New Tool

I’ve written before about economic development strategies aimed at small business.  Micro-enterprises are the backbone of many economies, especially in neighborhoods and rural areas.  The arts, local foods and other emerging “industry clusters” are starting to be recognized as viable economic engines, as well they should.

Recently, a new tool has emerged that may prove a useful addition to the community developer’s tool belt.  Consider a marriage between a Community Foundation and economic development organization.

Wisconsin has many excellent Community Foundations, and they come in various shapes and sizes.  In a nutshell, these organizations help invest local donations to earn the best possible return.  Communities can then grant proceeds while never touching the principal.  For years, much good charitable work has been funded through Community Foundations, but bolstering business development is not all that common in Wisconsin.

Wisconsin’s “Strengthening Rural Families” policy team saw an opportunity there and identified community philanthropy as a growing opportunity for rural areas to maintain and grow local wealth and to put that wealth to use in enhancing the local economy.

Recently leaders of two areas in Wisconsin met to study how Community Foundations and local funds can target resources to spur local economic development.   Wisconsin Rural Partners, a statewide non-profit organization that works to build networks, leadership and voice for rural areas of our state, brought Don Macke of the Rural Policy Research Institute (RURPI) to Wisconsin to work with these groups.

Don is an old hand at many things that fall under the “community development” umbrella and is fluent in both the Community Foundation and economic development aspects of the equation.  The organizations he works with are worth some study.  The RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship is a focal point for efforts to stimulate and support private and public entrepreneurship development in communities throughout rural America.

Hometown Competitiveness is a partnership between the Nebraska Community Foundation, RUPRI and the Heartland center for Leadership Development.  The program provides a long-term approach to community sustainability through four interrelated strategies: Developing Leadership; Energizing Entrepreneurs, Engaging Youth and Charitable Giving.

Urban as well as rural leaders can benefit from some of the strategies and models these organizations offer.

Back in Wisconsin, the “Northwoods” region team includes a diverse group of University of Wisconsin Extension agents, business leaders, and the Northwoods NiiJii Enterprise Community, a unique and highly effective community development corporation.  (NiiJii is a partnership between the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa, the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin and the Sokaogon Chippewa Community of Mole Lake, together with eight municipal partners in northern Wisconsin.)

The team from Crawford County got an early start and is off and running.  Less than a year old they have aligned with the Community Foundation of Southern Wisconsin to start a county-wide fund.  A board of the county’s shakers and movers was formed, and, in short order, met a challenge grant from an anonymous donor.  Recently they gave $5,000 in grants for very nifty purposes, and these give a good indication of what this “marriage” is all about:

  • A feasibility study for a community commercial grade kitchen to be used by local food producers to help get their products to market;
  • Coupons for food pantry clients in Gays Mills, Ferryville and Prairie du Chien to be used for locally grown fresh produce sold at Farmers Markets ;
  • Kickapoo River log jam clean-up project to help promote tourism.

There are a number of advantages to adding this new tool to a community’s resource chest.  Oftentimes the endowment is invested through local institutions, which helps strengthen the entire community and endowments are ideal for situations where you’re in it for the long haul.  From the donor standpoint, a gift to an endowment is forever.

When a Community Fund works with economic development leaders, it helps to build a better entrepreneurial climate.  Creative people often look for communities – urban and rural – that have outstanding quality of life factors, other innovative folks and an acceptance of things that are new and different.

Many of the more successful communities doing these things have strong local control, but still view themselves as part of a greater region.  Thinking and acting like a region is getting popular because many communities are finding that it can be a win/win situation.  Both teams I mentioned above are taking a regional, multi-community approach.

If you’re interested in any of this, a great example from Wisconsin is the Community Progress Initiative, a partnership of the Community Foundation of Greater South Wood County and the Heart of Wisconsin Business and Economic Alliance.  Check out all they do – it’s impressive.

You can also visit the Donors Forum of Wisconsin for information on Community Foundations or look-up info on Hometown Competitiveness or the RUPRI Center for Rural Entrepreneurship.

We’d especially like to hear from you if you know of some successful marriages between Community Foundations and economic development.

Ricky Rolfsmeyer, Wisconsin Rural Partners, Hollandale, WI (Pop. 283)

3 Responses to New Tool

  1. Nice piece, Ricky, and right on the heels of the Governor’s press release that Thrive (regional economic development for the 8 county Madison WI region) and partners UW Extension and Commonwealth Development landed a grant for a food incubator feasibility study. Also announced today: Thrive and partners secure $100,000 in grants for food incubators around the region.

  2. Gary Becker says:

    Excellent post, Ricky! Similar comments can be applied to energy independence. Former President Bill Clinton gave the keynote address recently at the Rural Philanthropy Conference sponsored by the Council on Foundations. He was asked to address the topic of philanthropy’s role in building rural America’s future.

    President Clinton focused much of his speech on alternative energy initiatives and the future growth of wind and solar energy in rural America. A video of his presentation can be viewed at http://www.cof.org

    A summary of participant reaction to President Clinton’s remarks is posted in the Council on Foundations e-Journal at:
    http://www.cofinteract.org/taijournal/index.php/2009/08/18/energy-independence/

    Thanks again for the info!

  3. Nice summary, Ricky. The Northwoods Team’s next step is to get this on the agenda of the Governor’s Northern Economic Development Summit.

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