Five Questions With: Roshni Darnal

Roshni Darnal is the director of community investments for United Way of Rhode Island Inc., where she manages the organization’s strategic direction to address the needs of Rhode Islanders through its grantmaking processes. She joined United Way in 2019 and holds an MBA from Johnson & Wales University. Darnal spoke with Providence Business News about those grantmaking changes and what it means for the nonprofit community moving forward.

PBN: What prompted United Way to make changes to its grant program?

DARNAL: With the release of LIVE UNITED 2025 a little more than two years ago, we sharpened our focus on building racial equity and creating opportunities for all Rhode Islanders, and as such, felt it was time to revamp our funding model to better support the pillars of our strategic plan and its goals.

Changing our grantmaking process began with listening to our state’s nonprofits. We conducted focus groups, engaging in important dialogue to better understand organizations’ funding needs and opportunities to improve our grant application process. The feedback drove our entire process redesign and we emerged with a forward-thinking commitment to trust-based philanthropy.

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Our nonprofits are the experts in their mission-driven work, and if they’re to make their biggest impact, they need maximum flexibility. We heard this time and time again. And so, all our Community Impact Fund grants are for general operating funds and for a three-year period, rather than two.

PBN: For the grantmaking initiatives, United Way implemented a nontraditional reporting system. Can you kindly explain what that is and what it means for grant distribution?

DARNAL: Many traditional grant-reporting processes are cumbersome, time-consuming and reinforce power imbalances between grant recipients and grantmakers. We view our grantees as partners in this work, with United Way catalyzing support and investing in their innovative and impactful work in the community.

As United Way is singularly focused on racial equity, we are on a journey ourselves and want to learn and collaborate with our partners to make systemic changes for a more equitable Rhode Island. So, in place of periodic written reports, we have implemented mid-year conversations, engaging partners at their agencies to learn more about their work and the difference they’re having in the community.

We also offer lots of support beyond the funding, including technical assistance, connections to resources, and more. This is all about empowering our partners to tell the story of their impact and what they are learning from their work to inform progress going forward.

PBN: What concerns regarding organizations led by Black, Indigenous and people of color not receiving grant funding prompted United Way to alter its grantmaking process?

DARNAL: Along with actively listening to our community’s needs, data informs and drives nearly every aspect of our work at United Way to make Rhode Island the best it can be. And the data around the disparate resources received by BIPOC-led organizations compared with those that are non-BIPOC-led is irrefutable and demands attention.

There is also a significant difference among these organizations in their median size and assets. For example, among our grantee organizations, on average, the BIPOC-led nonprofits have about half the budget of non-BIPOC-led organizations and one-third of the staff.

BIPOC-led organizations are well positioned to serve our BIPOC communities and address racial equity, but historically have been underfunded. Leveling the playing field and aligning our grantmaking process with our strategic plan were every bit the rationale behind our change in approach.

PBN: Will this initiative be solely supporting organizations led by people of color or all nonprofits across Rhode Island?

DARNAL: Our grantmaking is statewide and open to all nonprofits who wish to apply for funding. Whether an organization is BIPOC-led was one of the criteria we considered alongside their alignment with our strategic plan, their work on racial equity and their readiness for impact.

To achieve the ambitious goals of our LIVE UNITED 2025 plan, we have centered the needs of our BIPOC-led nonprofits and their alignment to our mission. However, to effectively move the needle on creating lasting, systemic change will take our collective efforts, and our funding decisions reflect that. Of the 45 nonprofits to recently be awarded a total of $10 million in Community Impact Fund grants, 40% are non-BIPOC-led organizations while awardees’ geographic footprints span every corner of Rhode Island.

PBN: Does United Way expect to receive more grant applications from organizations after making these changes? If so, how will United Way help meet the demand?

DARNAL: I think it’s important to note that with most every RFP [request for proposal] for grant funding, community foundations receive far more requests than dollars available to be awarded, which, especially here in Rhode Island, speaks to the level of need we have locally.

At the same time, it is understandable to expect a greater number of applications from BIPOC-led organizations as our changes were intentional and target the work they are doing. And while our Community Impact Fund is a big part of our grantmaking efforts, it is not the only one. Additional opportunities for funding will be offered for summer learning, volunteer income tax assistance, equity initiatives and family-stabilization, among others.

We consider our grantees as partners and, in addition to funding, also provide training, technical assistance, advocacy and more to help advance nonprofits’ great work and meet community needs.

James Bessette is the PBN special projects editor, and also covers the nonprofit and education sectors. You may reach him at You may also follow him on Twitter at @James_Bessette