Nonprofit sector bridges economic gap

The Rhode Island Foundation, one of the nation’s oldest community foundations and in its 100th year, continues to serve a pivotal role as lifeline to the state’s nonprofit community, as well as a formidable contributor to the state’s overall economy.

As the largest funder of the state’s nonprofit sector, the foundation has touched the lives of countless individuals. It has bolstered existing organizations and helped to jump-start new ones. In doing so, it has provided a consistent and meaningful mark on the Rhode Island economy. 

Organized at the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Co. in June of 1916 by a small group of prominent citizens, the foundation remains deeply commitment to nonprofits. In recent years, that commitment has been on vivid display through an ambitious “Make it Happen Rhode Island” initiative, which has generated a dialogue on developing ways to fuel the Rhode Island economy. 

Rhode Island Foundation President and CEO Neil Steinberg points out that when the “Make It Happen RI” initiative was created four years ago, its intent was to identify deserving organizations that held the potential to grow. But it did not stop at providing a source of revenues. An additional goal was that it foster discussions among a variety of nonprofit, academic, business, and government leaders on promoting economic progress.   

“Make It Happen RI was designed to jump-start discussion and activity regarding the economy when there was a leadership void,” said Steinberg. “It has served to spur positive discussion and many ideas, proposals, initiatives, and collaborations among a wide range of individuals and organizations that do not normally intersect. Several industry groups took action, colleges and universities increased collaboration, a startup effort among diverse communities was begun.”

The initiative has surpassed all expectations that surrounded it on that September day in 2012 at the Rhode Island Convention Center.  

“It was actually more effective than we initially anticipated,” said Steinberg. “The 300 -plus participants generated an energy and excitement not seen in a while in this sector. The Rhode Island Foundation committed $1 million to jump-start a number of programs and initiatives to take the rhetoric to action. Much of the success stemmed from the call to action from many that attended.”

Jessica David, is senior vice president of strategy and community investments at the Rhode Island Foundation. David said “Make It Happen RI” has succeeded on two fronts.  

“First, it helped to jump-start activity in several key areas,” she said. “Efforts like the College & University Research Collaborative, DESIGNxRI, Practico Innovation, Lean Government Initiative, and Buy Local RI continue today. Second, it helped to shift the community dialogue around the state’s economy and options for the future.” 

In hindsight, David believes the initiative got off to a terrific start because those who participated were empowered. It was clear from the beginning that voices were meant to be heard.

“We did not have any ‘experts’ or presenters,” she said. “Instead, we provided facilitators to help navigate conversations among the participants around eight key topics. We had over 300 enthusiastic participants. They were there because they wanted to be there, and each contributed a unique and important perspective.”

The “Make It Happen RI” initiative has also given the Rhode Island Foundation a template of sorts, a chance to step back and identify commonalities among organizations that have been recipients of funding. Which companies, for example, have received financial backing and produced a return on that investment? According to David, the organizations that have demonstrated sustainability share a few characteristics.

“They tend to have strong, dynamic leaders who are committed to action, collaboration, and innovation,” she said. “They show an absolute focus on results. They have an equal emphasis on building a business model that makes sustainability possible. And they’ve been incredibly successful at engaging representatives of their respective communities.” 

David believes “Make It Happen RI” has long-lasting potential because it is community centered. 

“We think it helped to change the conversation at a time when Rhode Island desperately needed to see new options for itself,” said David. “It also demonstrated the enormous power of ‘crowd-sourcing solutions’ by engaging the community. It is critical that there are places and platforms for people to connect, exchange ideas, and learn about and from one another. People want to contribute. We have to provide opportunities for them to do so.”

Steinberg sees the “Make It Happen RI” initiative as tangible evidence that the nonprofit sector plays a vital role in the health of the state’s economy. That the Rhode Island Foundation -- some 100 years after its inception -- continues to play such a significant part of that role is indeed, rewarding, he said. 

“Our role as a convener and civic leader is important,” he said. “We know that we do not have all the solutions but can support creativity and innovation across many sectors. When the economy is under performing, the need in the community goes up and the resources go down. The nonprofit sector is called upon many times to bridge that gap in resources and action.”