Written by Chad Dally
Even as the Wisconsin Institute for Public Policy and Service (WIPPS) celebrates its 10-year anniversary in 2018, the organization is approaching its mission as if it’s a new group just starting to find its footing.
Founded in 2007, the Institute is a unit of both the UW–Colleges and UW–Extension Systems. Although WIPPS is housed inside the Center for Civic Engagement on the University of Wisconsin–Marathon County (UWMC) campus, its staff, interns, and fellows work statewide on a variety of projects and initiatives aimed at fostering scholarship, civic outreach, and student service.
A celebration will be held April 4, 2018, to mark the 10-year anniversary of WIPPS.
Director Eric Giordano is the only person who’s been with WIPPS since the very beginning…
Dr. Giordano was an assistant professor of political science when WIPPS was created and was brought in as the founding director — the position he still holds. He says WIPPS’s roots date back to former UWMC Dean James F. Veninga.
When construction of a Wausau casino was considered in the mid-2000s, it was Veninga who had the idea to bring the resources of the university, its faculty, and its students to bear on the issue through community forums and faculty research on what the impacts of having a casino in Wausau might be. According to Giordano:
“It was really important [for Veninga] to explore what the university could do to better serve the needs of the community.”
That is part of WIPPS’s core mission that still holds true today:
To take advantage of faculty expertise and research capabilities, and the enthusiasm of UWMC students, as a way to engage and involve the university in a more direct way in the Wausau area.
But what started as a local endeavor quickly branched out to incorporate faculty from all 13 two-year UW schools. Which brings us to an important question:
What the heck does WIPPS do?
Although its staff, interns, and faculty fellows do not engage in advocacy on any given issue, part of WIPPS’s mission is to foster civic engagement around important issues. For instance, the Institute worked with the Kettering Foundation in 2016 to host a series of public forums at the Marathon County Public Library on federal budget priorities, specifically gathering input from local citizens on what Congress should prioritize in the federal budget. This information was then shared with members of Congress.
That echoes the Institute’s early work, which Giordano said focused more on panel discussions and lectures, as well as research and engagement.
Some fast facts on WIPPS’s 10 years of work include:
- Helped organize and sponsor 10 political candidate debates
- Conducted more than 150 webinars and workshops, which reached more than 5,000 people
- Engaged 2,500 state citizens in public dialogues on issues such as race relations, crime and punishment, and immigration reform
- Engaged more than 75,000 K–12 students in mock elections and educational programming through a partnership with Kids Voting USA–Wisconsin/Marathon County
WIPPS staff and fellows also have worked on projects such as strategic planning with Marshfield Clinic involving focus groups, as well as research on the impact of frac sand mining in Western Wisconsin on the endangered Karner Blue butterfly, Giordano said. But he also held up the butterfly study as the type of research that WIPPS has moved away from, partly out of necessity and partly due to practicality…
About 4 years ago, WIPPS was nudged toward a funding cut and to find ways to become self-sustaining, rather than rely on a roughly $150,000 budget from the UW System. What started as a budget cut eventually became a complete elimination of its funding from the UW System. So, the Institute began tweaking its business model to the point where some of its current work mirrors what a consulting firm might do for clients.
Word-of-mouth promotion of its services, its reputation from past projects, and its affordability compared to private firms that provide similar work all give Giordano hope that by engaging in more practical projects at the local level around the state, WIPPS is in a strong position to meet its goal of being self-sustaining.
For example, Giordano said one of WIPPS’s current projects is helping the residents around Rhinelander become more engaged in democracy and use WIPPS staff’s expertise and experience to show how local citizens can foster civic discussions and participation around local issues, without discussions devolving into partisan bickering. He offered:
“It’s really about how can we bring people together and meeting with people to show them how to engage in constructive discussions.”
Locally, WIPPS’s staff continues to provide similar assistance to the Toward One Wausau group, which seeks to bring community members together for constructive discussions and engagement around issues of race in the Wausau area. Whereas in the past, WIPPS might gravitate toward some kind of “one-off” panel discussion or lecture, these days its staff are more interested in civic engagement opportunities that have the potential to really change a local culture long-term.
Those sorts of projects help WIPPS in its goal to be self-sustaining because it’s an easier sell to find sponsors for events and discussions and it also gives WIPPS some boots-on-the-ground examples of constructive work when it comes to seeking grant and donor funding for the Institute.
Also, in early days, WIPPS brought in UW faculty and others for fellowship appointments and allowed those fellows to basically work on any project or research as long as it had some demonstrable benefit to the state. So, although the above-mentioned frac sand research is an important issue, it was more on the periphery of WIPPS’s mission. Giordano said the Institute has tweaked its fellowship model over the years so that fellows are now chosen based on their research skills and other capabilities that are more practical to the kind of community work in which WIPPS now engages. According to Giordano:
“I really see us as a catalyst for research and discussions; it’s rare that we do projects ourselves anymore. The community really has to be the co-creator.”
Not only does WIPPS have a pool of fellows around the state upon which it can draw for community projects, it also gives students a chance to be involved in constructive dialogue projects and other initiatives through internships. More than 150 students received internships at WIPPS, and the Institute has worked on at least 50 projects.
As for Giordano, he says he still enjoys the job after 10 years and is optimistic that WIPPS can turn the corner to become fully self-sustaining.
“I really enjoy interacting with the different communities, seeing what communities are doing, what they’re valuing, and finding ways for WIPPS to help in those communities.”
WIPPS’s 10-year anniversary celebration, which also is a fundraiser for the Institute, will be held Wednesday, April 4, 2018, from 5:30 to 8:00 p.m. at the Hilton Garden Inn in Wausau.
A social hour, dinner, and awards program will be followed by two special guests:
- Tommy Thompson, Former Wisconsin Governor
- Donna Shalala, Secretary of Health and Human Services under President Bill Clinton
If you’d like to attend the April celebration, you can get more details on WIPSS’s 10-year anniversary event here.
Library Specialist | Marathon County Public Library
Chad Dally is a library specialist with the Marathon County Public Library, where he’s worked since 2012. He splits his time at the library between reference and programming, and generally prefers to read nonfiction over fiction. He’s heard chickens are smart, but the small brood he keeps at home provides evidence to the contrary. Email Chad Dally
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