Innovation Ecosystem

A narrative of optimism, impactful results, and a pinch of worry

The Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting celebrated the community foundation’s central role in articulating the state’s future vision

Image courtesy of The Rhode Island Foundation

The cover of the 2017 annual report by The Rhode Island Foundation.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/28/18
The Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting seeks to celebrate the positive, optimistic voice the community foundation has achieved through its investments. This year, despite banner achievements, there was a note of unease detected.
At what point will the different economic narratives at play in Rhode Island converge into one conversation? Where do the diseases of despair, reflecting in the high mortality rates from suicide, alcohol and drugs, most evident in the demographic of young adults between the ages of 25 and 34, come into play as part of that discussion? How important is critical thinking as a job skill moving forward into 21st century economy? Will companies being recruited to relocate in Providence be asked to support affordable housing development as part of tax incentives?
Walking out into the Providence night after the annual meeting, ConvergenceRI was struck by the shadowy pedestrian traffic around the edges of Kennedy Plaza, far removed from the gala celebration but still just across the street from the headquarters of The Rhode Island Foundation. It was a recognition that not everything was illuminated in our interactions with the world, despite the best of intentions.

PART TWO

PROVIDENCE – The annual meeting of The Rhode Island Foundation on Thursday evening, May 24, at the Rhode Island Convention Center ran like a precision timepiece: board members, donors, volunteers and staff were thanked and saluted; the 2017 accomplishments were noted; awards were bestowed; scholarship students were recognized; and the foundation report by President and CEO Neil Steinberg was a succinct sermon celebrating the power of being a positive, optimistic voice for Rhode Island, with the Foundation operating as a kind of “seek-and-catch” investment tool for new ideas.

And, again this year, The Rhode Island Foundation will sponsor a free concert in Roger Williams Park on Aug. 10 featuring the Rhode Island Philharmonic. Mark your calendars.

All of the proceedings were captured on two big video screens located behind the podium, allowing the more than 500 attendees to be full participant/observers at the gathering.

Before adjourning the meeting for drinks, dinner from catering stations, and conversation, Steinberg also delivered a brief overview of the first results of the recent Together RI initiative, which attempted to respond to a common complaint by many Rhode Islanders about not being heard.

Some 1,300 Rhode Islanders attended the listening sessions; 65 percent were women, 35 percent were men; 99 percent of the participants met new people; 75 percent said they were willing to get more involved with civic engagement.

Among the issues voiced by participants were: more affordable housing, better public transportation, improving public education, protecting natural resources and acknowledging the state’s diversity. [In addition, much like a good accountant, Steinberg also detailed the precise number of items served, i.e., how many meatballs, as part of the family style meals served at each of the sessions.]

By the numbers
Overall, by the numbers in the annual report, there was much to celebrate about The Rhode Island Foundation’s performance in 2017: $957 million in total assets, $43 million in grants to some 1,700 nonprofits, $2 million in scholarships, a 1 percent operating budget as a percent of the total budget, and a 17.4 percent return on investment. Who could ask for anything more as a return from preserving and investing wealth to do good?

Still, despite the positive optimism, there were moments, call them shadows, of uneasiness expressed in Steinberg’s address, if anyone was paying attention and heard what he had said.

Competing narratives
The annual meeting, coming as it did, sandwiched between the two separate events with distinct, competing narratives – the economic tour of three new buildings under construction in Warwick and Providence, led by CommerceRI Secretary Stefan Pryor earlier that morning, and the forum that took place the next day talking about a new study of revitalization and gentrification in Providence, “You Don’t Have a Problem until You Do” – made ConvergenceRI more attuned to the some of the messaging in Steinberg’s Foundation report, beyond the numbers.

At numerous times in his address, Steinberg talked about what seemed to be the two-edged reality of the current state of the state in 2017, according to ConvergenceRI’s notes:

Economic and food insecurity: at a time when there was tremendous new construction taking place, with numerous cranes in the sky, there was also a growing crisis in affordable housing, and a recognition that the future health and economic outcomes should not be determined by the zip code where you live, according to Steinberg. And, for all the positive developments in creating new jobs and lowering unemployment, there was still a growing food insecurity as well as a high poverty rate.

Changing demographics: Steinberg also recognized the need for what he called the economic and social forces to overcome political will, recognizing the need to address the changing demographics in Rhode Island being driven by “aging Baby Boomers like me.”

The business of conversation
As important as the celebration of The Rhode Island Foundation’s success in 2017, the business of conversation among those who often have a platform for their voices to be heard had an important currency at the annual meeting.

Among the topics of conversation encountered by ConvergenceRI: the biotech industry’s potential growth spurt; the go-ahead with the merger between Partners Healthcare and Care New England, with the apparent blessing now from Brown University; the future of accountable entities; whether the Boston Celtics would be able to withstand the power of Lebron James [not this year, it turned out]; the coming Constitutional crisis under President Donald Trump; whether the goal of a communications person should be to engage and converse or deflect, defend and defer; and the future of primary care, among others.

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