Traditional communications give way to big people events for a Wisconsin community foundation

Photo: Over 5,000 people attended the 2015 Community Picnic in downtown Wisconsin Rapids on the bank of the Wisconsin River. Photo by Tim Habeck via Incourage.

This post is one in a series on what four community and place-based foundations are learning by funding media projects that help to meet their local information needs. All are funded through the Knight Community Information Challenge.

For many philanthropic institutions, the printed annual report is classic and enduring. In this digital age, some annual reports are purely pixels – published on a website and/or e-mailed to benefactors, grantees and community stakeholders.

But one community foundation in central Wisconsin felt it wasn’t getting the return on its investment with its annual report. Focused on engaging the community, and getting more people involved in local decision-making – an effort supported by Knight – Incourage Community Foundation decided to scrap its formal report and accompanying dinner event. The move represents a major shift in communications strategy.

In the report’s place is an annual community picnic, presented in the city of Wisconsin Rapids by Incourage as a way to encourage community members to interact with each other, and foster a community spirit of mutual giving. Picnic attendees numbered more than 5,000 at the August 5, 2015, event. That’s impressive for a city of 18,000 residents.

This community picnic is now four years old. Attendance continues to rise, from about 1,000 the first year to 3,500 in year three. At that point, the event outgrew its previous venue. Because Incourage is leading an initiative to revitalize the downtown area – and purchased an old newspaper building on the city’s riverfront in order to transform it into a lively community accelerator  – it made sense to relocate the picnic downtown, according to Corey Anfinson of Incourage.

The photo accompanying this article, above, tells an interesting story. Residents gathered at the community picnic next to the Wisconsin River depict the “rediscovery” of the waterway for enjoyment and recreation. Formerly a working river for the paper mills, it was not always suitable for outdoor sports. The paper mill behind the picnic-goers still operates, but on a much smaller scale. This is an image of a town in transition, working to find new ways to gain economic sustainability and growth, and to be a place where more people feel they have a path and ability to contribute to local decision-making.

Together with more than 250 community volunteers, Incourage welcomed picnic attendees with a simple request:  Meet and talk to someone you don’t know. Four years in to the event, that expectation is well accepted and people are acting on it, according to Incourage team members.

Kelly Ryan, Incourage’s CEO, says that the idea is to have an event that has no barriers, including no cost to attendees, and for organizers to create a welcoming environment where community engagement moves from buzzword to being acted on.

Food and drinks at the community picnic are donated or provided at cost by local farmers and restaurants, and they provide the people to serve at booths. The engagement and generosity of individuals and businesses has grown significantly since the picnic’s beginning, with the portion of donated products and services tripling and the number of volunteer hours multiplying by 12.

While community engagement is the core mission of the picnic, informing residents is the other important element. Yard signs display key facts about the community, or issues of importance; other signs educate picnic attendees about the Tribune Building, especially its green design. Think of this as an alternative to the Incourage annual report, which would have covered the same topics, but reached fewer people.

Ryan explains that the picnic is part of a completely new communications strategy for the foundation. Incourage’s communications are “more methodical and consistent through the year,” she says, as opposed to the big push that many institutions endure in producing a traditional annual report. Financials and news of foundation activities and accomplishments are posted to the Incourage website regularly, as well as Facebook, YouTube and other social media. While that’s routine in the foundation world, the annual community picnic is a mega awareness event that serves to introduce new people to Incourage’s other communications channels. It’s also another way to encourage more people to get involved in the Tribune Building project.

Ryan has noticed that in the four years of picnics, there’s been an increase in the number of millennials and young families attending. The mix of ages at the picnic runs the gamut. To her, that’s evidence that Incourage’s multi-year effort to be more inclusive is paying off.

As for that defunct Incourage annual report, it’s not missed. Ryan estimates that the “beautiful” glossy paper report plus the event debuting it cost around $38,000. With about 200 people at the dinner (usually not a diverse group), plus mailings to a list of about 6,000 people (many of whom could be expected to not bother reading it), that didn’t appear to have good return on investment.

The annual community picnic, on the other hand, gets thousands of people to connect with each other and learn about community issues and priorities.

Which do you think is more effective at creating a more inclusive and well-informed community?

Steve Outing is a Colorado-based writer and digital media consultant.