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News & Media

Rebuilding With a New Blueprint

Tue. Oct 4, 2016

Republished with permission from The Chronicle of Philanthropy, http://philanthropy.com

By Drew Lindsay
Photo by Narayan Mahon for The Chronicle

This article is one of a series The Chronicle is featuring this month about leaders who are pushing unorthodox ideas to give philanthropy more power to do good.

In 2000, a century-old paper company in the town of Wisconsin Rapids, Wis., was sold to a multinational and its headquarters moved to Finland. Within five years, the area had lost 40 percent of its jobs.

It was an all-too-familiar calamity in America’s heartland. In response, Kelly Ryan, head of the local community foundation, began fashioning an unusual form of disaster philanthropy.

The foundation has abandoned much of its traditional grant making and built a strategy that aims to put the area’s residents in charge of creating a new economy.

Last year, embracing impact investing, the foundation began putting some of its endowment into community banks trying to jump-start agriculture, small-business, and affordable-housing enterprises. It’s also buying stock in local companies; through shareholder activism, it aims to push businesses to make the well-being of the Wisconsin Rapids area a top priority.

The foundation’s new work — it rebranded under the name Incourage — has attracted the help of national foundations, Knight, Ford, and Hitachi among them. It’s also trained a spotlight on a grant maker with just $31 million in assets. “It’s a small foundation, but it’s having this huge impact nationally because what they’re doing is so bold and Kelly is so clear about it,” says Marjorie Kelly of the Democracy Collaborative, a research group

Its break from the past is best seen in its 2012 purchase of a shuttered newspaper’s 20,000-square-foot building. Over the next two years, Incourage held meetings that drew more than 2,000 of the area’s 54,000 residents into decisions on how to remake the building on the Wisconsin River into an anchor of the region’s rebirth — a “community accelerator,” in Ms. Ryan’s words. To help capture residents’ input and build based on what they saw as the pressing needs, the foundation hired Concordia, a New Orleans architecture firm known for its community-centered design work following Katrina.

Through this town-hall-style approach, residents decided the building should include a brewpub, a game room, and a rooftop lounge — all seen as elements that would make the riverfront, long controlled by paper mills, a social gathering spot. They also moved to incorporate an art studio, culinary test kitchen, and workshop, each to serve as a training ground for entrepreneurs.

The foundation is now raising the $14 million needed for the former newspaper building’s makeover. The project recently won an American Planning Association urban-design award, with one reviewer writing, “It is exhilarating and humbling to see such trust and faith put into a community.”

Not everyone in the community is excited about Incourage’s evolution; the foundation has lost donors and board members, some of whom were uncomfortable with democratized decision making, Ms. Ryan say.

But in the long run, the foundation hopes the grass-roots-led building project will spur residents to get involved in their neighborhoods, churches, politics, and local life. “We framed every single meeting with the statement, ‘This is about more than the building,’ ” she says. “If people could participate in meaningful ways, they could see that they mattered.”

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New ideas about philanthropy are springing up from all sorts of places. See how creative thinkers are helping nonprofits break out of the mold.

Kelly Ryan is included in a series The Chronicle is featuring this month about leaders who are pushing unorthodox ideas to give philanthropy more power to do good.


  • Press Contact

    Emily Kent 715.423.3863
  • About Incourage

    Established in rural Wisconsin in 1994 to serve the changing needs of the south Wood County area, Incourage has become a nationally-recognized leader in place-based philanthropy and community development. Guided by values of equity, opportunity, and shared stewardship, Incourage envisions a community that works well for all people. One physical manifestation of this vision is the redevelopment of the Tribune building, which demonstrates Incourage’s user-centered approach to growing a strong and inclusive local economy.