Updated March 22 at 9:20pm

No longer concerned about offending, Rhode Island Foundation has become a community leader

By Patricia Daddona | Contributing Writer
On a fall Saturday four years ago, 330 people mingled and brainstormed at the R.I. Convention Center, floating ideas to boost a sluggish Rhode Island economy – envisioning paths to growth that would "make it happen" here. The "Make It …

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No longer concerned about offending, Rhode Island Foundation has become a community leader

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On a fall Saturday four years ago, 330 people mingled and brainstormed at the R.I. Convention Center, floating ideas to boost a sluggish Rhode Island economy – envisioning paths to growth that would "make it happen" here.

The "Make It Happen Rhode Island" initiative, conceived of and launched by the Rhode Island Foundation on Sept. 7-8 in 2012, eventually spurred activity across economic sectors, ranging from the College & University Research Collaborative to Buy Local RI. The foundation committed more than $1 million to fund a host of projects that developed from the initiative.

The forum also called attention to issues that state leaders would come to champion, such as a lean-government initiative and the joint nursing school project now underway at South Street Landing in Providence.

"We were frustrated that there was not a lot of cohesive or coherent leadership at a time when clearly the economy was floundering," foundation President Neil D. Steinberg recalled about the impetus for the brainstorming session, which led to follow-up workshops a year later. "We saw a lot of panels and experts that came in [to the state], and we didn't see a lot of action. … We believe in Rhode Island. We believe there are a lot of strengths and opportunities."

The dual role of community activist and catalyst for change is a relatively new one – coinciding largely with Steinberg's eight-year tenure – that has attracted both admiration and critics for the 100-year-old foundation, which celebrates its centennial June 13.

But the broader evolution from a bank trust launched by a few public leaders with a $10,000 gift from then-U.S. Sen. Jesse Metcalf in 1916, to the dynamic, 22nd largest (by assets) community foundation in the country hardly materialized overnight. Its roots can be traced back to leaders who preceded Steinberg and embraced a vision of a first-in-the-country statewide foundation – dedicated to modeling and cultivating leadership in the Rhode Island community.

RIF had assets of approximately $810 million in 2014, the most recent year available, according to C.F. Insights, a New York City-based organization of 150 community-foundation members. David Rosado, CF Insights' member-services manager, said the foundation is considered "the authority" in providing a mix of philanthropic resources in Rhode Island.

"They just happen to be a very balanced community foundation," he said. "They've been putting more focus on community leadership, which the field is focusing on as a whole, but they do serve their donor base as a whole."

The Boston Foundation, whose assets amount to just over $1 billion, giving it a rank of 16th largest in the U.S., just celebrated its 100th anniversary last year.

Like its older peer, RIF strives to be "proactive," observed Boston Foundation President and CEO Paul S. Grogan: "to take initiative, not just wait for a donor to come along and do something, but to be out there with their own ideas. Neil has seen an opportunity for the foundation to be a leader, as well as a grant maker, and use the convening power to help the community define and act on the challenges and opportunities they have."

Steinberg, Grogan and other community-foundation leaders in the U.S. have in the past decade developed the idea that "these foundations, along with everything else they do, should be civic leaders," Grogan said. "These are permanent institutions devoted to the well-being of a place and there's an opportunity for community foundations to go beyond the traditional activities of shepherding donor funds and grant-making."

HISTORY

RIF was managed by a single bank trustee until the mid-1980s, when other banks were invited to become trustees. By the time the foundation moved to 1 Union Station in 1999, investment managers were being selected competitively. Nonetheless, the foundation's role as a community leader and voice for change began taking shape in the late 1970s, says former Executive Director Doug Jansson.

Jansson, now retired, and living in Lenexa, Kan., came to the foundation from the Chicago Community Trust as executive director in 1979, and stayed until 1992. He likes to tell the story of an influx of Southeast Asian refugees struggling in the local schools following the Vietnam War.

The foundation hired a consultant to work with refugee leaders in Rhode Island to solve the communication and cultural problems, he recalled. One result, coordinated with lawmakers, involved changing a state law to allow certified teachers who had taught in Southeast Asia to serve as teachers' aides.

"That kind of leadership is something I saw all the time in Chicago, and frankly, the better community foundations throughout the country do this kind of work, so rocket science it was not," Jansson said.

Besides positioning the foundation to be an active leader in the community and not just a "passive" grant-maker, Jansson worked to publicize an organization he considered "a really well-kept secret.

"I went around to rotaries and nonprofits, trying to have it perceived as a resource for nonprofits throughout the state," he said.

Dr. Pablo Rodriguez, who served on the board of directors from 1994 to 2005 and as chairman the last two years, said then-President and CEO Ron Gallo was "instrumental" in expanding the focus and scope of the foundation.

"The foundation used to give out many small grants throughout the state and, in essence, was not really impacting some of the problems that affected the state," recalled Rodriguez, who is CEO of Women's Care and of WRNI 1290 AM, Latino Public Radio. "Over my tenure, we became more focused in health, education, economic development and economic security."

Gallo took a small step, moving from grant-making once a year to doing it on multiple dates, Rodriguez said – a change Steinberg would later extend to "rolling" grant applications accepted continuously.

KIDS COUNT, a nonprofit that addresses education issues, got its start under the foundation's roof, Rodriguez said. The Women's Fund took a similar path during his tenure, he added, becoming an independent nonprofit over time.

Likewise, in 2000, the foundation invested a $1 million grant to expand services for the Travelers Aid, an organization that helped the homeless and eventually became what is today Crossroads Rhode Island. The foundation also provided Downcity Partnership with a $9 million revolving loan fund for redevelopment, said foundation spokesman Chris Barnett.

Gallo left unexpectedly in early 2008, said George Graboys, of Providence, who served on RIF's board from 1999 to 2008, including the last year as both chairman and acting president. He conducted the national search that would lead the foundation in 2008 to Steinberg.

CHANGE OF PURPOSE

Besides cultivating professionalism in the solicitation of donors and awarding of grants to nonprofits during Gallo's tenure, the foundation sought to heighten its visibility as Steinberg came onboard, Graboys said.

Under Gallo, some of the work of the foundation included investing in a marketing campaign to promote a $50 million housing bond to voters in 2006, a bond that would leverage $450 million worth of affordable housing in urban areas, Graboys said.

By 2008, the foundation had also started the Initiative for Nonprofit Excellence, which helps train nonprofit executives to be leaders, he said.

"When we began to look at philanthropy in the state, there was emerging so many small, well-meaning but underfinanced philanthropies trying to serve various narrow community needs," Graboys said. "There became a lot of redundancy, which could be changed for the better [with] education."

Steinberg joined RIF in May 2008 from Brown University, his alma mater, where he served as vice president of development. For the three decades prior to that, he worked for FleetBoston Financial, where he rose to the position of chairman and CEO of Fleet Bank Rhode Island.

"Neil was known in the community, he had managerial skills and he had worked at a nonprofit, Brown University," said Graboys. "He was diversified in his background and had a record of success. He made professional presentations, and was articulate, all of the things you want in a leader, and he had prepared his own first-100-day plan."

In 2008, "There was beginning to develop a void or vacuum in community leadership [in the state]," he said. "After Neil came onboard, it became even more acute, and there was a need for a respected entity to fill that void and spur the state out of its economic doldrums and its lack of self-esteem. There needed to be an injection of vitality and the foundation played that role."

While civic leadership had long been tied to the foundation's mission, it really took off around the time that the Civic Leadership Fund formed in 2012, said Steinberg.

Through the fund, donors provide hundreds of thousands of dollars a year to underwrite projects that involve commissioning research, supporting programs and bringing nationally recognized speakers to Rhode Island, Barnett said.

COMMUNITY IMPACT

Some of the foundation's impact on the community can be traced to nonprofits that benefited from grants, donors that benefited from the foundation's guidance and individual grant recipients.

In 1992, the College Crusade, a nonprofit founded in 1989 that provides college-readiness and scholarship programming for middle and high school students from poor urban districts, got its first $35,000 grant from the foundation that was used to help shape the nonprofit's mentoring model, said Bob Oberg, vice president for development and communications.

In 2015-16, the College Crusade relied on a $125,000 grant to buttress an annual operating budget of $6 million, Oberg said.

"We're a mature organization now and this grant was for operating, which shows they have confidence in all the aspects of the operation, our leadership, our programs, our impact, our strategic vision," he said.

At Providence-based Save The Bay, the guidance the nonprofit receives from the foundation about environmental proposals is critical, said Topher Hamblett, director of advocacy, and Jonathan Stone, executive director.

"They're much more than a funder to me," said Hamblett. "They've always been good about providing guidance about the work we do" in a community context.

The foundation's capacity to vet organizations and grant applicants is one of its primary functions, said Steinberg and Jessica David, senior vice president of strategy and community investments. Two-thirds of the grants are directed by donors, and about one-third are discretionary and directed by foundation staff, they said. Forty-three people staff the organization.

The foundation takes seriously its "fiduciary responsibility" to steward a donor's gift in perpetuity, Steinberg said, noting that a recurring challenge is the degree to which philanthropy in Rhode Island is "undercapitalized."

"We need to and want to build philanthropic capital in this state," he noted. "Per capita giving is low on the charts. The needs are high. So that's one of our goals, I think, both short-term and long-term: to continue to build philanthropic capital for all entities that need it in Rhode Island."

John and Letitia Carter, the philanthropists who launched the $300,000 Innovation Fellowships in 2011, helped inspire Make It Happen, when they sensed the need to support risky, big ideas that could help jump-start the Rhode Island economy. The Carters, who declined to be interviewed for this story, proposed the concepts and the foundation helped implement the program.

"The Innovation Fellowships impressed upon us the value of crowd-sourcing solutions to community challenges," David said. "When you ask people for ideas, they will respond with creativity and enthusiasm."

Soren Ryherd, of Providence, one of the fellowship recipients in 2012, launched the Retail Project RI LLC, using a "clicks to bricks" model, and today has four online businesses up and running, with the goal of converting them to brick and mortar stores here and across the country.

"The Carters in particular have been very fearless and adamant about allowing people to take risks," said Ryherd, when asked how that gift has changed him.

"The Rhode Island Foundation is the best cheerleader Rhode Island has," he continued, "not only because they're there to provide moral support and encouragement, but because they have vision behind it. They've changed from the traditional community foundation to where they are today, being a visionary leader and not just a funding source. They're also identifying problems we need to solve and how we can work together to solve them."

Donors like Al and Linda Potter of Narragansett, who set up the Potter Family Fund, and Gib Conover of Providence, who with his wife, Diane Rallis, set up the Rallis Conover Fund, have found the foundation invaluable in guiding them toward organizations that deserve grants, they said.

The Potter Family Fund has awarded $22,250 in grants over the years. From an initial gift of $10,000 in 2004, the fund has grown to more than $102,000 today, Al Potter said.

"[RIF] does a good job in providing resources to donors and guidance on various nonprofit organizations that do good work in the state," Potter added. "We like that it's community-based."

But not everyone is happy with the foundation's activist role in the community.

The Rhode Island Center for Freedom and Prosperity and a self-described citizen activist, Mark Zaccaria, both say the civic and public-policy approach the foundation is pursuing is not proper, in that the foundation at times has accepted public funds, and has a relationship with Gov. Gina M. Raimondo they consider to be too cozy.

Zaccaria believes the foundation has lost sight of its original identity as a charitable grant-maker.

"Any nonprofit involved in public policy should never accept public funds," added the center's CEO, Mike Stenhouse, noting that his organization is not required to report funding sources but has never accepted public funds. "It is disturbing that Rhode Island Foundation has received more than $600,000 in state taxpayer funding in recent years. This sets up an irreconcilable conflict of interest. [The foundation] can no longer claim that they are an impartial purveyor of public policy because they have an interest in doing whatever it takes to continue receiving public funds."

Steinberg says the criticism is unfair.

"It's human nature for people who do not get grants to be disappointed, but that [taxpayer] funding was a just pass-through to an innovative local health care nonprofit. We hope that our work speaks for itself," he said. "The proof is in the hundreds of donors and nonprofits who partner with us every day to improve life for every Rhode Islander. Transparency is crucial. That's why it's so ironic when organizations that do not disclose where they get their funding, are critical."

‘HONEST BROKERS'

As for the foundation's civic-leadership role, Steinberg called it "just another tool in our toolbox. In the past five years alone, we have awarded more than $165 million in grants to more than 1,600 organizations working in sectors ranging from education and health care to the arts and the economy. The breadth of our partnerships is a tribute to all the nonprofits, policymakers and everyday Rhode Islanders who are working constructively to address the state's most pressing needs."

Foundation Chairwoman Marie Langlois called RIF's civic outreach a "departure" from focusing on grant-making and charity to engaging civically – a move she says was endorsed in the organization's strategic plan.

"What we really wanted to do was help create opportunities for people," she said.

Raimondo says her lean-government initiative, which uses lean business-management principles to improve efficiency and reduce costs, would not have been possible without the foundation's support.

Raimondo noted in an email that the foundation is also a partner in the effort "to bring Rhode Island cities back to life. Rhode Island is only strong if all of its municipalities are strong. Making these cities vibrant again will allow them to thrive in this new economy. I appreciate the foundation's continued support."

To celebrate its centennial, the foundation has also partnered with the Champlin Foundations and other donors to help restore and invigorate Roger Williams Park, and is giving out $500,000 in grants to every city and town in the state. The foundation is also posting on its website 100 stories about its history, which it will condense into a book and distribute this spring. It will hold its annual meeting on its anniversary on June 13. Other celebrations are also being planned.

Keith Lang, executive director of the Cranston-based Champlin Foundations, said the $10 million park project has brought the two organizations closer together. His foundation only handles capital projects.

"What we've been looking for and they've provided in this instance is an overarching vision and strategic plan," said Lang.

He predicted the effort will have a long-lasting impact.

RIF's focus will evolve as "issues of the day" change, Steinberg said, but the mission of community stewardship, as well as donor and grant-based funding management, is embedded in the foundation's very core.

"We've figured out we can be honest brokers," Steinberg said. "We could take leadership positions by being fair and looking at both sides of things. Do we think we need to improve education? Yes. Do more in primary health care? Yes. More in job training? Yes.

"Those by definition are not neutral because we're saying what we think – and that has added to our growth. That actually has attracted more donors," he said.

"The concern before was that you'd offend too many people if you weren't neutral, and people don't buy that anymore," he said. "People respect the leadership, they respect the impact." •

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