To aid nonprofits, new United Way of R.I. resource center needs help

STARTING IT OFF: Nancy Wolanski has been appointed the first executive director of the newly formed nonprofit resource center that is getting support from United Way of Rhode Island Inc.
STARTING IT OFF: Nancy Wolanski has been appointed the first executive director of the newly formed nonprofit resource center that is getting support from United Way of Rhode Island Inc.

Establishing a village to support Rhode Island’s nonprofit ­industry is going to take, well, a village.

That’s why the United Way of Rhode Island Inc. will continue to call upon leaders across industries statewide to help fulfill the mission of a new nonprofit resource center the United Way unveiled in July. The center is intended to become an all-encompassing resource and advocacy hub for local nonprofits, and it’s hoped that the public and private sectors will help with financial assistance and the way to making the center self-sustainable.

“Our goals for the center are focused on sector impact, and we will be building the financial support needed to deliver the impact,” said Nancy Wolanski, who was named the center’s executive director in July. “In order to build the long-term resiliency of [the center], it is critical that we mobilize the private and public investments that are necessary. So, we want to work with businesses on a variety of levels.”

United Way CEO and President ­Cortney Nicolato saw the positive impact a nonprofit resource center can have on the community during more than a decade of nonprofit leadership positions outside the state before returning to Rhode Island in 2018.

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The idea to bring such a space to the Ocean State percolated inside the ­United Way and across the nonprofit sector. The COVID-19 pandemic, Nicolato said, ­elevated the need and motivated many to make it a reality.

“It just exacerbated some of the critical issues we are facing. It also created a space where we want to make sure that our nonprofits are set up for success over the long term,” she said.

United Way’s five-year, $100 ­million Live United 2025 plan, released in January 2021, includes the center in its goals. A year later, the organization put out its first call to nonprofit leaders to ­participate in the center’s design process.

A soft launch for the center is ­scheduled this fall and work has been underway to design programming and structure that will evolve as necessary to support the sector at large.

“In terms of financial stability, one of the biggest challenges for the center, as well as the nonprofit industry as a whole, is that [there] are currently limited philanthropic resources within Rhode Island,” Wolanski said, noting that long-term operational funding is much harder to secure than, for instance, grant funding for an innovative pilot program.

United Way received a $118,000 grant from R.I. Commerce Corp. for the center design process. In March 2022, the private foundation Papitto Opportunity Connection committed to a $1 million investment in the center over four years.

The center will be building an ­endowment, Wolanski said, adding that there is no financial benchmark attached to that endowment or to what United Way could estimate it would take to make the center self-sustainable. Such self-sustainability, she said, will come more from providing programming and resources based on the sector’s evolving needs and stable funding support.

“We are looking to provide targeted resources,” Wolanski said. “We do not want the center to take away support that would otherwise go to local nonprofits, so we are not only looking for support within the state but also looking to support from regional funders.”

Wolanski also said there will be fee-for-service programming and memberships, which will be priced on a sliding scale and could be available this November. While the center will seek financial support from the business community, it will also solicit leaders to provide access to no-cost e-commerce management and legal ­services, among other services.

The center’s business model was designed after researching the operating models of 42 similar centers nationwide.

“The design team met with more than 500 leaders to [learn] what we need out of the gate, what [we] can wait on,” Nicolato said. “That really drove us to understand what the center should look like and how it can best support Rhode Island.”

Wolanski identified the center’s goals as supporting nonprofit industry workers, strengthening nonprofit organizations and improving the ecosystem in which nonprofits operate. The center was ­designed to be incubated within United Way in part to develop a “diversified, resilient financial base,” Wolanski said.

“Our goal is to increase charitable ­giving across the state … to benefit all of the state’s nonprofits, especially those led by people of color that have been ­historically underfunded,” she said.

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