The Philanthropy Collaborative

Regional Case Studies

Incourage Community Foundation
Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin



While the recent recession spared no sector of the domestic economy, the United States manufacturing industry was hit especially hard. From December 2007 through June 2009, the nation lost more than 2 million manufacturing employees, or 15 percent of the manufacturing workforce. Americans without college degrees have disproportionately suffered; unemployment for college graduates is 4.2 percent while it hovers at 9.8 percent for those without a degree.

In 2008, eight local funders in Wisconsin started Workforce Central to address the aftershocks of losing nearly 40 percent of local jobs after the local Fortune 500 paper company, which for generations had served as the key regional employer, was sold and its headquarters moved overseas. The number of funders eventually grew to 25.

"Because the paper industry was such a strong presence here, we never really needed to do extensive workforce development," said Kelly Ryan Lucas, the chief executive officer of the Community Foundation and chairwoman of the Workforce Central Funders Collaborative. "We had multiple generations that were used to just graduating from high school and going to work at the plant, and helping them figure out new options was a big shift for the community."

Program partners include the local technical college, the Workforce Investment Board, the local Chamber of Commerce and the Wisconsin Department of Human Services, as well as more than 30 other organizations participating in the program. Building this kind of a program, Lucas notes, is not easy to do. "It requires more than money from funders - it requires facilitation, partnership, learning, investments in capacity-building and patience," she said.

Incourage Community foundation has 11 active members as part of their CEO Council, which includes Corenso North America, ERCO Port Edwards, Kickapoo Valley Cheese Corporation, and Mariani Packing Company, Inc. Marinani came to the area in 2011, after purchasing Urban Processing. "One of the reasons they decided to purchase Urban Processing and expand in the area was because of our training program," said Lucas. "It's been a great partnership."

In December 2010, Workforce Central Funders Collaborative of Rapids, Wisconsin received $400,000 from the Social Innovation Fund over two years. It was one of ten communities receiving a total of $5.5 million in new funding to expand innovative approaches to job training and career support , and the first rural community to receive funding.

The program, which started with funders, has received robust community support; a group of more than 20 local businesses, agencies and nonprofit foundations pooled more than $3 million in financial and intellectual resources to support the project.

Wisconsin Rapids Mayor Mary Jo Carson is a strong supporter of the program. "Life will always hold challenges but in these times, these challenges have forced many hard working families to experience huge financial difficulties because of the loss of employment," she said recently.

After the paper mill closed, Carson said, "Incourage Community Foundation got the right resources together to create a vehicle, Workforce Central Manufacturing Partnership, so that employers could work with trainers to educate individuals for the jobs in their businesses…The old saying you can do more together than separately is certainly true when it comes to Workforce Central. I would stand this program up against any other in the country for success in placement and skill development."

By June 2011, more than 600 job seekers and manufacturing workers had received training and certification to meet employers' needs, including training through a new program designed to move workers from assembly lines and entry-level positions to middle management, as well as a new food science certificate created with significant leadership from employers.

"After the paper mill left, we had no choice but to think about how to operate differently in order for our community to thrive," said Lucas. "Because of our foundation funders and community partners, we've been able to operate in an innovative way - one that lets us foster relationships and build the trust we need to move our community forward."

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