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The Not-So-Obvious Aspect of Celebrating Water

by Bret Bicoy, President and CEO, Door County Community Foundation

Bret Bicoy. Submitted.

More than 20 years ago, when I was still a young man who knew everything, I was working for a foundation in a bigger city when we decided to make an investment in a parent-education program. There had been several public instances of frustrated parents going too far in disciplining their children, so that foundation wanted to invest in a program to teach more effective discipline alternatives than raising a fist.

We reviewed several ideas, thoughtfully considered potential partners and eventually awarded a grant to a very promising parent-education program. It took only about six months before I became absolutely confident in the results: Our investment in that new program was very likely having absolutely no effect at all. 

Although I much prefer it when a program is successful from the start, failure can offer opportunities to learn and improve. During one of my post-mortem conversations trying to figure out where I went wrong, I talked with a 60-year-old Catholic nun who had spent a lifetime working in at-risk communities. She quickly diagnosed the cause of my failure: The people who most need a parent-education program are usually those who are least likely to actually attend a parent-education program. 

The sister said to start a Saturday-afternoon playgroup instead and suggested that we work with a neighborhood center. Parents would take their children to the center, eat some pizza, play a bit and generally have a good time. So that’s what we did.

To the participants and outside observers, that’s all it appeared to be: just a bunch of parents and children playing together on a Saturday afternoon.

But the playgroup’s activities were organized by a trained parent educator who didn’t identify herself by a title – just by her first name. Unbeknownst to the families involved, two experienced parents also attended each week to subtly model specific behavioral techniques. Then when the children went off to the playground for a few minutes, the parents were drawn into casual conversations about how things were going at home – conversations that created bonds of trust among them and a de facto support group of friends for everyone involved.

The sister taught me an invaluable lesson when it comes to philanthropic work: The obvious outcome is not always the desired goal.

To the world, the obvious outcome of our investment was buying pizza for a bunch of families so they could sit around and play with their kids every Saturday afternoon. Our desired goal, however, wasn’t something readily seen by the untrained eye. The entire effort was designed to quietly and gently help parents learn more productive methods of relating to and disciplining their children. 

The obvious outcome is not always the desired goal. In the years since, this maxim has often guided the efforts of foundations for which I’ve worked. 

Consider the yearlong Celebrate Water initiative that culminated in June with the Water Summit in Egg Harbor. Celebrate Water was an initiative of Healthy Water Door County, a fund of the Community Foundation.

The obvious outcome was an impressive number of concerts, plays and presentations, each of which had only a modest connection to water. During the winter, there was a community-wide discussion about a book on the Great Lakes that was part of Door County Reads. It ended with a three-day Water Summit. That’s all it appeared to be to the casual observer. Our desired goal, however, was far more ambitious than that.

The entire year was designed to entice those who do not consider themselves environmentalists to join a conversation about what water means to Door County. Environmental issues have become so polarized that too many of us remain on the sidelines for fear of being demonized by those on the other side of the political debate.

Celebrate Water was successful not because of the astounding number of events that occurred or because the Water Summit was overflowing with participants. It was successful because it reached people beyond our hard-working, committed local environmentalists and got them talking about water as one of our most precious resources. 

We at the Community Foundation don’t have all the answers to questions about the future of our water, but our community will never successfully respond to any of them until we understand how much water means to our quality of life. Reasonable people will still sometimes disagree on which policy to support, but finding common ground begins when we recognize that we share common values. We all want to make sure our water is protected. 

Email Bret Bicoy at [email protected]

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