By Kelly Ryan
Special to the City Times
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?”