Inspiring "can-do" leadership

Hundreds of community and business leaders, donors, grant recipients, and other partners gathered for the Rhode Island Foundation’s 2023 Annual Meeting, the last for its outgoing President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg, who will retire on June 1. Here is his “farewell address.”

On June 13, 1916, a group of public-spirited citizens of Rhode Island, realizing the great advantages to the state of a charitable community trust, organized the Rhode Island Foundation with an initial contribution of $10,000 made anonymously by Jesse Metcalf. We are now one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the country.

Well, you saw the 2022 results - with all of you we raised $75 million and awarded $84 million to over 2,400 organizations. Our endowment is $1.3 billion, and we have a top quartile investment performance of 8.5% annualized over 25 years. Your community foundation continues to be very solid, growing and here with and for the entire community. To lead, transform, and inspire while making donor’s dreams come true; supporting all sectors of the nonprofit community to reach everyone in the state; and taking on key civic issues of the day.

This past year saw the continued impact of the long tail of Covid and challenging economic conditions. To address this, we distributed $20 million of American Rescue Plan Act funds appropriated to us by the Governor and legislative leaders so that we could help more efficiently and quickly make grants to organizations providing services for housing and homelessness, food insecurity, and behavioral health needs. Announced on October 6 of last year, all of the funds were distributed by the end of March to over 240 organizations; grants of $50,000 to $150,000 focused on communities hardest hit by the pandemic.

Recently, we assisted the state Executive Office of Health and Human Services to distribute over $3.2 million in grants funded with Opioid Settlement money. Consistently, when asked if we can step up to implement these programs, our answer is always, “yes, we can,” and then we do.

Our long-term education and health planning committees continue to weigh in on critical issues, raise awareness, and advocate for improvement. These senior level “tables” are unique opportunities for dialogue, debate, and action.

While long-term systemic change is one of our primary goals, we cannot ignore what is going on outside our doors. As the state’s largest and most comprehensive funder of nonprofits, we also support arts and culture, the environment, basic human needs, housing and more.

Regarding housing, we are working with so many on this critical need. In addition to funding many organizations and efforts in this regard, with our partners Blue Cross, LISC, and the Partnership for Rhode Island, we led and helped fund the recent Boston Consulting Group work that produced coordinated data, best practices from around the country, and many options to consider to address homelessness and housing production. This validates and provides support for actions being taken by the Governor and the Speaker, with the primary responsibility now resting with the state Department of Housing. There is much, much more to do!

Regarding economic security, we have championed and provided much input for a new initiative to grow the Life Sciences sector. The industry has spread beyond Boston and Cambridge, and Rhode Island needs to proactively pursue this opportunity that has a foothold here with much more potential. We also funded and led an analysis and recommendations to provide support to grow and sustain BIPOC businesses in Rhode Island; a growth area for the state economy.

We gave out more than $4 million in scholarships to students across the state. For example, the Carter Roger Williams Scholarship is in its seventh year and provides five students with significant need up to $20,000 a year for four years. The new Andrew Scholarship program gave out $500,000 to 100 Rhode Island high school students who will attend colleges and universities in Rhode Island.

Two and a half years ago, our Board committed to our three-year, $8.5 million investment to advance diversity, equity, inclusion, and access above and beyond the major funding we have always done to support organizations and leaders working with communities of color. We listened to under-represented groups in the community and partnered with those engaged in this important work. The signature program has been the Equity Leadership Initiative. With two cohorts of 30 completed, and with the next one in the selection process, this unique and highly successful program identifies early-to-mid-level leaders in the Black, Latino, Indigenous, Asian, and multiracial communities across all sectors with a significant commitment to personal and professional development and growth. And last year we endowed the program with $2 million. We will soon be announcing awards from some new grant programs in this area, as well as information on the total $8.5 million of commitments. And this work continues, not as a label, but as a core principle of the Rhode Island Foundation as a leader and voice for the diverse communities that are so important to a vibrant Rhode Island.

Regarding community, last year we brought back one of my favorite initiatives, Together RI. We started this pre-Covid and then had to wait to do it again. Between July and November, more than 525 Rhode Islanders gathered at one of 12 venues around the state for a family style meal and conversation to encourage constructive civic and civil dialogue. The topics discussed were Rhode Island’s biggest strengths, biggest opportunities, and the biggest challenges that impact daily life. Strengths included our small size, the diversity within our state, our coastline, and our colleges and universities.

"As to challenges and opportunities in front of us, there are always many."

As to challenges and opportunities in front of us, there are always many. We often say that together we can do anything, but not everything, so let’s focus, along with hard work and determination. Inflation and high interest rates are still having a significant impact on so many, especially those who can least afford it. For many the price for food has seen double-digit increases. Gas prices are still high. Rents are out of reach for large parts of the population. We have been through these economic cycles before, and we will get through this one, albeit with some pain and sacrifice that we all need to make sure is not inequitable or life threatening for anyone.

Behavioral health and substance abuse are at epidemic levels, and we are not adequately addressing them. And overall, persistent inequities and disparities in health care continue.

Housing we have discussed, but it is not going away when we have led the nation in the lowest production of new units over the past several years. No one should have to be homeless. No one should be agonizing whether to pay the rent or pay for food or pay for medicine.

With SNAP benefits tightened and Medicaid rolls to be trimmed, the negative impact is growing. We know that food insecurity and inadequate housing are the key social determinates of good health.

And education, education, education. The pandemic’s impacts have been widely discussed related to learning loss and social and emotional challenges. And achievement gaps persist.

So here is my overall concern. If we do not improve our education outcomes, if we do not address housing needs, if we do not tackle the unprecedented mental health and substance abuse challenges, and if we continue to leave populations behind, we are at great risk of not having an adequate workforce in the future.

"So here is my overall concern. If we do not improve our education outcomes, if we do not address housing needs, if we do not tackle the unprecedented mental health and substance abuse challenges, and if we continue to leave populations behind, we are at great risk of not having an adequate workforce in the future."

And speaking of the workforce, we know it is a big issue. For example, there are four professions that are the backbone of communities and always have been -- teachers, nurses, police, and fire. There are real shortages in all of these for many reasons, including respect for these professions, fair compensation and better working conditions. We need to figure this out or there will be a reduction in our quality of life!

Some ideas for going forward.

Regarding health and health care, we need more rational and cohesive oversight of health care in the state while also addressing the social determinants of health. I am encouraged that the two new hospital CEOs at Lifespan and Care New England -- working along with the Deans of the Brown Medical School and School of Public Health -- have agreed to collaborate on research, in aggregate, which will benefit the state of Rhode Island. I would also ask, though, that they collaborate on addressing the shortage of primary care and pediatric care doctors and the often-mentioned behavioral health emergency that would benefit the people in the state of Rhode Island.

Regarding K-12 education, in addition to enhanced out-of-school time programs that can supplement the important work in the classroom, our long-term planning committee has advocated to state leaders to address the teacher workforce, the state funding formula, increased professional development for educators, address unfunded mandates and amending the state constitution to ensure the right to an education for all students.

And here is a new idea. Sixty-seven percent of those students who take the RICAS test are below grade level reading proficiency! That means approximately 50,000+ students have some significant reading challenges. That is a big number, especially if that is your future workforce. I would suggest for consideration that we focus and pull out all the stops to get each student in Rhode Island reading at or above grade level in three years. Leveraging tutoring, technology, and support from all of our institutions of higher education to encourage, allow, or require college students to help K-12 students in the classroom, to call on the business community to champion and participate with employees regularly volunteering to help in the classroom or after school, engage parents and guardians where possible including with Multi-Language-Learners. We could do this, and not at the expense of every other part of the learning experience. Now, imagine if Rhode Island was the only state in the country with 100% of students reading at grade level and all graduating with this basic proficiency!

And more about housing. It is production, production, production. We need new units; homes and apartments, smaller lots and more density where appropriate, intentional and swift reuse of properties, both government and institutional, creative building options to control costs, and wrap around services and supportive housing to address homelessness. So, let’s locate, negotiate, accelerate, and build units with transparency and accountability. The old Chinese proverb says,” the best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.”

And overall, it is critical that we get more done cost effectively and quicker. To accomplish all that we want and need to do, we must acknowledge that there is a huge difference between a 'can-do' culture and an all too frequent 'cannot-do' culture. Bureaucracy is an impediment not used by all, but by too many. We hear: “I need to check, we have never done this before, this is not my responsibility, we don’t have the capacity, there is not enough time, we want to do it, but cannot get an approval, it is too complicated,” and I could go on and on. We need the 'can-do' spirit to grow and work, and we want partners not opponents! We desperately need to hear: “we can do it, we can get it, and yes, that is possible.”

Here is one positive example. When the Governor approved the Cranston Street Armory as a warming center back in the winter, I joined Eileen Hayes from Amos House at the Armory as she was trying to get it up and running. I saw the National Guard and State Properties folks along with Amos House and Crossroads representatives demonstrate the can-do spirit. Need refrigerators? We can get them. Need bathrooms? We can get them. Need to secure certain entrances? We can do that. It was great! And, under pressure to get the facility open, Amos House needed immediate funds that the state could not provide for two weeks - with that same 'can do' spirit, the Rhode Island Foundation provided $50,000 for the first two weeks of operation.

"Leaders need to lead; leaders of leaders need to prioritize a 'can-do' culture for success."

Leaders need to lead; leaders of leaders need to prioritize a 'can-do' culture for success.

And all of these goals, ideas, and discussions need to be equitable and inclusive. Demographics here and across the country are changing. We should embrace a broad perspective on diversity to include race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, religion, country of origin, disabilities, age, veteran status and more. I am often reminded of the signature song of the great Aretha Franklin...R-E-S-P-E-C-T. Let’s respect each other, value, and leverage our differences, and treat each other the way we want to be treated.

Then we can do, and then we can make progress. The challenges in front of us are many times brutally simple to identify and very difficult to solve. We need to break them down, work together, think big and act boldly, focused on solutions. The social and economic will needs to overcome the political will. We can be empathetic and understanding while maintaining high expectations. And then you will be surprised and impressed by what we can all do to make it happen.

And while we rely on the contributions of many, we also honor four of our partners with special recognition: the Elisha Project with our Community Leadership Award; Lynn E. Riley, Esq., with our Harold B. Soloveitzik Professional Leadership Award; the Jewish Federation Foundation supporting the Jewish Alliance of Greater Rhode Island with our Carter Inspiring Partner Award; and the Honorable O. Rogeriee Thompson with our Civic Leadership Award.

Finally, let me specifically express my support and admiration for my successor, David Cicilline. Fifty years ago, I ran on a sprint relay team at Brown that won the Ivy League championship. I am now passing the baton to David and will root for him and the Rhode Island Foundation with the same passion and confidence I have always had, excited that he will take the organization and the positive impact on the state to even higher levels!

What is our state’s Motto? HOPE. The Rhode Island Foundation, with and for the people of Rhode Island, will continue to keep hope alive.