Innovation Ecosystem

Meeting the demand, when there's an incredible amount of need

An interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation

File photo by Richard Asinof

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, in his office.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/22/21
A one-on-one interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, which invested more than $87 million last year into the state’s nonprofit community to help steer the state toward a better future in a post-COVID world.
What are the best ways for people whose voices often do not get heard to become part of the conversation around what should be the future investment priorities when it comes to creating a more equitable community? How does bottom-up innovation at the neighborhood level get rewarded with more investment, such as the Sankofa Initiative? How big a problem is the growing level of under-insured and uninsured residents of Rhode Island, in measuring future long-term strategies for health and health care? When will the managers at the Wexford Innovation Center invite the community groups attempting to re-envision Allens Avenue to share their ideas? When will the efforts around climate justice become more a priority for state investment?
The art of conversation and interviewing is about the ability to listen and to respond. I have often likened it to the skills of a jazz musician, having to listen and respond to a new riff, a call and response, often an act of improvisation, because the answers – and the music – often go in unanticipated directions. And, just as with music, it is often the silences, the space between the notes, between the questions and answers, where the convergence happens.
In publishing long-form interviews, ConvergenceRI tries to allow for the conversation to go where it needs to go, much like a spring freshet breaking free of the winter’s frozen boundaries, sometimes in an unexpected journey.
We are at a crossroads when it comes to our future prosperity and our future government: the status quo can never be preserved, the desire to return to a sense of normalcy, while heartfelt, will not stall the storm clouds now heading our way.
Clean air and clean water, safe, affordable housing, public health, good-paying jobs, and an education based on learning, not rote performance for standardized tests, requires a willingness to acknowledge that we are all connected, we all live in the same neighborhood, and we need to learn to listen and respect one another.
Not to wear a mask is as stupid as not wearing a seatbelt, or believing that smoking cigarettes is a healthy enterprise, without consequences for yourself or those around you.

PROVIDENCE – In the midst of the terrible COVID pandemic, investments by the Rhode Island Foundation in the last year have served, in many ways, as the glue that has kept Rhode Island from falling apart, a centripetal force pulling us back toward the center.

A recent news release, which announced that the Rhode Island Foundation had invested more than $87 million in 2020 in community nonprofits, underscored the size of how much disruption has occurred in the force in Rhode Island.

The person at the center of the hub, directing the Rhode Island Foundation’s strategic investments during this time of great need, is Neil Steinberg, the president and CEO.

In a recent interview with ConvergenceRI, Steinberg was blunt in describing the overwhelming need and the resulting call to action:

“We gave out $87 million in grants, and that was $30 million higher than the year before, and the year before had been a record,” Steinberg said.  And, he continued, “A big slug of that was COVID-related. We raised over $21 million that came in – and went out.”

As you know, Steinberg added, “Our model, long-term, is primarily an endowment model. Our endowment is now at $1.2 billion, and that generates revenues [through which] we give out grants. But with COVID, the need was so great on an immediate, current basis, that’s what we did. We raised money for overall response funds that went to organizations providing the basics – supporting those social determinants, [including] housing, food security, and health care.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Neil Steinberg, talking about how he views the Foundation’s investment strategies in the short term – and the long-term opportunities to focus on health, education, and economic security, all through a lens of racial equity.

ConvergenceRI: When I look at you and the role that the Rhode Island Foundation is playing, I see you as a Larry Bird figure at this point. It’s crunch time in the ball game and…
STEINBERG: [laughing] …I’m the old, slow white guy? Is that what you are saying?

ConvergenceRI: ….who can’t jump that well [laughing]. But you’re the one saying: “OK teammates. Give me the ball!”
STEINBERG: Thanks…

ConvergenceRI: …because you are the person who makes things happen in Rhode Island.
STEINBERG: Thank you.

ConvergenceRI: Do you feel like that? From what Chris [Barnett, the communications spokesperson] told me, you are even busier than you were before, because everybody wants you to participate in what they’re doing. Do you feel very driven to do that? Can you share your own personal perspective about the role that you are playing?
STEINBERG: My role is the role of the Rhode Island Foundation, and we’re here to meet the needs of all the people that we can in the state. And, the needs have gotten magnified.

If we look at 2020, when we continued to do our business as usual, our business as usual is raising money from generous donors, it’s providing grants to very “impactful” nonprofits doing work in the community, providing leadership and advocacy in key areas, especially our priority areas of K-12 education, health and health care, and economic security. It has been a busy time to do all that.

When you put in what we all had to go through with COVID, it was a huge pivot for us. To not only keep the business as usual going, as many did, but also to step up.

Our model, long-term, is primarily an endowment model. Our endowment is now at $1.2 billion, and that generates revenues [through which] we give out grants.

But with COVID, the need was so great on an immediate, current basis, that’s what we did. We raised money for overall response funds that went to organizations providing the basics – you know, supporting those social determinants – housing, and food security, and health care.

We did a behavioral health fund where we raised money from the large insurance companies to support the growing need, which has continued to grow, in mental health and substance abuse. We worked with the Governor at the time on a fund for undocumented immigrants. Etcetera, etcetera.

And, we kept doing that because the need was just astronomical. These dollars may sound like a lot to some people, but, you know, very humbly, they are small in comparison to the need.

We reacted to help the vulnerable population. When people lost their jobs, when they couldn’t pay their rent, when they didn’t know where their next meal was going to come from, that’s very vulnerable, and that number of people, driven by unemployment, driven by health issues, just grew.

You also know there was a huge impact, as we look at this and try to provide support equitably – that COVID did not reveal, that we did not already know, but it exacerbated the challenges for Black, Latino, elderly populations, who felt the brunt of [the pandemic] in many areas and needed additional support.

We just kept trying to meet the needs and tried to step up to that.

We continued our long-term planning efforts in education and health, which, interestingly, and not planned initially – because nobody knew about COVID – became even more important during COVID, because they [became virtual] gathering places.

We had these groups of folks in these sectors that got together to talk about very key things, like “learning loss” for education. Or, to talk about impacts of the hospital merger and Brown. To talk about what could be done about some of these underlying impacts from COVID.

I’m a believer that we are seeing the light at the end of the tunnel; sometimes I think they keep making the tunnel longer [laughing]. Hopefully we won’t hit any roadblocks in between, but the science, I guess, starts to tell us, with vaccination, and better controls, that things will get better.

However, the impact, I believe, is going to lag. The impact on unemployment, the impact on the economy – and [understanding] the difference between the “Wall Street” economy and the “Main Street” economy.

The Wall Street economy and GDP and the stock market are doing well, but when you and I walk around the community, there’s an incredible amount of need in all those areas I talked about. The substance abuse doesn’t go away; the mental and behavioral health challenges don’t go away; getting people back to work doesn’t happen overnight. All of those things are a lag that we need to address.

So, that’s a long-winded answer. But that’s why we tend to be at the hub, because we are navigating in all of these areas. I was asked a few years ago why did the Rhode Island Foundation select as our priorities education, health and economic security. It was very simple, I said: that’s what we think the priorities of the state of Rhode Island are.

And, there is a lot underneath that. Things like housing are all part and parcel to that. But those are the needs. That’s why we are kind of in the middle of all this.

ConvergenceRI: I often had the impression that you spoke, off the record, with Gov. Gina Raimondo during her tenure as governor. Is that a practice that you hope will continue with Gov. Dan McKee? Have those conversations already started?
STEINBERG: I don’t know how much of [those conversations] were off the record as much as it was an individual conversation. The Governor would call and say, “We need to raise money for COVID, can you help?” And we said, “Yup, we can help,” and we did it.

When there were some national grant opportunities like the Blue Meridian, could the Rhode Island Foundation help, and participate and help get that, yeah, we did. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Changing trajectories in Providence.”]

It wasn’t like there was a lot of backroom conversation; it was about getting things done. It might have been preliminary, and it might have been before things were announced publicly. But it was not that much backroom. We work in support of whoever is in the office.

And, I know Gov. McKee back from a number of years ago when he started Mayoral Academies. We know of his efforts on small business. We have started a dialogue, but it is very early on.

And, we’re here to support the state and to support important initiatives. And, yes, we will make our view known on some of these, where we think it is important – on education, and health. But we’re here to basically work with the administration, and we work closely with the House and the Senate, too.

We’re here to support, collaborate, cooperate – and sometimes initiate.

And so, if we can be helpful by initiating and leading something, and being a little more facile and quick than some other areas, that’s what we will do.

ConvergenceRI: One of the areas that have emerged as a new priority that cuts across economic security, health, and education is the relationship between public health and climate justice.
The billowing clouds of black smoke from Allens Avenue yesterday made clear that this is not a problem that is going to go away.
How does that fit into your current priorities? Is there an opportunity to have that reflected in new giving opportunities for investment by the Rhode Island Foundation?
STEINBERG: Public health, let me just separate that for a moment. Public health, at least for us, has emerged over the last few years – you might remember when we first talked about that long-term planning effort we initially thought we were going to be doing long-term planning for health care.

And, we got a tremendous amount of feedback from just about everybody in the sector at all levels, that it really wasn’t health care as much as it was health, and what’s underneath it – that 80 percent besides the 20 percent that takes care of you in a hospital or a doctor’s office.

And that was a real education, at least for me. And so, we went from health care to health and then this concept of public health, which has emerged as being very important. It’s extremely important to us as a focus area of ours.

Relative to climate change and climate justice? We’ve always supported, probably not at the top level, environmental needs and changes and things. But I can’t say that it has been a big focus on what you are calling climate justice.

We all know what the challenges are ahead of us. Getting from education to health and again, to some of the underlying needs, getting people a job and supporting small businesses, are big agendas.

So, I wouldn’t say it’s not something that we would look at, but admittedly, it has not been at the top of many other parts of that agenda. I am not opining on the importance, I’m just telling you that in our work scheme, it’s not been at the top of the list.

ConvergenceRI: On a personal note, what have you been doing to have fun these days? Have you been walking more? Have you discovered a new hobby? Do you just enjoy being on Zoom meetings all the time?
STEINBERG: [laughing] Would you think less of me if I had said yes to that? I come into the office every day. I have since the beginning [of the pandemic]. I do that for a couple of reasons. One is that I live five minutes away. I don’t have kids at home that are in school or anything. I’m very paper-based. I sit here with mounds of this report, or that report, in addition to doing stuff online. But it is just easier for me. We have our own building, so we control the cleaning and all that.

We’ve got 4-5 people in a day, because we need to process checks and we need to do letters, so I can sit here and sign thank-you letters to people, and sign checks and stuff.

And, I can also be secluded. It’s easy. I actually enjoy coming into the office. Again, as an aside, the more we do, the more we get asked to do. What’s the old saying? If you want something done, go to a busy person.

As far as for fun, you know, I was being really diligent on the walking through the fall, and I just got tired of doing it in the cold. So, I have not been doing that. I look forward to getting back to that.

I read. I read spy books, the Jason Bourne-type and others of that genre. I read a lot of newspapers and periodicals. But work is fun to me. I love what we are doing.

ConvergenceRI: In this week’s edition, I had two stories featuring the work of Dr. Elizabeth Goldberg on improving the air quality in schools. It surprised some readers to learn how close – and how adversely affected some schools in Providence were to air pollution from highways. Is this possibly one of those new areas that you might become interested in – connecting education, public health, and pollution?
STEINBERG:: Potentially, as I said. We have a lot of other things on the agenda. Right now, one of the top things on the education agenda is learning loss: how to make up for what is, on average, for most kids, at least, learning loss in math, in literacy, and certainly in the social and emotional aspects of [learning]. You’re going to see that emerging as a big priority for the state.

It’s not to downplay the industrial setting of the school. It is just there are a lot of things on the agenda, and we just have to prioritize them.

It would presumptuous, naïve and ridiculous for me to say something is not important, because there are so many important things. But at some point, we have to be careful about trying to boil the ocean [to take on an impossible task] in our work.

I get it. I understand. It would bother me if my kids were in that school. My kids actually went to the [Francis J.] Varieur Elementary School in Pawtucket, where there were issues about stuff that was dumped [nearby] at one time, that got a lot of publicity, probably 10 years ago.

Important? Yes. But not necessarily on our radar screen right now, with these other things. This “learning loss” is huge, you will be seeing a lot about it. And, I also think there will be a lot of money coming in through this new ARP [American Rescue Plan enacted by Congress].

ConvergenceRI: What do you mean by “learning loss?”
STEINBERG: COVID learning loss. These kids have not been learning remotely everything you would learn, on average, in an in-school environment.

ConvergenceRI: Is there too much pressure being put on the schools to be more than they can be? Are they being asked to serve as a safety net for all the problems for children in the state, because the safety net is broken?
STEINBERG: That’s a big question. And, it’s evolved over a long period of time. But, I think, schools are expected to do more and address more than when you and I were in school, certainly.

They are a reflection of the community, as schools evolve. Look at the SMART Clinics, we were involved in those, that are going into some of the Providence Schools, [as a way to provide] more health care.

You look at the behavioral health needs that need to be addressed. I’m not sure that [the schools] have a choice.

When it then trips into, which it does, as we know, very generous teachers bringing in food and coasts and stuff for kids, yeah, it’s making up for what the safety net didn’t catch.

Is it that the safety net is broken? Is it overwhelmed? Is it that the education system is the point of contact? I think it is all of those things.

But, they are also affected by the root causes. If two children and a parent are living out of a car, they’re not going to be doing well in school; they’re not going to be healthy.

Whether they get help in the school or they get help through the social safety net, or wherever, they need help. And, we need to address those underlying root causes significantly.

ConvergenceRI: I always look forward to our conversations. As someone who is a regular dedicated reader, what stories do you think I should be covering that you would like to see more of?
STEINBERG: What’s helpful to me is when things tie together. While I said the environmental justice and the tie in to the schools is not at the top of our list, it doesn’t mean I didn’t find it informative.

We can’t do everything. I’m always going to be looking for news. I don’t know what is going to change. We’ve got a new administration, we’ll have a new mayor in a year or so in Providence, there’s just a lot of change, and I don’t know as we come out of COVID, what changes will happen.

So, I look for information and news. I’m pretty plugged in. But, as much as I know, there are probably things that I don’t know and don’t understand.

The simplicity of things is always helpful to me. I’m a layman. While I may be immersed in some of these areas, I’m not a teacher; I’m not a health care professional. The more you can kind of explain and connect the dots, it’s helpful to me.

Sometimes I find those columns on the left, what are they called?

ConvergenceRI: Sidebars. “Why is this story important?” “The questions that need to be asked.” And, “Under the radar screen.”
STEINBERG: I will tell you, I am less interested when you trip into the “who hasn’t called you back” and that stuff. We all get that. And, that is not a criticism. It’s just an observation.

ConvergenceRI: Well, you and my son would agree. He says: You don’t need to do that, Dad. You don’t need to call anybody out.
STEINBERG: Yeah. Calling out for actions is OK. But the fact that Stefan [Pryor] doesn’t call you back for a month, or the Governor, you are in a long line. It appears to be personal to you, and it may be, but it is then personal to another 50 people.

ConvergenceRI: Stefan and I have engaged in regular conversations and interviews. And, he tells me he enjoys our conversations. With the former Governor, when she shakes my hand and looks me in the eye and tells me she would be happy sit down with me to do an interview – twice, and it doesn’t happen for six years, I do take that personally.
I am a good interviewer. I may not be on the scale of Oprah Winfrey, but the feedback I always get is that I ask good questions; that I am courteous. Once again, at this point, the refusal of former Gov. Raimondo to sit down and talk with me, I wear it as a badge of honor.
STEINBERG: I know, I just think in the scheme of things, it’s more exciting to see that you did talk to so and so. To me, it’s just distracting. It’s like, I get it, but where’s the substance here? It’s not a major criticism; it’s an observation.

ConvergenceRI: The feedback is appreciated.
STEINBERG: And, everybody comes from a certain place. I fully understand the position I have. And, somebody once told me, when I first got here, “You are never so handsome, smart, or funny, as when you head a foundation that gives out money.”

So, the week after I retire some day, I’ll be the guy that used to run the Rhode Island Foundation. And, hopefully, some friends will call back, but it won’t be the same. It depends where you sit.

I think if people view you [and think that you] can help advance their cause, they are going to be more outgoing, more cooperative. One of the things that I will say about you, and I do a lot of interviews, a lot of interviews, the ones that I appreciate the most are also the ones that I need to be sharp for, are with people like you, who ask intelligent questions.

ConvergenceRI: Thank you. Once again, it’s a dialogue that I always look forward to.
STEINBERG: With a lot of places, we can get away with a press release.

ConvergenceRI: I am always interested in the exchange of ideas. With that, one more question, because I know you are probably on a tight time schedule, but I was wondering, with the statewide health plan, is that in the process of being revised? Have new members been added to the stakeholders group?
STEINBERG: Good question. So, again, what’s been great [is that we are] keeping it going. What that means is, when Marie Ganim retires [as OHIC commissioner], her replacement [Patrick Tigue] joins the group, and did. It keeps going.

We keep meeting regularly. The big thing that we did was we broke into four subcommittees that fit with the priorities. And by doing that, we were able to bring in additional people from the community who were not a part of the original steering committee.

We’ve kept the steering committee as is, representing the entities. But we have brought in and broadened and made more equitable and diverse the subcommittees. One subcommittee is focusing on the root causes; another is focusing on behavioral health; a third is focusing on reducing wasteful spending, and a fourth is focusing on the most appropriate care in the most appropriate setting. We now have four very active subcommittees now,

While we are focused on the long-term, we will also be a venue for the short term. We’re weighing in. We’ve had presentations from folks working on the hospitals and Brown merger.

The other thing is that we’ve made a big commitment at the Rhode Island Foundation to diversity, racial equity and inclusion. That’s big in all the areas, addressing the disparities in health care, in the economy, in closing achievement gaps and creating equal and inclusive opportunities for every student in the state.

One of our responsibilities is to help provide a voice for those who don’t have a voice.

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