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. 


Tuesday, August 2, 2016

Community Picnic: It’s About Us

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 a community picnic celebrating local 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 success.    

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 or online.   
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 event. 

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 community.

Healthy communities create 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 economies are local and inclusive. Local and inclusive means we know the people who live in our shared community. 

Look around at the picnic and really see the 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.

See you there!

Thursday, June 16, 2016

It’s About More Than a Building

The Tribune building may 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 building.  

Realizing 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.

In addition 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:

Tribune sits at the fulcrum of 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 and power.  

This is 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 mind. 

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. 

Authentic inclusion of all 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 community.  

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 economic growth.  

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 all people. 


Friday, March 4, 2016

Redefining Philanthropy

I’m officially re-committing to this blog today. 

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.