Civic leadership in action
More than a decade ago we launched the Civic Leadership Fund, an annual fund at the Foundation that gives us the flexibility to react in real-time. We use the Fund to seize emerging opportunities and to test out innovative ways to solve community challenges, without tapping into our grantmaking resources.
I’ve had the privilege of leading the Foundation through some extraordinary efforts—many of which were funded thanks to the generous donors to our Civic Leadership Fund. Convenings like Together RI, where we travelled around the state in 2018 and again in 2022 to engage Rhode Islanders in conversation about Rhode Island’s strengths, opportunities, and challenges. And, leading the ‘Make it Happen’ efforts aimed at spurring on economic development as the state rebounded from the 2008 economic crisis, and again in 2021—gathering community input and pulling experts together—to offer ideas and strategies for consideration as state leaders determined how to allocate Rhode Island’s $1.1 billion share of discretionary American Rescue Plan Act dollars.
Together RI 2022
Between July and November more than 525 Rhode Islanders gathered at 12 venues for a family-style meal and conversation as part of our Together RI initiative. The discussions, moderated by Foundation team members, had participants chatting about Rhode Island’s strengths, opportunities, and challenges.
In hosting Together RI we were able to talk with folks from throughout the state—inspiring civic and civil dialogue among Rhode Islanders—to find out if the work we’re doing at the Foundation aligns with what participants are experiencing day-to-day, and what they believe to be true about the Ocean State.
For example, participants noted that they are challenged by the cost and availability of housing, struggles with inflation and the cost of living overall, access to high quality public education and education gaps, health and behavioral health concerns, and attracting and retaining young people. All issues that we are taking on via our strategic initiatives—healthy lives, economic security, and educational success—and that we tackle in our leadership efforts.
We also heard some inspiring response about the State’s greatest strengths. Here are the top five:
Our small size
A point of pride, and our greatest strength.
The people who call Rhode Island home represent diverse cultures, races, ethnicities, traditions, and values.
The talented and kind people within communities
Participants value their close networks, generous neighbors, and the willingness of people to come together to support each other.
Narragansett Bay and 400 miles of coastline
Our unique location along the coast, beautiful beaches, and our maritime history are all strengths.
Rhode Island’s 13 colleges and universities
Cited as providing high quality and diverse educational options, drawing more people to the state, and keeping young Rhode Islanders in-state.
Civic leadership is about listening and learning, and initiatives like Together RI give us the opportunity to do both. When it comes to Rhode Islanders' opinions and experiences, we’re all ears – we’re also more than willing to share what we learn with elected and appointed leaders, so that their decision-making is well informed.
Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future
In 2021, after passage of the Federal American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), we launched Make It Happen: Investing for Rhode Island’s Future. The six-month long project was completed in partnership with the Economic Progress Institute, the Rhode Island Public Expenditure Council, and the Foundation’s Make It Happen Steering Committee. By combining rigorous policy analysis, public, and stakeholder input we developed a set of spending recommendations for state leaders to consider as they decided how to allocate the $1.1 billion in Coronavirus State and Local Fiscal Recovery Funds that Rhode Island received from ARPA.
Many of our recommendations were incorporated into the State’s spending plans, and we continue to monitor progress. The Governor and the General Assembly also turned to the Foundation to assist directly with allocation of $20 million in APRA funds. With the funding we established the Rhode Island APRA Support Grants program to assist Rhode Island-based nonprofits negatively impacted by COVID-19 that deliver services to address food insecurity, housing issues and homelessness, and behavioral health needs.
We launched the program in October 2022, and within six months provided grants ranging in size from $2,500 to $150,000, to over 240 nonprofit organizations. Every dollar of the $20 million allocated to the Foundation went to providing relief to community organizations that stepped up during one of the most challenging times in our State’s history.
The success of the Rhode Island ARPA Support Grants program is a full circle moment for the Foundation’s civic leadership efforts. Thanks to the generous support of our Civic Leadership Fund donors, we were able to lead the Make It Happen effort. That work inspired state leaders to invest in many of the priorities identified, and to leverage our community knowledge and grantmaking expertise to directly support community organizations that stepped up during the pandemic.
Civic leadership is a linchpin of our strategy because we know that philanthropy alone cannot move the needle on the most pressing challenges facing our state. However, as a neutral arbiter and nonpartisan convener, community foundations can provide both the qualitative and quantitative data needed to influence policy and systems change—and that is how we move the needle.
We thank those who supported our civic leadership efforts in 2022. This work creates a stronger, more vibrant community, encourages collaboration to solve important issues, seizes emerging opportunities, and funds valuable research.