(Editor’s note: This is a condensed version of a story that was originally published in the June 15 print edition. The United Way in June appointed Cortney Nicolato to succeed Maione as president and CEO.)
For 15 years at the United Way of Rhode Island, Anthony Maione has sought to better the lives of Rhode Islanders and improve their communities.
As CEO since 2005, he has distinguished the local branch of the national social-services nonprofit group via its 2-1-1 call and walk-in volume and the recent launch of MyFund, to name a few accomplishments.
“In the United Way system, there are apples and oranges, and we’re a walnut,” he said laughing, noting how UWRI seeks to meet people’s needs using a broader set of community-engagement tools than other branches.
Much of his work, he said, has not been choosing the best programming from a list of mediocre options but deciding between “good, better and best.”
But philanthropy, added Maione, who will retire Dec. 31, “is changing. You have things now that you didn’t have before and a lot of that has to do with technology and social media.
“The one thing you learn doing fundraising as long as I’ve been doing it,” he said, “is that it’s the donor’s money [and] you have to pay attention to what they want.”
What were your goals when you were hired by UWRI? United Ways all over the country at that time were moving to … try to be more relevant, produce better results from grants and be more public with those results.
When I came in, I read my mission as two things: relevancy and emotion. United Way in the workplace is a transactional thing. We would show up once a year and ask people to make gifts. They would do that and then they wouldn’t see us again for a year. We really needed to put [ourselves] out there more and there were two things we did out of the gate [when I came onboard].
First, we moved … to Olneyville – a community we wanted to be in and in which we thought we could be helpful.
The second thing made an even bigger difference – we opened 2-1-1. Now, 2-1-1 takes close to 200,000 telephone calls each year. It is the most per capita of any 2-1-1 in the country, a significant force in the lives of people and hits both [relevancy and emotion]. … We see 2,000 walk-in visitors per year … no other 2-1-1 does this.
With 2-1-1, were there initial hurdles you had to get over or was the volume always that high? One of the early challenges was that you have to get all of the phone companies to recognize 2-1-1 is a number. There is 2-1-1 all over the country … and you have to be careful because if you’re on the border of Massachusetts, you might get them … or [vice versa]. … [But] it grew really fast.
There had been a small help line, which had been a United Way [asset] a long time ago and it ended up at Crossroads Rhode Island. They were doing a fine job, but it was small and didn’t have the resources. When we [renewed ownership of] 2-1-1, we had resources: money to promote it, money to hire more staff and we knew it would be part of our strategy going forward.
You’ve talked about 2-1-1 and being feet-on-the-ground in areas that need it most. Are those the top priorities for United Way? We have a number of high priorities. We have a summer-learning program. … We can show average gains of 15 percent in math and reading. In some communities, [especially] if they’re lower-income communities, it might be as high as 50 percent in reading and 75 percent in math. We’re not just holding the kids stable, which is what we had hoped to do; we’re pushing them forward.
One of the top needs is always housing. We are way low in affordable housing and it affects more than those who might become homeless. It affects the workforce, young people who might want to stay here after college [and] families.
We’ve been very active in the issue … [investing] $100,000 in three bond issues – something very unusual for a United Way. … We don’t think bonding is the best way to do this forever; it’s one part of the solution. The next thing for us to think about, [similar to] Massachusetts and Connecticut, is an annual budget allocation for affordable housing. Rhode Island is not going to grow economically, you’re not going to locate a business here if employees don’t have a place to live.
In a 2012 PBN interview, you characterized Rhode Island philanthropy as having “bright spots … but still challenging times.” A year later, you said the era was the “toughest fundraising climate in [your] career.” Have we moved on philanthropically from the slump of the Great Recession? We’re still coming back … and are probably still down $800,000 or $900,000 from what we used to raise in 2009.
Philanthropy is changing. You have things now that you didn’t have before and a lot of that has to do with technology and social media. Now, if you have money to give, you could go to a GoFundMe page. The one thing you learn doing fundraising as long as I’ve been doing it, is that it’s the donor’s money [and] you have to pay attention to what they want. If the donor wants to do GoFundMe, and there are a lot of really wonderful causes on there … they can and that’s different from how things used to be.
We’re doing a lot more volunteerism … [something] important to millennials … [who were] taught how to volunteer, but there was never a discussion about giving. The thought was, your gift is your time. Millennials will give, we think they are very generous, but they want to kick the bricks [too], they want to be involved – that’s different and we have to accommodate for that. We’re not going to ask them to change the way they think, it’s all about the donor.
You were talking about a flexibility in meeting people where they want to give. Is MyFund the result of that thinking? Yes. We’ve had a donor-advised fund since the 1980s, called the Philanthropy Account, where people would give us $1,000, get one tax receipt and throughout the year designate their money. We decided this doesn’t work anymore. … It’s all about the fewest number of clicks. [Giving] needs to feel more like your online banking experience.
Now, you give us $1,000 and on your phone you can see your balance, who you’ve given to throughout the year, decide if you want to give again, add money [and] … it’s free to the donor.
We set a goal of raising $260,000 on 260 new donors. We thought that was a pretty assertive goal [and] we’re at roughly 115 donors and have raised north of $500,000. We got a $500,000 donation from one anonymous donor to push the total above [roughly $1 million].
In January, UWRI took over Serve Rhode Island. Has it helped to have this asset? We used to be the Volunteer Center of Rhode Island, which became Serve Rhode Island. … It’s a second thing pushed out, which has now come back in – like 2-1-1.
Organizations pay a small fee to list [volunteer opportunities] on the website, then volunteers go on the website and match themselves. There are 66 agencies listed with 250 leads and 12,000 registered volunteers.
I can see, down the road, if not already, there will be pressure about staffing [Serve Rhode Island] … and engaging 12,000 people. … It’s awesome, [but] it’s a lot more work.
The two major sources from which UWRI gets its money are corporations and private individuals/groups. What characteristics or profile [metrics] would you give these groups? They’re more alike than not alike. … [But] our challenge is never a one-size-fits-all dating profile.
Corporations, like people, have certain causes they care about. When a new company comes to Rhode Island, we check their website to see if they are aligned with the things we do. If not, it’s not necessarily an opportunity for us. We try not to get mission drift chasing the newest thing in town.
I’m hard-pressed to tell you the name of a large company that isn’t doing something around volunteerism and marrying it to the cause they care most about.
That’s not that different from a person sitting at home asking, “What do I care about?”
[However], it’s a lot easier on the corporate side, where we probably have a conversation with [each firm] once per year or more.
Do you think the volume of nonprofits in operation today, especially in Rhode Island, has created a competitive funding atmosphere? It’s a very competitive environment. I’ve been doing this for 35 years and it has always been. You never turned up in Rhode Island saying, “This will be easy.”
Now, your competition is even bigger because of GoFundMe and Kickstarter.
For a while we had a merger and consolidation fund and gave grants to nonprofits, [which] merged or consolidated their backroom activities. [Therein], we learned the nonprofit community isn’t like the corporate community, where if the two balance sheets work and we can save some money, we’ll do it. People come to this work because they feel something, and if the organization is going to go through a merger, those [emotions] have to be addressed.
We did it for six years, and there were plenty that consolidated but it wasn’t enough to keep it going.
Eight staff members were cut in 2009 to accommodate a dip in revenue. Today, where does the organization stand financially and employment-wise? [Regarding the $12.8 million annual campaign], we’ve been in that zone for the last five or six years and we see that as good because we were in a fall before. … We dipped and are level [now]. As I indicated, from 2009 we are about $900,000 less. But you have to level before you can go up. The interesting thing about relevancy is that a lot of the money we lost during the recession was money that was passing through. … The money that was given to us tended to stick and, to me, that is encouraging because it meant the things we were doing – the 2-1-1, bond issues, children’s summer programming – were important enough to donors that even in the recession they stuck with us.
Are you excited to retire? I anticipate continuing to be involved in the community, but not at the full-time level. I would like to be doing something for the next five years before I totally hang up my sneakers.
Is there anything to which you wish you had put more time? The Dalai Lama says, “If we’ve done the best we can, we shouldn’t have any regrets.” I have no regrets looking back and I try not to have too much worry looking forward.
Emily Gowdey-Backus is a staff writer for PBN. You can follow her on Twitter @FlashGowdey or contact her via email, Gowdey-backus@PBN.com.