United Way of R.I. launches 5-year, $100M investment plan to create transformative change in state

PROVIDENCE – Improving racial equality in Rhode Island, creating more affordable housing across the state, increasing reading proficiency in local children and out-of-school time learning access for low-income communities, and creating a nonprofit association are some of the initiatives the United Way of Rhode Island is planning to significantly invest in over the next five years.

The nonprofit announced Friday its commitment to invest $100 million over the next half decade to create opportunities for all Rhode Islanders of all ages and create transformative change. These details are outlined in United Way’s LIVE UNITED 2025 comprehensive strategic plan, also launched Friday.

United Way CEO Cortney Nicolato told Providence Business News Jan. 12 efforts to put this plan together, and finding out what the communities’ needs were, began two years ago in order to bring the community together to plan with the organization. United Way hosted 45 Community First conversations Nicolato said, for people to gather and discuss what changes they wanted to see in the Ocean State.

“In those 45 [sessions], we learned a lot and heard a lot,” Nicolato said. “We heard in these conversations this distinctive need to go deeper in building racial equity and opportunities for all Rhode Islands. We need to help Rhode Islanders meet the basic needs and also needed to put our resources deeper into solving these critical problems that are facing our community.”

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Among the major goals United Way seeks to meet within five years is doubling the number of cities and towns that are meeting the 10% affordable-housing threshold, focusing specifically on core cities. Nicolato said only six of Rhode Island’s 39 municipalities meet the 10% affordable-housing benchmark, noting the state has “a lot of ways to go” to improve the housing situation in Rhode Island.

“We undoubtably have a housing crisis here,” Nicolato said. “We have to acknowledge that housing is a foundation to overall abilities to stay safe and stable, and thrive. We know that our municipal leaders need more tools to understand the value that affordable housing can bring.”

Nicolato also said educating the community, including to those who view affordable housing with a “not in my backyard” view, more on the benefits of having affordable housing is needed. United Way will put subject-matter experts on the ground in communities, Nicolato said, to help people think about their zoning regulations and tax incentives. United Way also hopes to triple the number of trained advocates, and also provide free training, in the community, she said.

Regarding racial equity, United Way’s plan calls for reducing by 25% the number of people of color who are either underemployed or out of work within five years. To address it, United Way plans in the first year to advocate for investments in job training, workforce development, housing and basic-needs organizations that are addressing inequities.

“There is a lot of opportunity to building access to programs to provide better, stronger, more reachable job-training programs in the state of Rhode Island,” Nicolato said. While she noted Westerly Education Center and the Woonsocket Education Center have provided these services to the community, Nicolato said “more can be done.”

The organization also plans to campaign to raise the state’s minimum and livable wages. Nicolato said many Rhode Islanders are “working poor” and cites data stating that around $20 per hour is considered a livable wage. She plans to work with different companies and their executives to help push their organizations to implement livable wages.

With education, United Way plans to double fourth-grade proficiency in the state’s Black and Latino children, as well as increase by 50% access to out-of-school time learning for low-income communities. In the first year, United Way plans to explore public and private partnerships, and funding, to increase these literacy levels for children in the state.

“Our literacy numbers, quite frankly, are abysmal for all kids in our state,” Nicolato said. “We have to do a better job to get our kids better equipped to walk in the door for the very first time in that classroom for a love for reading, with having access to culturally appropriate books so they can aspire to do great things.”

Nicolato also said United Way will expand its book drive program. It will also launch a new initiative called “Barbershop Books” where the organization is working with African-American barbers in Providence to create book nooks for children and the barbers will be trained in reading comprehension.

Additionally, there are about 125 corporations and nonprofits who have agreed to help out with this five-year plan, Nicolato said. Brown University, according to United Way, has committed $600,000 over four years to back this initiative. Other organizations, such as Blue Cross & Blue Shield of Rhode Island, CVS Health Corp., the Rhode Island AFL-CIO, the R.I. Department of Education and state leadership, have also agreed to work with United Way on the plan.

“They have signed on and said ‘I’m in and I’m here to do this work,’ ” Nicolato said.

Another goal the United Way hopes to achieve in the first year of the plan is to create a nonprofit center or association to “strengthen professional development and infrastructure capabilities in the sector,” the plan reads. PBN spotlighted in a July 31 story where some local nonprofits felt the sector might benefit when it comes to training and funding by the creation of a singular organized voice or advocacy group.

Multiple other states, including Massachusetts – home to the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network – have similar such associations. Rhode Island, however, does not.

Nicolato previously told PBN that she believes a collective voice for nonprofits on particular issues – such as having them included in discussions about small-business funding – is a “critical avenue” to make politicians, policymakers and the public aware of their financial struggles.

Nicolato said United Way is currently constructing a business model for the nonprofit association/center, making sure it understands what the nonprofits across the state “really want out of the gate.” The center will be most beneficial to the small to mid-size nonprofits, Nicolato said, and more details on the business model will be forthcoming in a few months.

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