Rhode Island Foundation bolsters state economy

The nonprofit foundation is focusing on education and primary health as keys to economic growth

Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 12, 2013

The Rhode Island Foundation, the state’s only community nonprofit foundation, announced the establishment of a new department of Strategy and Public Affairs last month. Jessica David, vice president for strategy and public affairs, will preside over the new department, according to a foundation press release.

Neil Steinberg ’75, president and CEO of the foundation, told The Herald the new department’s responsibility is to “better align (the foundation’s) strategy with (its) communications and (its) ability to serve the community.”

The Rhode Island Foundation introduced a new strategic direction in 2010 that streamlined and focused the grant-making process by transitioning from an annual review of grant requests to a rolling review system, allowing nonprofits to now apply for grants as needed, Steinberg said.

The plan called for the foundation to define specific initiatives of interest, Steinberg said, which led to the group’s current focus on public education and primary health.

Evaluating the efficacy of the foundation’s grant programs has proven the most challenging aspect of the plan, Steinberg said.

“It’s kind of the holy grail of the nonprofit community to be able to evaluate grants and grant programs — whether they’re successful and whether you’ve got the return,” he said. “If you do a program for early childhood education, you may not know until you see the high school graduation rates of those students whether it was really successful.”

The foundation recorded historically high rates of funds despite the state’s stagnant economy after embarking on a fundraising campaign, Steinberg said. In the past two years, the foundation raised approximately $110 million.

The increase in fundraising, combined with high rates of return on foundation investments and its $670 million endowment, positions the foundation to invest in a wide range of initiatives. The foundation awarded a record $30 million in grants last year, Steinberg said.

David said she envisions her new department establishing connections between donors, grant investments and the foundation’s leadership work. The department will focus on three large projects, David said. It will coordinate the outcomes of Make It Happen R.I., run the Civic Leadership Fund — an annual fundraising campaign that raises money for immediate action instead of long-term grants — and assume responsibility for the Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship.


Economic development

The foundation’s commitment to local economic development spurred it to host Make It Happen R.I., a  two-day forum held in September to discuss how to bolster the state’s struggling economy through different business development strategies, Steinberg said.

The event was moved to the Rhode Island Convention Center in order to accommodate greater interest, Steinberg said — more than 300 state residents participated. “It took off like we never expected it to,” he said.

This month — six months after the forum — the foundation will announce the initiatives that have arisen from Make It Happen, Steinberg said.

One million dollars has been allocated to these initiatives, the foundation previously announced. Half of that money has already been committed, and the foundation will announce how the rest will be spent at a press conference Thursday, Steinberg said.

Make It Happen was representative of the foundation’s recent move to take “a leadership role in bringing together interested, committed constituencies from across the state to come up with great ideas for improving and strengthening the economy of Providence and Rhode Island,” said Marisa Quinn, vice president for public affairs and university relations.

“We’ve responded to the call for action,” she added. “We’ve participated in events and worked with others to identify the partnerships that advance our shared agenda, such as the College and University Research Collaborative.”

The collaborative, which was established in response to calls for collaboration at Make it Happen R.I. and funded by a $100,000 grant from the foundation, is a consortium of the 11 colleges and universities across the state, including Brown. It will facilitate a connection between academics and state policymakers, said Dan Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of R.I., the organization that will run the program.

The collaborative will include a panel of policy leaders composed of one representative each from the governor’s office, the R.I. Economic Development Corporation, the House and the Senate, Egan said. Bringing these policy leaders together at the start will allow the collaborative to build consensus on research areas, he added.

“This effort is a solid step forward and can provide an initial organizational structure for future activity and partnerships,” according to a report sanctioned by the EDC and the Statewide Planning Program.

“Whether it be Reinvent Rhode Island, whether it be Make It Happen, whether it be the numerous reports that have come out … people have been asking for this — policy leaders, public leaders, business leaders,” Egan said.

This collaboration marks one of the few times the 11 institutions of higher education have joined forces, Steinberg said.


Working with the University

The collaboration does not represent the first time the foundation has worked alongside the University.

The Herald reported in February 2011 that the University received three grants from the Foundation in amounts “ranging from $25,000 to $87,631.”

The foundation was “instrumental” in preparing the state’s applications for Race to the Top grants, said Kenneth Wong, chair of the education department and director of the urban education program, and it supported the University’s contribution to the application.

The state was awarded $75 million in the first round of Race to the Top and then won another $50 million in the second round, making Rhode Island one of just six to receive two Race to the Top grants.

Several graduate students in the urban education policy program worked closely with the foundation and the Office of the R.I. Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education to construct a competitive and ultimately successful proposal during the Race to the Top application process, Wong said.

The foundation also provided financial support to hire graduate students as research assistants to help design a new school-funding formula for allocating funds to school districts in a cooperative project with the Commissioner’s Office, he said. The formula is now in its third year of implementation.

Steinberg said he has also done significant work with Dean of Medicine and Biological Sciences Edward Wing and his staff on health initiatives, as part of the foundation’s stated mission to improve the state’s primary healthcare system.

The foundation awarded the Alpert Medical School a grant in early 2011 for Promoting Primary Care Career Choices — a project in collaboration with Lifespan, said Associate Dean for Medical Education Phil Gruppuso.

The foundation has enabled professional development for primary care physicians by funding a series of workshops on teaching medical students in a clinical setting, Gruppuso said.

It also provided funds so the project can provide “modest compensation” to community-based primary care physicians who serve as preceptors for the Med School’s students, he said. “It was accurately perceived by the physicians as genuinely representing acknowledgment of the importance of their efforts,” he added.


In the community

The foundation played a role in Teach For America’s expansion to Rhode Island in 2010, Steinberg said.

The foundation’s current education initiatives include support for the Learning Community, a charter school in Central Falls, Steinberg said. The foundation granted the Learning Community $880,000 last year to expand its work to five nearby public elementary schools.

The foundation recently provided a $100,000 grant to United Providence, a joint effort between the Providence Public School District and the Providence Teachers Union to turn around three underperforming schools, Steinberg said.

“It’s the first of its kind in the country where there’s the collaboration between the union and the school department,” he said.

In the area of primary health, the foundation’s biggest achievement has been its creation of the Rhode Island Primary Care Educational Loan Repayment Program in collaboration with other funders, Steinberg said. This loan forgiveness fund is intended to address the shortage of primary care by attracting physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants to the state, he said.


Due to an editing error, a previous version of this article incorrectly stated that the Civic Leadership Fund funds the foundation’s grant programs. In fact, it is an annual fundraising campaign that raises money for immediate action instead of long-term grants. 

To stay up-to-date, subscribe to our daily newsletter.

Comments are closed.

Comments are closed. If you have corrections to submit, you can email The Herald at