Thursday, April 25, 2019

Co-creating a blueprint for a sustainable community

On behalf of Incourage staff and board, I am excited to share information about an initiative we launched this week, with support from Nathan Cummings Foundation, which we hope will make a powerful contribution to the future of our community: Incourage is convening a diverse circle of residents from our region to form the Sustainable Communities Working Group. This group will engage residents across our community to co-create a “blueprint” for the sustainable community that our region can become.  

Incourage is committed to ensuring that this endeavor is not merely a thought exercise that results in nothing more than words on paper. We will turn the blueprint into real-world action: Incourage is ready to be bold in offering new funding possibilities specifically designed to resource this blueprint created by our community  blending grant, investment and other forms of capital and support, to bring this blueprint to life. 

The blueprint will also inform the priorities and direction for the newly announced Partnership for Sustainable Communities of Incourage and University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point, a center for thought-leadership and action on sustainable communities that is the first of its kind in the state.

Realizing the power of our potential is at the heart of what inspires Incourage to keep pushing the envelope of what is possible in our region, and to continue to explore what our role should be as a community foundation operating by and for the people. 

We are honored to work with 22 thoughtful, dedicated community members who have accepted the invitation to come together toward the shared goal of envisioning a sustainable future for our region. We also look forward to the input and insight that the Working Group members will gather from the intentional conversations they will host with colleagues, neighbors, classmates, clients, and others. Together, we envision a blueprint that represents the ideas, hopes, and priorities of many people across our community.

To help design a process of cutting-edge co-creation, Incourage is collaborating with Joanna Cea and Jess Rimington, whose work and research as Visiting Scholars at Stanford University’s Global Projects Center is represented in the Stanford Social Innovation Review article, Creating Breakout Innovation, and focuses on collaborative processes for community transformation. Together - with Incourage - they will facilitate a process that places residents in the driver's seat to identify a set of practices to realize our community’s vision of a sustainable future.

When I think about us expanding our horizon and looking toward our community’s future, I think of the reaction we enjoy when taking people to the roof of the Tribune for the first time. The rooftop view of the riverfront and downtown invokes awe-inspired comments and vision; seeding conversations about possibility. It is a similar feeling of potential we hope the “blueprint” will spark in setting our collective sights high for what is possible with the future of our community. 

Our staff and board are very excited for the co-creative process ahead. We are committed to learning from and acting on the reflections and recommendations that emerge  making the blueprint as impactful as it can be.  

If you are interested in joining the conversations about this blueprint and sharing your own ideas, please reach out. You can email me at, or Heather McKellips at, or call us at 715.423.3863.

Thanks for reading and for your interest in our shared, sustainable future!

Friday, November 30, 2018

An Economy in Transition: Toward a Shared Vision

I’ve been listening to the General Motors downsizing announcements with a familiar feeling of angst and empathy; the pain of economic transition is undeniable and real. Our community has experienced this firsthand due to the impact of market forces and globalization on the paper industry.

Over the last two decades, Incourage has come to understand that we may not be able to stop the forces of the global markets, but we can be smarter and more intentional about transitions. 

We’ve learned a few things about what matters.   

We’ve learned that increasing local ownership, community led decision-making and inclusive economic growth are essential to transitioning single-industry economies. Because of this, Incourage has focused our efforts in these areas with training programs, grants, convenings, research, capital projects and partnerships/initiatives that have impacted thousands in our region.  

We’ve learned that effective economic transitions benefit from ingenuity, willingness to think differently, accepting ambiguity and perseverance – working for an economy of the future that is emergent. The real task is keeping the faith, or as Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. famously said, “Faith is taking the first step even when you don’t see the whole staircase.”

We’ve learned that accelerating economic and cultural transitions requires examining our own behavior as individuals and institutions. Incourage assessed our policy and practices to become smarter and more intentional about how we use all of our resources, including our investment portfolio, for greater mission impact and economic growth.

As a result, we now include holdings in publicly traded companies whose operations have a bearing on our community, including paper companies and large retailers. Incourage votes its shares and otherwise gives voice to resident concerns in favor of positive moves by these companies, such as increases in their minimum wage and effective governance practices.

This strategy is increasingly important as corporate ownership structures have changed over time to now include control by remote private equity firms with short-term incentives to maximize shareholder gains, often times at the expense of workers and community. Further, we are working in partnership with like-minded shareholders, stakeholders and public officials to set new standards for how corporations manage transitions. 

We’ve learned that we need diverse and strong businesses who embrace mutual value and shared benefit for all stakeholders – business, workers and community. This is particularly important in rural, less densely populated communities like ours where one restructuring, sale or closure can disrupt an entire economy.   

Finally – and most importantly - we know that effective transitions require all of us working toward a common vision of the future and a recognition that we are all connected by virtue of this place we call home. 

Thanks for reading.

Monday, February 26, 2018

Incouraging Progress: Long-term thinking creates positive change for workers, businesses, and community

A decade ago, Incourage launched a comprehensive effort to change our community’s approach to workforce development. With support from leaders in manufacturing and business, we planned, staffed, and facilitated an innovative new program called Workforce Central. As one of the first rural sites recognized by the National Fund for Workforce Solutions, we were able to leverage national investment and learn best practices from similar communities across the nation.

Workforce Central generated impressive results for South Wood County: 2,000 workers and students received employment-related training; 35 manufacturing businesses benefited through improved operations and investments in workers; 7 new degrees and certificates were created, many in partnership with Mid-State Technical College; and 75 public, private, and non-profit organizations participated. This initiative also sparked several new working groups and coalitions, including the Business Education Alliance and Regional Economic Growth Initiative (REGI), both of which are going strong today. To accomplish these shared successes and maximize impact, our partner organizations learned to adapt and work together in different ways. 

In order to uphold our core mission – “to meet the changing needs of the community” – Incourage also had to adapt and adjust its role in this program over time. As other organizations became more willing and able to direct new approaches to workforce development, Incourage gradually transitioned from a primary leader of this effort to a supporting partner. In the long run, we believe that “teaching others to drive and sharing the road” is preferable to keeping our organization “in the driver’s seat.” To that end, it was always our plan to build robust community capacity around workforce development, so that this important goal could flourish beyond Workforce Central, with or without Incourage.

Although Workforce Central has drawn to a close, it remains a powerful testament to our collective ability to work together. Individuals and organizations from many different sectors put aside self-interest to achieve more as a community — proving that sustained, cooperative focus on a common goal can yield measurable results. The program also fostered important relationships and trust, from which we can all now benefit. Today, many local organizations are newly engaged in workforce and job training issues, and similar efforts have sprung up throughout the region.

As for Incourage, the end of Workforce Central does not signal the end of our commitment to workforce as a key lever for economic transition. On the contrary, we are eager to capitalize on our community’s momentum around workforce, and we will remain an active local investor in, and champion for, this issue. At the same time, we have an organizational mandate to meet the changing needs of the community. This means Incourage must regularly reevaluate our programs and priorities to assess where our leadership is most relevant and valuable. While such decisions can be difficult and inevitably affect real people, they are essential to ensuring that Incourage remains a responsive, innovative, and community-led organization.

At this important moment for Incourage and our community, we are refocusing our attention on three core priorities, which we see as vital to ensuring long-term positive change for our economy and quality of life:

  1. Shared responsibility for community and each other. For Incourage, this means nurturing a sense of community ownership, pride, and ability to work together. We believe that engaged and empowered residents can expand individuals’ capacity to lead, increase collective participation in community decision-making, and strengthen civic infrastructure – all essential ingredients in sustainable economic growth. Drawing on the Community Survey and several of Incourage’s successful leadership training programs (which have included high school students, local organizations, and business executives), Incourage will help residents shape discourse into action – inspiring greater community awareness, resourcefulness, and collaboration in our journey from “They can” to “I can” to “We can.”
  2. Create demonstration spaces that catalyze economic transition. Incourage is determined to realize residents’ vision for the Tribune Building – a public space where local innovation, creativity, networking, business development, and new approaches to work can thrive. When we finish the renovation and open the building’s new doors, the Tribune Building will be an unprecedented resource for this community – one that is vital to our region’s long-term economic vitality. It represents community-led decision-making, support for entrepreneurs and small businesses, commitment to job quality and training, and a dynamic future for young people and families.
  3. Align financial resources for maximum results. Incourage is committed to using our financial assets to accelerate this community’s economic transition. We have embraced impact investing as a way of fully aligning our current organizational resources with our values and goals. To increase Incourage’s direct impact on the ground in Central Wisconsin, we are providing loans to local businesses and nonprofits that align with our development goals. To amplify our community’s voice in distant industrial boardrooms, we have purchased shares of all publicly-traded firms that employ workers in our region, including Wal-Mart, Domtar, Verso and more. In the coming year, Incourage will expand our involvement in “shareholder advocacy” – for example, endorsing Wal-Mart’s proposed increases in hourly wages and investments in workforce training, or challenging private equity firms’ cost-cutting efforts and decisions that threaten workers and families.
Over the last decade, Incourage has learned quite a bit about workforce strategies. Most importantly, we’ve learned this is complex work that requires both short-term interventions and long-term plans for sustainable change. It requires a “big picture” understanding of the interdependence of workers, businesses, and communities. And it requires a much deeper understanding of the needs of both employers and employees. What is a “Good Job”? What is a “Good Company”? And how do we, as a community, make decisions in the coming years (collectively and transparently) that will grow good jobs, strengthen businesses, and engage more of our residents in creating a prosperous future?

As we begin to consider these questions as a community, Incourage will host a special public forum on March 13 at the Performing Arts Center. This event will focus on the results of the 2017 Community Survey, in which nearly 4,000 of you shared your hopes, concerns, and priorities for our region. The new findings, along with public discussions at future events, will help inform and influence Incourage’s organizational strategy and resource investments going forward, and will be useful to many of you as well. We hope you’ll help us create actionable steps for how we can work together in the future to address survey findings. It will take all of us, working with sustained effort and common goals – as we did with Workforce Central – to build a thriving community and economy.

Please also stay tuned to our website in the coming months for opportunities to take action on Community Survey results, attend an Incourage Open House and more. We always welcome your thoughts, comments, and conversation.

Looking forward,