Civic Leadership

How can you identify a leader?

A donor’s unexpected journey to civic leadership

A title or a position does not make someone a leader. True community leaders can be found in unexpected places, but they all share the qualities of courage and commitment to changing the conditions of their own lives and the lives of others. Civic leaders see themselves as threads in a larger social fabric and acknowledge that they have some personal responsibility for even the biggest social problems. Wakefield resident Paul Follett, a Rhode Island Foundation donor and active supporter of our Civic Leadership Fund, is one of these people.

The Foundation’s civic leadership work allows us to see a need—a disconnect between systems or sectors, or a leadership void—and quickly jump in to offer resources and solutions, connect dots, and use our voice to benefit the community. Supported by 172 generous donors like Paul in 2020, we work with partners in the business and nonprofit communities, as well as numerous public officials, to have a real impact on issues that are critical to the economic competitiveness and civic health of Rhode Island.

As Paul sees it, the focus on civic leadership has allowed the Foundation to identify opportunities to participate and make a difference, be it with grassroots organizations or its responsiveness to needs during the pandemic. “While the Government guarantees equal rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, it in no way assures an equal and fair shot at the achievement of it.”

(Civic leadership is) "a true interest in helping to improve the lives of all members of a community. People driven by greed, ego, and or ideology need not apply.”

- Paul Follett

Paul was born and raised in Rhode Island, first Pawtucket and then Cranston. After graduating Cranston High School (now Cranston East) in 1958 where he claims he was an undistinguished scholar, he served in the Army. After his discharge, he married his high school sweetheart. The couple had three children, all born during the four years Paul attended URI— studying electrical engineering while working as a boat carpenter.

Paul, a 4th generation URI alumnus, was reared in a family with a deeply embedded work ethic. “A many generation ‘pass down,’ one of many birthright advantages that I took for granted,” said Paul. “The concept that everyone could succeed by working hard was part of it—a concept that, with my life experience, I recognize is flawed.”

Prior to Paul’s attending the Rhode Island Foundation’s 2012 Make It Happen event, he admittedly had held a rather dim view of nonprofits in general: “privileged, precious donors and leaders more interested in planning their next social fundraising event than defining and supporting the mission.” He calls Make It Happen a “good kick in the pants”, and Paul has been engaged with the Foundation ever since. “I think it’s time to level the playing field of life.”

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