Celebrating hope together

Hundreds of community and business leaders, donors, grant recipients, and other partners gathered at the Rhode Island Convention Center on May 12, 2022 for our Annual Meeting. Read on for the keynote remarks and to view videos about this year's awardees.

We are and will always be, now going on 107 years, your community foundation: of, for, and by Rhode Islanders. We continue to partner with wonderful donors of all sizes -- from $1 to $12 million last year, with nonprofit organizations doing great work across the state helping many, and with all of our leaders and community stakeholders who work with us to take the state forward.

Our programs, funds, initiatives, and leadership activities reach every person throughout Rhode Island. We strive to live our mission every day: to be a proactive philanthropic and community leader dedicated to meeting the needs of all Rhode Islanders, and to make inclusion and diversity and equitable opportunities paramount for all Rhode Islanders. We embrace and celebrate our wonderful cultural diversity.

An historic year

During the very challenging 2021, we had an historic year; the largest combined amount of funds raised and grants made in our history----$98 million raised and $76 million granted to 2,300 organizations as the state’s largest funder. We support education, health, economic security; as well as the arts, environment, basic human needs, and housing among other areas. Total assets at year-end stood at $1.4 billion, which makes us one of the largest community foundations in the country. The investment return on our endowment was 20.4%. Yes, the market has obviously changed since then, but be assured, we are built to last into the future, to honor donor legacy, and to meet the ever increasing funding and leadership needs in the community.

Our theme tonight is hope. During our COVID relief efforts last year, a local newscaster stated that the Rhode Island Foundation provides help and hope, and we embrace that and we will continue that.

I now want to highlight for you some of our initiatives and programs that address key issues in the state:

We continued the Long-Term Education Planning Committee work that was started pre-COVID with the goal to ultimately provide every student in Rhode Island with a world class education and close the achievement gaps.

We also continued the Long-term Health Planning Committee that started pre-COVID with a goal to make Rhode Island the healthiest state in the country and eliminate health disparities.

Together with generous donors and the Providence Public School Department, we established a $3.2 million fund to recruit and retain teachers of color.

We continue to raise significant funds for COVID for housing, healthcare and food relief; and also worked with the Governor’s office to distribute federal funds that needed to quickly and effectively get out to organizations serving those hardest hit by the pandemic.

Together with generous donors and Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island, we raised $1.5 million for an Afghan Relief Fund.

To assess and address the needs of small businesses in the communities of color, we partnered with Commerce RI to fund and lead a report on the Rhode Island BIPOC Small Business Ecosystem.

We reinforced and increased our long-time commitment to provide more inclusive, diverse, and equitable opportunities for Rhode Islanders. We began our new Equity Leadership Initiative to identify and support leaders in the Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, and multi-racial communities. This first-year cohort has exceeded our expectations; the second class will begin later this year.

We worked with a robust committee, and solicited broad and diverse community input to issue a report that made recommendations regarding the proposed Integrated Academic Health System/hospital merger that lays the groundwork for ensuring that any discussion of this benefits all Rhode Islanders.

And, very significantly, together with the Economic Progress Institute and the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, a knowledgeable and representative Steering committee, and with a great deal of broad community input, we publicly issued a report to the Governor and legislative leaders -- Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future -- with recommendations for the use of $1.1 billion in American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA) funds.

And, most recently, we sponsored, with several state agencies, a summit to address the healthcare workforce need and separately hosted a convening to address potential solutions to homelessness in Rhode Island. The work on those continues.

And, I want to note that we have now reached six years with one our signature programs; the Carter Roger Williams Scholarship; providing up to $20,000 per year to the students who are selected.

We worked with many new donors. I encourage you to read their compelling and inspiring stories in our Annual Report. Our goal is to make our donors’ dreams come true.

And our broad grant-making continues to provide funding to grow the capacity of and support the resources for nonprofits that are serving the state. It is a privilege to support the many organizations doing good work across the state. There are too many to list, but we are grateful for the work you are all doing every day.

The way forward

There are many critical issues to address in Rhode Island, and I cannot mention them all at this time. While COVID-19 certainly impacted everything, the basic and most important challenges predated the pandemic, which inordinately exacerbated the impact in the communities of color and for the elderly. Let’s also remember that we as a community and as a nation have survived and dealt with many cycles before, including disease, economic downturns, stock market uncertainty, and wars. Together, we can do anything… just not everything. Focus and prioritization are key. Many of our challenges and issues are simple to understand, but complex to solve.

Let’s get more specific. If we do not urgently address unsatisfactory educational outcomes, address crisis-level mental health and substance abuse needs, solve the increasing need for affordable housing, deal with the low birth rate and aging population, and focus on the lack of inclusive opportunities that leave too many people behind, we are at risk of not having the workforce we will need in 10 years.

We have a behavioral health epidemic: documented increases in mental health challenges, including adolescent suicide; and record opioid and alcohol deaths. Let me ask: How many of you know someone dealing with substance abuse -- raise your hands. Those of you who didn’t raise your hand probably just don’t know that your neighbor, niece, co-worker, or student is impacted by substance abuse -- it is that widespread and serious.

There is no better example of the opportunity to address key issues than the $1.1 billion in federal ARPA funds. This is above and beyond the $400-plus million for K-12 education, the $500 million for cities and towns, and the hundreds of millions of dollars for infrastructure. As noted, the Foundation led a process providing recommendations to the Governor and legislative leaders, which included $405 million to be invested in housing, especially low- and moderate-income housing; $255 million to address behavioral health needs, $205 million for job training, especially in critical areas and including child care; and $100 million to support small businesses, especially in the communities of color.

Permanent investments are needed, not short-term expenditures. And we emphasized that it is critical that we do implementation planning now (For example, a plan to increase housing that people at all levels can afford, a plan to address the growing behavioral health needs, and a plan to meet growing workforce needs for nurses, teachers, and other critical fields). And that it is critical to focus on accountability and oversight. This is crucial to the proper spending of these once-in-a-lifetime dollars -- we should all insist on this from our state leaders responsible for the spending of these dollars over the next several years.

We do not want to be here in five years asking whatever happened to that $1.1 billion. I’m not sure if these funds are not enough or too much. They are not enough to meet all areas of need, and they are too much if we cannot get them out the door and invested for maximum impact for all. We need to invest wisely, not widely.

And now we have major inflation that cuts across all sectors, all needs. We were misled by those early on who referenced “transitory” inflation. It has major impacts, no matter which underlying factors you believe have contributed. Rhode Island is receiving hundreds of millions of dollars to repair roads and bridges, and too many here are struggling to afford the gas to drive on them. Housing costs, including rents and all the costs associated with new construction, are quickly increasing, including mortgage rates. The hard-working Food Bank and all food pantries are challenged to keep up with food and other supplies whose costs are skyrocketing. We cannot let the wealth gap continue to grow and grow.

Again, our theme is hope.

We need to craft common sense solutions and to focus on purposeful, equitable, and inclusive actions.

To have hope, we all need to help.

To help, we all need to focus and prioritize.

To focus and prioritize, we need true leadership.

Our leaders should not ask for hope, they need to give us hope and inspire positive change. The social and economic will for change must outweigh the political will! That is up to all of us.

Now more than ever, we must leverage urgency, inclusivity, and a focus on results and take all the to-do lists and commit to achieving a “done” list.

A quote from Michelle Obama: “You may not always have a comfortable life and you will not always be able to solve all of the world’s problems at once, but don’t ever underestimate the importance you can have; because history has shown us that courage can be contagious and hope can take on a life of its own.” Let’s do this together.

Our awardees...

And while we rely on the contributions of many, we also honor four of our partners with special recognition:

Jane Hayward with our Community Leadership Award, Elizabeth Manchester, Esq. with our Harold B. Soloveitzik Award, the Papitto Opportunity Connection with our Carter Inspiring Partner Award, and Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott with our Public Service Award.

How inspiring those awards are each year. Congratulations to all of these wonderfully accomplished award-recipients.

Hope + action

Before we wrap up, I want to get back to hope and our path forward. The best time to tackle educational challenges, behavioral health needs, health disparities, housing shortages, and the like was 25 years ago. However, the second best time is now. So, please join us in this work together!

We want to end this evening on a positive note, so let’s look up! The goal: a better future for all Rhode Islanders where every person, young and old, no matter their zip code or race or economic status, wakes up in available and affordable housing, has enough food on the table for their family, has access to affordable, quality health care; and has the opportunity to learn and earn at the highest level they can achieve. For those with specific challenges and needs, there are adequately funded resources to have a better life by addressing mental health, substance use, and disability issues.

As I have said many times in the past, let’s all be positive, look forward, and take rhetoric to action.

Together, I ask you, all in your own way, to show up, listen up, speak up, stand up, step up, and rise up to tackle the challenges and opportunities ahead. Albert Einstein said, “Learn from yesterday, live for today, hope for tomorrow!” Thank you, be well, be safe.