Lessons Learned from the InCommons Initiative

Published
May 2014

The Bush Foundation and a group of partners launched the InCommons initiative in 2009, with the objective of increasing the leadership and problem-solving capacity of communities.  After four years of successes and challenges, we made some significant strategic changes in 2013 and ended parts of the InCommons initiative that weren’t working well and doubled down on those tactics that were working best.  The Public and Nonprofit Leadership Center at the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs conducted a review of the program in June 2011 and again in August 2013, which included interviews with dozens of individuals who were involved with InCommons, both internal and external to the Foundation. (Download a summary of these reports.)

The lessons and insights shared in this learning paper are primarily drawn from the external review by the University of Minnesota.  In the “What’s next” section, we share the implications that these findings and lessons have for our work at Bush Foundation going forward and what changes they have prompted in our strategy and operations.

When the Bush Foundation set our “Goals for the Decade” in 2008, one of our three primary goals was to increase the percentage of people in our region who believe their community is effective at problem-solving. One strategy we pursued to address this goal was the InCommons initiative, which aimed to inspire and support the courageous leadership necessary to engage communities and solve public problems. 

The inspiration for InCommons came through a series of design labs in 2008 and 2009, which concluded that community leaders needed greater connections, greater resources, and greater visibility.  With this direction, the Bush Foundation and a set of partners set off to co-create InCommons.  The initiative had two major components.  The first was an online platform that supported online community engagement, cataloged resources for community problem-solving and hosted idea challenges.  The second component of the effort was in-person activities and programs, many of which were in partnership with other community organizations.

Although the InCommons initiative experienced some notable successes, it did not become the cohesive movement for grassroots change that we had hoped it would.  Ultimately, the Bush Foundation discontinued InCommons as a brand along with the website, while the more successful parts were advanced through other programs at the Foundation.  The InCommons review, conducted by the University of Minnesota, helped us to surface key lessons from this effort.  As discussed below, some of the elements that attracted people to the initiative also presented the biggest impediments to its success. 

What worked well

The Vision. Many individuals who became involved with InCommons were drawn to its concept and values.  They were energized by the idea of community-based leadership.  As one stakeholder noted, “The thing that was so exciting was the idea that the way to empower communities to solve problems more effectively was more about things that were already there.  It was more about creating connections than dropping in particular ideas.”  

Collaboration. The effort involved many stakeholders and invited them into the formal planning process.  Partners appreciated the opportunity to be part of the effort and the idea of co-creating such a major initiative was widely praised as a new and exciting way of working together to improve the community.  

In-person Activities. Offline activities that the Foundation supported as part of the InCommons initiative received a great deal positive feedback, especially the innovation sites and trainings such as Art of Hosting.  Participants found these in-person trainings to be powerful and informative experiences and helped them build skills to exert leadership in their communities. 

Connections. Participants reported that the gatherings associated with InCommons effectively brought diverse groups together to work together in new ways.  Making new connections and building personal networks was noted as a positive outcome of InCommons.

Idea Challenges. Some participants also pointed to the idea Challenges that were hosted on the InCommons.org site as something that went well with the initiative.  Reportedly, the Challenges effectively engaged many community members, surfaced new ideas for community issues, and encouraged many participants and observers to think bigger and differently about their community’s potential.

What didn’t work well

Ambiguity of concept and strategy.  While most people involved with InCommons can point to a number of successful events or programs, most interviewees questioned what it all rolled up to.  The broader community wanted to know the value-add of InCommons; it remained an abstract concept for many both internal and external to the Foundation.  

After decades of being a traditional grantmaker, the InCommons initiative was part of a strategic shift to being a different kind of foundation.  We believed we could have more impact by being more proactive in developing the initiatives we would fund and by having staff more actively engaged in the work.  However, our theory of change, or what we were hoping to accomplish by embarking on the various InCommons activities, was not articulated and detailed sufficiently to guide the work. 

Unclear roles and responsibilities. While many applauded the idea of co-creation, in practice this led to diffuse leadership and a great deal of confusion.  Decision-making processes were often unclear, which hindered progress in significant ways.  The initiative was initially organized as an entity external to the Foundation.  However, we soon realized that this model left the effort in a challenging space where it was neither part of the Foundation, nor an independent entity.  After it became clear that InCommons was not gaining traction with this model, we incorporated it more closely into the Foundation and put more staff members to work on it.  Yet, after so much confusion it was not possible to rebuild sufficient momentum.    

Transparency. Many leaders from the nonprofit community reported that they experienced a lack of clear communication around InCommons.  The formal partner selection process—who was asked to be at the table and what monetary benefits were attached—was not transparent to the outside community and became a liability in getting the broader community to engage with InCommons. 

Furthermore, the Foundation provided grants to the formal partners.  These grants were acknowledged as a respectful gesture by many, but others felt that the financial aspect of the partnership hampered the candor offered by partners at the planning table. 

Beyond formal partners, we gave other contracts and grants to organizations whose work aligned with the mission of InCommons.  These organizations were doing important work, but the lack of transparent process to select those grantees was troubling to many. 

Lack of broad community buy-in. Some nonprofits stated they were unclear as to how InCommons and its components substituted for ways of addressing community problem-solving. Accustomed to decades of traditional grantmaking and sizable support through grant programs, many saw InCommons Challenges and programs as a “mini” version of what the Foundation used to do.  Some attributed this lack of community acceptance as a failure to effectively communicate and share the Foundation’s new vision with the nonprofit sector. 

Technical challenges. In 2009, we set off to build a world-class website to connect and support community leaders, but we did not have the right expertise or technical ability to do so.  The website was slow to develop, which hindered momentum in the early phases of the work.  There was also confusion about the purpose of the website and its functionality.  Furthermore, the website faced continual technical challenges and many users were driven away when they experienced such glitches.  As one interviewee put it, “I just don’t think people thought of it as a tool to go and connect with other people in the state.  It didn’t become that …why would it have been better than Google?  Why would it have been better than Facebook?  Why would it have been better than LinkedIn?”

What's next?

In the spring of 2013, we made a carefully deliberated decision to end InCommons in the existing format.  We stopped using the InCommons brand and the separate website.  At the same time, we transitioned some of what was working best into other programs at the Foundation. 

As a foundation, we are committed to doing more good every year.  We have reflected carefully on the InCommons experience and are already doing many things differently (and hopefully better) because of what we learned. 

Some of these changes include:

Get more money out to support community problem solving.   We launched two new grant programs in 2013: the Bush Prize and Community Innovation grants.  These are both open competitive processes so everyone has a shot and we can fund the best ideas out there.  We named 34 Community Innovation Grantees and nine Bush Prize winners at the end of 2013 and look forward to repeating these grant programs in 2014 and into the future.   

Invest in capacity of others vs. build it ourselves. The need to equip and connect leaders remains critically important.  We are focusing our efforts on connecting and growing existing networks and building on energy that exists in our communities.  For example, we recently invested in OTA and Pollen, two organizations which have built strong followings, both online and offline, in recent years. 

Increase emphasis on in-person events. We are planning significant events in our three state region to connect leaders across networks.

Use our own communications to advance our goals. We know we can do a lot better at telling people what is happening at the Foundation and sharing lessons from our work and that of our grantees.   We are now rethinking our website to share learnings. 

Increase openness and transparency. Our new responsive grant making programs (and you will see a couple others come online in 2014) are examples of our renewed commitment to transparency.  When we launched the Community Innovation grants and Bush Prize, we traveled the three state region and hosted 30 information sessions with over 1,000 participants.  We are also making efforts to be as available as possible to applicants, providing support as they are preparing a grant proposal and sharing feedback on why a proposal was turned down.

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