Outgoing R.I. Foundation leader: State’s economic prospects grim without better education, health, housing

NEIL D. STEINBERG, Rhode Island Foundation CEO and president , told attendees at the foundation's 2022 annual meeting that the state was "at risk" of not having the workforce it needs to properly operate in 10 years if societal issues aren't immediately addressed. / COURTESY RHODE ISLAND FOUNDATION

PROVIDENCE – For 15 years, Neil D. Steinberg has helmed Rhode Island’s largest funder of nonprofits.

The 69-year-old former banker also has been at the “epicenter of activity” as waves of monumental change have swept through the Ocean State.

So if anyone can offer a clear-eyed assessment of where Rhode Island has been, and where it needs to go, it is the public-minded Steinberg. 

In his farewell address at the Rhode Island Foundation Annual Meeting on Wednesday, Steinberg, who is stepping down as head of the agency on June 1, celebrated many of the victories accomplished during his tenure. 

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Among those achievements: the dispersal of $4 million in college scholarships; an $8.5 million investment to advance diversity, equity and inclusion; an Equity Leadership Initiative; and promoting the Life Sciences sector in the state. 

But Steinberg also delivered a stern warning on the state’s economics prospects if key issues are not adequately and immediately addressed.

“If we do not improve our education outcomes, if we do not address housing needs, if we do not tackle the unprecedented mental health and substance abuse challenges, and if we continue to leave populations behind, we are at great risk of not having an adequate workforce in the future,” Steinberg said to about 900 attendees at the Rhode Island Convention Center in Providence.

Under Steinberg, the Rhode Island Foundation significantly increased its financial portfolio and its giving. In 2022, it managed $1.3 billion in assets, raised $75 million, and distributed $84 million to 2,400 nonprofits. 

The problems faced by the state require more than the money that can be dispersed by the foundation.

“The challenges in front of us are many times brutally simple to identify and very difficult to solve,” Steinberg said. “We need to break them down, work together, think big and act boldly focused on solutions.”

Steinberg urged immediate action on improving public health and increasing housing. He cited epidemic levels of substance abuse, rampant behavoiral health problems, and the lowest production of new housing units in several years. 

“Overall persistent inequalities and disparities in health care continue,” he said. “No one should be agonizing whether to pay the rent or pay for food or pay for medicine.”

In his farewell speech, Steinberg asked for the two new hospital CEOs at Lifespan and Care New England to address the shortage of primary care and pediatric care doctors and redouble efforts on the behavioral health emergency within the state. 

He railed against the bureaucracy that slows progress, describing it as “an impediment not by all, but by too many.”

“We need the can-do spirit to grow and work and we want partners not opponents!,” he said. “We desperately need to hear: ‘we can do it, we can get it, and yes, that is possible.’”

Steinberg said 67% of the students who take the RICAs test are below grade level in reading proficiency. He urged state leaders to “focus and pull out the stops” to have every student reading at or above grade level in three years. “That is your future workforce.”

Despite the stern warning, Steinberg concluded with an optimistic note. 

“We can be empathetic and understanding while maintaining high expectations. And then you will be surprised and impressed what we can all do to make it happen,” he said.

“What is our state’s Motto? HOPE.

“The Rhode Island Foundation, with and for the people of Rhode Island, will continue to keep hope alive,” he said.

Steinberg became the Rhode Island Foundation’s CEO and president in 2008. He had been vice president of development at his alma mater, Brown University. Previously, he worked for nearly 30 years for the bank that eventually became Brown, ending his tenure as chairman and CEO of Fleet Bank Rhode Island.

U.S. Rep. David N. Cicilline, D-R.I., is giving up his seat in congress to become the foundation’s new leader.

The Rhode Island Foundation was launched in 1916 with an initial contribution of $10,000 made anonymously by Jesse Metcalf. It is now one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the nation.

Sam Wood is a PBN staff writer. Contact him at Wood@PBN.com

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