stewardship, inclusive economic growth and long-term sustainable change. 

Recognition of these capabilities in the form of increased civic engagement has been lauded recently by elected officials – including local, state and national – who’ve received residents’ advocacy efforts for Tribune support over the past year, in volumes they’d previously not experienced from our community. 

This civic engagement is just one example of how priorities identified by over 4,000 residents in our 2012 Community Survey, particularly ‘openness to new ideas and change,’ are being realized. 

Five years later, with the 2017 Community Survey currently underway, we’re witnessing an increased desire to be involved through the number of requests received for ‘community conversations’ – deeper discussions hosted by residents representing many facets of our community. This is another encouraging indicator of positive change and increased engagement. Results will be presented at a community forum on March 13, 2018 at the Performing Arts Center of Wisconsin Rapids.

Stewardship that balances meeting changing needs and preservation has been in Incourage’s DNA since inception. 

We adapt when necessary to best address the community’s changing needs – such as seeding new approaches in workforce development strategies, as we have this past decade. Today, those seeds are growing strong and evolving in multiple ways that build capabilities and increase capacity across the community. 

Incourage does this work while preserving our core values and beliefs. We believe that all human beings have value and should have equal opportunity; that positive change happens when people are engaged in decisions that affect their lives; and when they feel a sense of ownership and shared responsibility for their community. We believe we are better together. 

In looking forward to 2018, I feel we are turning the corner in terms of progress in one of the most important and ‘least measurable’ areas that will define our future success: belief in ourselves and this community. 

I hear residents, young and old, asking questions, exploring possibilities and working together in new ways. 

I hear an emerging belief that we know this place is worth investing in – so important, as shared stewardship falls flat when you do not value what you’re stewarding.

There is a growing sense of pride in our place. I listen for it, nurture it and hope you will, too.  

It is priceless.


Monday, June 19, 2017

Sharing Power

As we’ve said from the beginning – and I’ve said many times in this blog – the Tribune Building is about far more than a building. It is a testament to the resilience of a community. It is a new approach to community development. It is a physical representation of our belief in the wisdom of residents to determine and shape the community they desire. At its core, it is about people.

Incourage is honored to have the Tribune’s user-centered process featured in Stanford Social Innovation Review’s recently released cover story “Creating Breakout Innovation”. The research is about a new way of working – of collaborating for solutions – that consistently delivers better results. 
As the article shares “…even more important than the [Tribune] building was the transformation and sense of leadership built within the community through the design and decision-making process.”

Take a moment to read the article and learn more about the five practices of breakout innovation, as well as why incorporating an authentic user-centered approach is challenging work.  

For an on-the-ground perspective of whether engaging residents and sharing power matters, view the 2016 Tribune Participation Survey results.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

Putting People at the Center: Establishing, Restoring and Growing Trust

The divisive mood and behavior of our country is eroding the very thing that is essential to our vitality: trust. We are near record lows on measurements of ‘trust’ in many areas according to Gallup, Pew Research Centers and others. Lack of trust in media, news and information sources. Lack of trust in government. Lack of trust in institutions and each other.

We can identify with this in central Wisconsin.  When economic crisis struck our community 17 years ago, there was no clear path forward. The sense of loss – which included jobs and a company headquarters - was palpable. The accompanying uncertainty, fear and anxiety did not engender collaborative behaviors or trusting relationships. In retrospect, trust is what we needed the most and it was in the shortest supply. Not unlike what we are experiencing in our nation today.  

Incourage began our trust building efforts in 2005. Our goal: increase individual and collective action to rebuild a strong, local economy in a community that works well for all people. We offered leadership training programs that equipped residents with the skills, tools and knowledge to build trusting relationships. We supported study tours that fostered relationship development among participants, created shared knowledge and motivated new thinking. We coordinated a civility initiative. We co-created norms and collaborative guiding principles for community initiatives with partners and vendors. We helped businesses identify shared value propositions and mutual interests, and establish norms that guided their relationships with one another. We invested in approaches that integrate adaptive skills into school curriculum. We changed our own policies and practices for authenticity and values-alignment.   

Incourage evaluated and applied what we learned through these efforts to our organizational strategy, understanding that “building trust” and “authentically engaging residents in shaping the future of their community” was central to achieving our goal.

The Tribune Building embodies this learning. It is more than a building. It represents a user-centered approach to growing a community – one in which we trust, value and respect each other. We began by asking the community a simple question: what do you want this building to be? This question launched a multi-year process of engaging residents and helping them gain confidence, skills to build trusting relationships and a sense of ownership for the future of our community.

Incourage has learned a lot about listening, building trust and the importance of user participation in community decision-making and economic development strategies through the Tribune process. We’ve also learned about and experienced the challenge of changing old practices. 

Putting people at the center and building trust is not easy, a quick fix or short-term work. It requires intentionality and long-term commitment. We believe, however, it is “the work” that must be done if we are to realize a sense of unity and shared purpose in our neighborhoods, institutions, communities and nation.  


Thursday, March 23, 2017

Mission Possible: How Foundations Are Shaping the Future Of Impact Investing

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.  

See the full 11-week series here.

Thanks for reading.

Tuesday, November 22, 2016

Speaking Our Peace

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 learning conversations.

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.

Discussing ‘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.

Incourage’s work builds community: the Tribune as 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.

With gratitude and thanksgiving,
Team Incourage 

Friday, October 14, 2016

What is Incourage?

Incourage 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 home.   
So 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 Philanthropy”. 
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.
We are a lender to local small business and entrepreneurs. We are an investor in community banks, credit unions, affordable housing, downtown development and hold shares in local paper companies. We are leading efforts to transform manufacturing workforce development for the benefit of both businesses and workers. We bring individuals and organizations together for community dialogue on issues and opportunities important to our future. We support and facilitate networks of individuals and organizations with common interests to increase collaboration, impact and advance collective good. We commission and are a source of research, educational briefs and data on community indicators of economic growth and opportunity. We advocate for policies and investments that benefit our region.  We operate training and leadership programs that support the growth and development of residents and community organizations. We are a community organizer around a shared vision
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 agencies. 
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?”

Monday, August 15, 2016

Become Informed. Get Engaged.
Betting on the People of South Wood County

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.  

Simultaneously, the South Wood County YMCA and City of Wisconsin Rapids were separately pursuing action on the issue of aquatic facilities. They presented options to the public on July 26 (Wisconsin Rapids Aquatics Options Presentation 7-26-16).

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 third WIPPS 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?

Answering 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.