More focus on racial justice causes

COLLABORATIVE MEETING: Staff and members at Direct Action for Rights and Equality collaborate at the office. Clockwise from left, Jordan Jace, Behind The Walls member; Debra Harris, outreach coordinator; Christopher V. Samih-­Rotondo, interim director; and Anusha Alles, staff organizer for Behind The Walls. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO
COLLABORATIVE MEETING: Staff and members at Direct Action for Rights and Equality collaborate at the office. Clockwise from left, Jordan Jace, Behind The Walls member; Debra Harris, outreach coordinator; Christopher V. Samih-­Rotondo, interim director; and Anusha Alles, staff organizer for Behind The Walls. / PBN PHOTO/MICHAEL SALERNO

It’s been a trying year-plus for Rhode Island-based nonprofits whose missions center around diversity, equity and racial inclusion.

The murders of George Floyd and other African Americans sparked the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer of 2020. Additionally, the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color.

Most entities in the state pushing for racial and social equality are reporting donations of all sorts from individuals to foundations, corporations and ­government.

One significant gift was a $10 million donation received by the United Way of Rhode Island from MacKenzie Scott, former wife of Amazon.com Inc. founder Jeff Bezos, at the very end of 2020 as part of a series of gifts she has made to organizations around the country.

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Brooke Havens, United Way’s chief resource and engagement officer, said the organization will disburse the money over three years. “It’s a lot of money, but it’s also a drop in the bucket,” in terms of need, she said. She said it fits into a new strategy for the venerable organization.

Havens said United Way is focused on putting money into Black and Indigenous communities by supporting organizations that are either led by or are serving people of color. Along with Scott’s donation, Havens said United Way has raised about $12 million from other sources over the last two fiscal years.

‘Donors are excited we are making this commitment.’
BROOKE HAVENS, United Way of Rhode Island chief resource and engagement officer

It’s part of a “Live United 2025” five-year strategic plan, with funds awarded to 72 organizations that target the root causes of racial inequity in the state. Havens said Brown University, Textron Inc. and several individual philanthropists also donated to the cause.

“Donors have been incredibly responsive,” Havens said. “Only a handful of donors have pushed back. For the most part, donors are excited we are making this commitment in an intentional way.”

Rhode Island Foundation CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg said his organization is also making a strong commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion in the state, including an $8.5 million, three-year commitment that comes on top of the foundation’s traditional yearly grants.

Steinberg said the effort is particularly important as the pandemic has disproportionately impacted communities of color. One of the foundation’s goals, he said, is to develop more minority leadership through its Equity Leadership Initiative.

Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island Executive Director Kathleen Cloutier said the organization’s funding in the last fiscal year increased from about $7 million to about $8 million. The money, she said, came from multiple sources – individual donors, foundations, ­governmental agencies and even fee-for-service activities such as translations.

But Cloutier said the pandemic led to more expenses, including protective equipment, deep cleaning and new technology for virtual learning.

“We don’t think of ourselves specifically as a BLM [Black Lives Matter] organization, but in reality we are in solidarity with them because of who our clients are. We serve a relatively large population of Black Africans, for example,” she said.

Christopher V. Samih-Rotondo, interim director of Direct Action for Rights and Equality, said the organization saw a 130% increase in donations from the 2020 fiscal year to the 2021 fiscal year.

Sheila Wilhelm, DARE co-founder and board member, said allies and supporters stepped up, particularly during the pandemic. They helped DARE supply rental assistance and food.

“We received a lot of support. Some sustainers supported us for the first time, and I hope they will continue to be supportive for years to come,” she said.

Some organizations had difficulties fundraising. The NAACP Providence Branch traditionally derived the bulk of its fundraising through two large public events, a breakfast in the spring and a dinner in the fall. But the pandemic forced the organization to cancel in-person events, and obtain funding from individual memberships, donations and corporate grants.

“We’ve been able to maintain,” said NAACP President Jim Vincent. “We’re not doing significantly better or significantly worse.”

Rhode Island for Community and Justice reported a decrease in funding between 2020 and 2021. Executive Director Toby Ayers said that although the organization ended both years with a surplus, the 2021 number was only half of what had been projected.

Ayers said donor attention appeared to shift from RICJ’s racial justice mission to the pandemic in 2021. He said the 2020 surplus allowed the organization to expand youth staffing positions and programs. The current challenge, he said, is to continue to supply those programs despite more-limited funds.

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