Vision and commitment

Hundreds of community and business leaders, donors, grant recipients, and other partners joined us virtually for this year’s Annual Meeting. Here are highlights of what I told them.

Neil D. Steinberg at 2021 annual meeting

One of my favorite quotes is from A Tale of Two Cities, a book written in 1859 by Charles Dickens about the French Revolution. I believe it sums up where we are:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of time, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair!"

COVID-19, the global pandemic, started to impact us in Rhode Island in March 2020. Over the course of our 105-year history as YOUR community foundation, we have weathered world wars, economic downturns, and other events that have greatly impacted the state. Amid much uncertainty, we pivoted, and with your support, we moved quickly to raise additional funds to provide critical aid across the state, distributing the funds to nonprofit organizations serving those hardest hit. The Rhode Island Foundation leveraged our strengths and resources as the largest and most comprehensive funder in the state to fulfill our mission: to be a proactive community and philanthropic leader dedicated to meeting the needs of ALL Rhode Islanders.

And while we stepped up above and beyond to meet COVID-19 needs, we continued our important ongoing work to enhance philanthropy working with generous donors of all sizes to make their dreams come true, to support education, health, economic security, housing, the arts, the environment, basic human needs, and so much more.

The results

In 2020, with you we raised $68 million, including more than $20 million in immediate COVID-19 aid. We raised over $600,000 for our important annual Civic Leadership Fund. We gave out a record $87 million in grants to over 2,200 organizations. Our endowment today stands at over $1.3 billion having generated top decile investment returns. Over 1,000 new donors contributed to the COVID-19 Response Fund and more continue to do so every day. We were so inspired by receiving multiple small contributions, stimulus checks from those who felt others needed it more as well as six-figure gifts from generous philanthropic leaders in the community. Three million dollars was raised for the weR1 Fund to support undocumented immigrants not eligible for federal support. Five million dollars was raised to support immediate and growing mental health and substance abuse needs. One of our donors told us: “It seemed like an important year to be generous. This past summer, COVID-19 brought the Foundation into the forefront of my thinking. I was impressed how the Foundation stepped up toward the beginning of the pandemic and was able to do something quickly.” Thank you, and I assure you, with your support we will continue to step up and act quickly for and with Rhode Islanders.

When early on many spoke of a new normal, we pushed for a better future. The old normal left too many behind. Some have said that COVID has revealed many inequities. That is not really true. COVID has not revealed anything we did not already know. Disparities and achievement gaps in the communities of color, as well as challenges for the elderly, persisted well before COVID and have definitely been exacerbated and highlighted. The long-term impacts of continued unemployment, of increased mental health, substance abuse, and domestic violence challenges, of food and housing insecurity…..these will take a long time to recover from!

A better future

Now I will highlight some key initiatives that we hope and believe will result in the better future we all want.

Two years ago we initiated and convened groups of leaders in the K-12 education sector and in the health sector. The purpose of both of these was to craft two long-term plans – which the state did not have – to guide us for 10 years to 2030. In early 2020, these plans were completed and made public. They are not long shelf documents, but provide vision and strategy that are supported by the Governor and legislature as well as the Rhode Island Department of Education and the Rhode Island Department of Health.

“Chart a Course, Stay the Course” puts forth a vision that in 10 years Rhode Island’s world-class public education system will prepare ALL students to succeed in life and to contribute productively to the community. Led by the Foundation, the committee continues to work to equitably deliver on the vison of prioritizing high standards, support for educators, investment to support students in areas of greatest need, and enhancing governance structures.

“Health in Rhode Island” puts forth a vision that in 10 years Rhode Island will be the healthiest state in the nation and that ALL Rhode Islanders will have the opportunity to be in optimal health, will live, work, and play in healthy communities; and will have access to high quality and affordable health care. Led by the Foundation, this committee also continues to focus on eliminating disparities in health, providing the most appropriate care for people in the best setting, improving behavioral health outcomes, reducing wasteful healthcare spending in order to redirect resources to social determinants, and improving affordability.

We look forward to reporting progress on both of these important strategic initiatives that impact the entire community.

In 2020, we helped lead – along with many others – the Complete Count effort to enhance Census reporting. We now know this was successful in holding on to a Congressional seat and ensuring sufficient counts to leverage federal funding.

And very importantly, the Foundation made a significant increase in our commitment to Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion: more than just rhetoric, but a commitment to action. While we have always had this lens as part of our work with and for the community, we can do much more and much better to be inclusive and equitable. With that in mind, we made a major multi-year financial commitment above and beyond our annual grant making to broaden the reach of support for the Black, Latino, Indigenous, multi-racial, and Asian communities.

Two initiatives are specific early examples of this work. The Equity Leadership Initiative will identify, support, cultivate and provide opportunities for mid-level leaders in the communities of color across various sectors to help build a pipeline of future diverse leaders to influence the state going forward. This was recently kicked off with 31 individuals selected to participate in the first cohort. Also, with a group of donors and the Providence School Department we established a multi-year program to recruit and retain teachers of color. Eighty percent of students and only 20 percent of the teachers are from these communities. We are doing much more and will be reporting on progress going forward.

Two new major initiatives were started earlier in 2021. Given the proposed Integrated Academic Health System – the merger of Lifespan and Care New England with a strong affiliation with Brown University – we believe that community input is critical to this process. Beyond the financial aspects, regulatory entities like the Attorney General’s office and the Rhode Island Department of Health, along with the hospitals and all of us, need to ensure this will benefit ALL Rhode Islanders. Therefore, we initiated and convened an independent committee of knowledgeable health and community leaders to provide recommendations early this fall for the hospitals, regulators, and the public. This effort includes focus groups and community meetings and will focus on equity, cost, access, quality, governance, community contribution, oversight and workforce.

Additionally, we are leading “Make it Happen: Investing for Rhodes Island’s Future” to make recommendations for the $1.1 billion of American Rescue Plan Act Funds provided to the state – not including funds for the cities and town or other designated buckets. This has created a once-in-a-generation opportunity to make big investments in key areas. Working with the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council and the Economic Progress Institute and a great steering committee along with public input of ideas, focus groups, and community meetings, we will submit 3-5 big ideas for utilizing these funds through 2024 to the Governor and legislative leaders in early fall. Our guiding principles for this work address equity, sustainability, impact, and a transparent process.

And most recently, we partnered with the Governor on the RI Gives Vax Challenge. This $750,000 program – including $250,000 from the Foundation and $500,000 from the state – incented 25,000 newly vaccinated individuals that then leveraged $10,000 grants to 75 nonprofit organizations.

I hope that you found these highlights of some of the broad and impactful work that we do in partnership with our generous donors, committed “boots on the ground” nonprofit organizations, and passionate stakeholders and leaders in the community to be informative. We welcome any of your feedback and insights.

So where do we go from here?

The pandemic is not over and, as noted, the broad and uneven impact in the community does not go away even if everyone gets vaccinated. Underserved communities, those that have long experienced disparities and bias, those who have been impacted by racial inequity, have a long way to go. We must, NOW and into the FUTURE, end the disparities, close the achievement gaps and address wealth gaps that have persisted for way too long. When we all do well, everyone benefits!

We need our leaders at all levels to actually lead – there are those that are named leaders and those who actually lead. We need to push them to address the complex issues – not just the popular ones – to see what really IS and to strive for what SHOULD be. Our leaders need to be accountable for the equitable distribution of funds to help many. As strange as it may sound, I sometimes wonder if there will be enough federal money or too much because many in need don’t always seem to receive it and bureaucracy and process seem to be hindrances.

What can we do? Let’s build on successes together, correct mistakes of the past together, and anticipate and meet the needs of ALL Rhode Islanders together. If we want prosperity for ALL, if we want opportunities for a great education for all students, good jobs for all who seek them, support for all of our small businesses, housing for those who need it, healthy outcomes for Rhode Islanders of all races, ethnicities, and ages; if we want to have HOPE, join us in our work together for a better future for ALL.

Our awardees

And while we rely on the contributions of many, we also honor three of our partners with special recognition: Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island with our Carter Inspiring Partner Award, James Sullivan with our Harold B. Soloveitzik Professional Leadership Award, and the alumni of our Expansion Arts program with our Community Leadership Award.

Thank you all again for joining us and I hope you enjoyed the program. Thank you again to our wonderful donors, our nonprofit grantees, and to all in our community. Given this livestream event, while we cannot see you, we can feel you. While we cannot hear you, you are in our hearts and minds. Never have we been more grateful and never has our work together been more important. We will continue to work collaboratively focused on long-term, systemic change while not ignoring the immediate needs outside our door. Let’s be optimistic, realistic, and hopeful to build the better future we all want and deserve while embracing our differences and wonder cultural diversity…together…all of us!

If we can think it, we can do it.

If we can do it, we can do it well.

If we can do it well, we can do it for and with everyone.

If we can do it for and with everyone, we can succeed!

YOUR community foundation will continue to be a bold and impactful leader. Please join us… call, email, write, or Zoom us with your ideas and your support. Thank you.

Watch the 2021 Annual Meeting, including videos honoring our Community Heroes and our award recipients.