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

SELLING SUCCESS: Soren Ryherd, center, founder of The Retail Project RI, an initiative launched through the Innovation Fellowship program at the Rhode Island Foundation, looks over products with Lindsay Stickel, brand development manager, left, and Paige Snyder, project manager, at their Wayland Square office in March. / PBN FILE PHOTO/ FRANK MULLIN
SELLING SUCCESS: Soren Ryherd, center, founder of The Retail Project RI, an initiative launched through the Innovation Fellowship program at the Rhode Island Foundation, looks over products with Lindsay Stickel, brand development manager, left, and Paige Snyder, project manager, at their Wayland Square office in March. / PBN FILE PHOTO/ FRANK MULLIN

Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of a story that originally ran in the April 22 issue.

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.

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“We believe in Rhode Island. We believe there are a lot of strengths and opportunities,” foundation CEO and President Neil D. Steinberg said this spring.

The role of community activist and catalyst for change is a relatively new one, coinciding largely with Steinberg’s eight-year tenure.

But the broader evolution from a bank trust launched by a few public leaders with a $10,000 gift from future U.S. Sen. Jesse H. 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’ve been putting more focus on community leadership,” he said.


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, who is now retired and living in Lenexa, Kan.

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, said then-CEO and President Ron Gallo was “instrumental” in expanding the focus 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.

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, becoming an independent nonprofit over time.

Gallo left in early 2008, said George Graboys, 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 led the foundation in 2008 to Steinberg, a former banking executive who joined RIF in May 2008 from Brown University, where he served as vice president of development.

“[Steinberg] was diversified in his background and had a record of success,” Graboys said. “He made professional presentations, and was articulate, all of the things you want in a leader. He had prepared his own first-100-day plan.”


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.

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.

“They’re much more than a funder to me,” said Hamblett. “They’ve always been good about providing guidance about the work we do.”

Two-thirds of the foundation’s grants are directed by donors, and about one-third are discretionary and directed by foundation staff.

The foundation, which is currently staffed by 43 people, takes seriously its “fiduciary responsibility” to steward a donor’s gift in perpetuity, Steinberg said, noting that a recurring challenge is that philanthropy in Rhode Island is “undercapitalized.”

Prominent donors include John and Letitia Carter, the philanthropists who launched the $300,000 Innovation Fellowships in 2011 and helped lead the Make It Happen intiative, and Al and Linda Potter of Narragansett, who set up the Potter Family Fund.

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.


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.”

Gov. Gina M. Raimondo has praised the foundation for its help with her Lean Government Initiative, which uses lean business-management principles to improve efficiency and reduce costs. And to celebrate its centennial this year, the foundation partnered with the Champlin Foundations and other donors to help restore Roger Williams Park.

RIF’s future 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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