Innovation Ecosystem

Not good enough to return to what we thought was normal

An in-depth Zoom interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, talking about the need to “get things done” in the post-pandemic world

Photo by Richard Asinof

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, during a Zoom interview.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 6/1/20
Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, shares his thinking about how to create a new normal that does not just replicate the status quo, in the post-pandemic world.
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PROVIDENCE – Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, is a believer in full-throated optimism, someone who keeps his foot on the pedal moving toward a better future, with a philosophy of “getting it done.”

On Thursday morning, May 28, when he sat down to participate in a Zoom interview with ConvergenceRI, Steinberg said that he was a little bit down, an unusual admission. That was the day, he explained, when the Rhode Island Foundation had been scheduled to host its annual meeting, a gathering at the R.I. Convention Center that drew hundreds of attendees.

“In a way, today is a very down day for me,” Steinberg said. “I’m up 99 percent of the time. This was supposed to be our annual meeting today.”

Does that make you sad? ConvergenceRI asked.

“Absolutely,” Steinberg answered. “At 5 o’clock, I would have been outside the R.I. Convention Center, talking with anybody who walked by. As you know, it was a great celebration of the nonprofit community and the philanthropic community and stakeholders and influencers in the state.”

We really liked doing it, Steinberg continued. “I’m going to record a message tomorrow to send out next week to celebrate the folks we were going to honor this year. But we’ll be doing it again next year, the middle of May next year. We’ll be doing a bigger and better version. But I do miss it. I love the energy.”

Yesterday, today, tomorrow
In the new, disrupted world we all inhabit, Steinberg said he was busier than ever, conducting numerous meetings on Zoom.

“I prefer to be out, talking to people and going around,” Steinberg said, amazed at busy he is. “I am busier than I ever was. The only thing I see decline, from my time frame, is my evenings. This time a year, I would be out three nights a week, at this event, or that event.”

During his workday, Steinberg continued, “Everything is so scheduled. Every phone call, every Zoom is scheduled. I feel like I am working more than ever. I have trouble remembering what day it is. I can remember the day of the week. Somebody gave me a phrase that I have been using: “There are only three days now. Yesterday, today, and tomorrow.”

A lot on his plate
The Rhode Island Foundation finds itself in a remarkable position during this time of a world disrupted by pandemic – serving as the emergency philanthropic loom stitching together the safety net in Rhode Island, while at the same time, mobilizing around the need to plan for the future, with a long-term focus.

Steinberg spearheaded an emergency fundraising effort that has raised approximately $6.6 million as of May 28. When totaled with the slightly more than $2 million raised by the United Way of Rhode Island, it has translated into about $8.6 million raised for an emergency fund for nonprofits. “As of last week, we had given out about $7.6 million,” Steinberg said. “And, we have a backlog.”

At the same time, Steinberg said that he is “laser-focused” – a term that has become much overused – on resurrecting the long-term planning efforts begun in 2019 that were focused on education and health.

“We can’t attract companies, we can’t build companies, we can’t help people get better jobs, if we don’t have a better education system,” Steinberg said. And, he continued, a focus on making Rhode Island the healthiest state in the nation. “We now have hospital presidents publicly saying: we need to pay attention to social determinants of health. Wonderful. Now we have got to do it.”

How do we do it, Steinberg asked rhetorically. “In this little state of ours, how do we make sure that people have a healthy future, how do we make sure that they can get access to affordable health care?

The choice, according to Steinberg, is that we step up collectively, and do it, or else we’re going to be in same place again in 10 to 12 years.

“People can argue with me, but we knew that there was going to be a recession. We all knew it, 100 percent, that there was going to be another recession,” Steinberg said. “We didn’t know when; nobody certainly predicted that a pandemic was going to cause it. And we didn’t know it was going to be this abrupt. But we knew.”

And, Steinberg added, we are sitting here with a lot of the same problems we had 10 or 12 years ago, during the Great Recession. “That’s why I am so passionate about this. It is not good enough to return to what we thought was normal. It just wasn’t good enough.”

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, talking about the shifting philanthropic demands in a post-pandemic world, and addressing the long-term challenges in creating a new normal that does not restore the status quo.

ConvergenceRI: Thanks for agreeing to do a Zoom interview.
I do these two or three times a day, and I am one of many I know who are getting “Zoom fatigue.”

ConvergenceRI: It takes a concerted effort to engage. It is not like Olga’s exists anymore as a place to talk.
Plus, I don’t have my tea and Danish, if we were sitting there together.

ConvergenceRI: It is a new world we inhabit. We have to raise our virtual coffee cups. How are you doing?
: Good. I mean, we are both “people” people. I prefer to be out talking to people.

ConvergenceRI: In recent editions, I have tried to engage with different folks and ask them to envision about how they see the post-pandemic world. A lot of assumptions we’ve made about life in the past – about education, about work, about health, about how we talk to each other – are going to change. The pandemic may become endemic, it may be with us for years.
Because the Rhode Island Foundation is the philanthropic leader in the state, I thought it would be helpful, as a starting point, to ask: What are the metrics we should be looking at, what are the things we should be thinking about, what are the types of questions that we need to ask, about the post-pandemic future?
I put off writing an op-ed for ConvergenceRI because I was working on another one, about how we can get to a better future, not settling for a new normal when the old normal left a lot of people behind.

ConvergenceRI: That ran in the Providence Business News, correct?
It was in PBN, the Boston Globe, and a cut-down version in the ProJo. That [piece] was born out of the idea: we need to do better. Getting to this phrase, the new normal, which I’m not thrilled with. The old normal wasn’t good enough. It left a lot of people behind.

We had a lot of inequities. Things that you have written about and highlighted in ConvergenceRI – destinies determined by zip code. We don’t just want to settle for that.

We need to commit to a better future for the state and for everybody. I’m working on some follow-up to that, specific to health, specific to education, based on the long-term planning, which we are very glad that we did. We are resurrecting that, getting that going again.

Related to the new reality we’re in for philanthropy, we’re kind of writing it [as we go along]. It is more my observations right now, and we need to see how everything plays out.

It’ s always tough while you’re in the middle of things to do predictions. The other thing, in my personal opinion, most predictions don’t come true.

ConvergenceRI: I’m not asking for predictions
: I know. If you want to talk specifically about philanthropy, I can tell you what we’ve seen. What’s permanent? What’s not? I don’t know yet, that’s the honest answer.

ConvergenceRI: It’s always good to start by asking questions. Unless you have a way of measuring the changes as they happen… What’s the old adage? What gets measured, gets done.
This is our framework. We’re the Rhode Island Foundation. We’re 104 years old. It means that we have been through a Depression. It means we’ve been through a World War. It means that we have been through other recessions, including the one 10-12 years ago.

We were built to address situations like this, because we are the largest funder of nonprofit organizations; we are involved with many sectors, and, as you know, we are a stakeholder/leader/influencer in a lot that’s going on.

[We’re doing some things that are] different than much of what we’ve done in the past. You know we have a large endowment. At the end of December of 2019, it was a little over $1 billion; the market isn’t doing as bad as some predicted, so we’re probably at $950 million now or something like that. We’ll continue to give our grants and [conduct] our business as usual.

We have a civic leadership fund that people give us money to do leadership activities. Most of what we do is to open up permanent endowed funds.

[The coronavirus pandemic] was an emergency, in that, even in the beginning, nobody knew how the pandemic was going to unfold. There were a lot of early comparisons to the hurricanes, to 9/11, to Boston Strong after the Marathon bombing, where philanthropy mobilized, typically on a short-term basis, focused on an event or a geography, to get money to those most in need.

So, that’s what we mobilized to do at first. I’ll mix in what we did and what we learned.

The big learning [curve] was: this is not a hurricane, something that was over in x number of days, and was defined geographically. It’s national. It’s international. That was number one.

Number two: It was not restricted to a week or two of OK, now you’ve got to build back the dam, or whatever. I’m not minimizing these things, they all have loss of life, and they were all terrible. But they were as much “events” rather than a major change,

The other thing that was unique, at least in my experience, was: This was a combination of a health emergency pandemic with the economic impact.

We have had economic impacts before, a recession; we’ve had health issues before. But this combination and the quick impact of the [economic] shutdown, people not knowing what to do, learning as we are going along, science unfolding before our eyes.

I remember, and you’ll correct me if I’m wrong, that early on, I don’t know if it was the CDC or some of the national health leaders, saying: It doesn’t do anything to wear a mask. Right?

That was what was being said in late January or early February. And, now, we wear masks everywhere. I’m not knocking anybody, I’m just saying that there has been a lot of learning involved, and that [learning process] has impacted philanthropy.

ConvergenceRI: What did you do?
In conjunction, in consulting with the Governor, we knew that emergency funds were going to be necessary to help people.

We worked, initially with the United Way, and together we formed the COVID-19 Response Fund. We each raised money, and on the back end, developed a grant program system.

And, while we are used to being nimble, we’re used to being quick and responsive, we put it into overdrive, so, the day we decided [to launch the fund], it was a Sunday night, and we were already calling people. I was dialing up people who I knew had the means. If you want to raise a lot of money, you have to go where the money is.

What works is a combination of things. We want everybody who gives us hundreds of thousands, and everybody who is going to send us a check or a credit card donation for $25. And, we were able to mobilize for that.

We mobilized the grant process. We were getting the money out quicker. The instructions I gave to the grant folks were: streamline the process and make quick decisions. This was for people in need.

What unfolded before our eyes and this goes back to a lot of what you talk about and what we need to talk about, I use the term vulnerable populations, was [a realization] about who is getting hit the hardest? Who is in need? [The increased need for the most vulnerable populations] was tied to unemployment.

All the challenging, negative hard things that happened, but when people lose their jobs, it meant that people, and this is an old story from the last recession, and probably from recessions before, people who used to be donors to food pantries were now coming to food pantries for food.

When you have rampant high unemployment, it impacts individuals, it impacts families, it impacts behavioral health, it is tied to everything.

We saw the need exploding. Many people asked: Didn’t the federal government come in with a lot of money?

First of all, it was slow. So, you had a month or two where, with all good intentions or whatever, people didn’t have the money. I go back to the statistic that gets used a lot, if I’m quoting it correctly, that 40 percent of people in the country don’t have $400 in emergency funds to use if something happened.

Here in Rhode Island, it was revealed what we knew, but it was not at the tip of everyone’s tongue, that Rhode Island is more reliant than many other states on tourism, hospitality, retail, and gambling, all vibrant industries before, but in a situation like this, they closed down in like 30 seconds, with impacts for the long run.

So, there is convergence…

ConvergenceRI: I love that term…
[laughing] …convergence of the health impact, the economic impact, all unfolding [at the same time,], we said: Let’s raise as much money as we can.

That’s what we set out to do. And, I was relentless. And, I will tell you, as a long-time fundraiser, I only accepted two answers. Yes or no. If you didn’t tell me no, I was back tomorrow, I was back the next week.

I will say, with all humility and with all appreciation to all the people that have stepped up, that we have raised at the Rhode Island Foundation for the Response Fund some $6.6 million as of right now. Combined with United Way’s $2 million, together, it’s about $8.6 million. As of last week, we had given out about $7.6 million.

There are the heart-warming stories of people sending us a second gift, a third gift. Several people wrote me a note and said: “I’m sending you my check from the government.” The $1,200 check. They said: “Other people need it more than I do.

When you see that happening, it is really, really heart-warming. We have gotten about 800 gifts. And that is new to us. We’re not used to a lot of people responding to us, all in a short time, because this is different from our endowment. I get a report every day and I see the new donors. I see the amounts.

We had a number of businesses – unsolicited – step to benefit the fund. One of the first one was Frog and Toad on Hope Street in Providence, they did the “Knock It Off” t-shirt. They contributed x number of dollars for every t-shirt they sold, and to date, they have contributed $43,000 to the fund.

We now have White Electric Coffee doing a promotion. We have Proclamation Ale doing a promotion. We had Performance Physical Therapy that did a 19 k virtual road race that is contributing.

And, one just came up, very much fun for me, a group of Brown University students are doing a virtual spring weekend, with band performances and stuff, and the entry fee will be contributed to the Fund. I’ve been asked to say a few words; 45 years after I left Brown University, I get to participate in Spring Weekend. How fun is that?

We have seen people step up, we’ve seen philanthropy respond, at all levels, and mobilize for this.

One of the reasons is that we are able to do this is because of the wonderful nonprofits doing the work on the ground. Again, with all humility, the Rhode Island Foundation has the ability to bridge this, we have the ability to raise the money, and get the money out the door, but we’re not the boots on the ground. There are hundreds and thousands of nonprofits that are out there working with the actual people in need.

ConvergenceRI: I have written about the leadership role that the Rhode Island Foundation plays, in the absence – my words – of government investment in a lot of these areas, such as health care and education. The Rhode Island Foundation has taken a leadership role by investing in what I will call the “real social network” of Rhode Island, because for whatever reason, the government hasn’t had the resources or the political will or the desire to or the leadership to make that happen.
We are living in a perilous time when it comes to government, in terms of redefining what the role of government is, and what are the best strategies when we look at future budgets. What kinds of innovation do you see that may need to happen with government?
I don’t think we replaced government; rather, we have supplemented it. That is really our intent.

We fill some gaps, we supplement, we co-lead, we don’t cut out the government, but we tend to have a longer-term view. When you are dealing with an election cycle, it’s natural that while people may talk about the future, they are in the here-and-now.

So, I would say: “supplement.”

There is a practical element of it, when talking about dollars. My way of describing it and, don’t hold me to this analytically, but I think directionally, is: Philanthropy has nickels and dimes, state government has quarters, and the feds have dollars. That’s about the magnitude.

So, when we say we’re funding, and we’re doing our business as usual, funding and scholarships and all the other things that we do with funding organizations, it is limited. Philanthropy is limited. It is orders of magnitude, whether it is here or nationally. Sen. Jack Reed, on a phone call I heard him on, reminded everybody, the federal government is the only one who can print money. We can’t do it; the state can’t do it.

So, you’ve got that scale that I don’t think can change, and I think that’s the reality.

Philanthropy can close some gaps, philanthropy can provide seed money maybe for innovation, it can concentrate in some areas, like in education or health, and it can match up donors with what they want to do, which is very important to what we do every day.

But it can’t plug those humongous budget holes that $1 million a day in lost revenue creates, or something like that. The math doesn’t work.

That’s where you get to the innovation. One of the points I made earlier in my recent writing was, I firmly believe that it’s not just about organization and it’s not just about backfill, I think it’s a combination. I think there is back to basics. I’m a big follower of Warren Buffet. And, Warren Buffet is never a predictor, he is the classic “follow the basics.” And things will go the way they go.

So, telehealth was enhanced in this whole process. And, I think it has a great future. I don’t think it replaces everybody going to the doctor.

And distance learning. We rejoice in Rhode Island and we have done a spectacular job in getting participation. I don’t think anyone is claiming we’re making inroads in closing achievement gaps or higher scores or greater bodies of learning with that. But I do think it is a viable tool.

The same thing is true with financing. I’m not an expert on the borrowing side. But looking at our basic budget, where do we spend our money in the shorter term, it is not any different than anyone doing [his or her] home budget. We all cannot afford everything we did before.

One of the areas that I think has been going in different directions is that there are people who we all know who are doing OK, maybe they are working remotely, and they are actually saying that their expenses have gone down.

They don’t use as much gas, they don’t bring the same amount of clothes to the dry cleaner for business clothes, they are not going out to eat as much, even if they are ordering “take out,” and they are actually leading a simpler life. They are taking a walk at 6 o’clock, and they are dealing with that.

On the other hand, there are lot of people living in small apartments, with small kids, who don’t know if they are going to have enough food at the end of the month, and they are still not getting access to all the [relief] they need, they are still not sure if they have to go back to their front-line job and put themselves at risk, or their family at risk, and that’s going in two different directions again.

It highlights the income inequality.

Yes, I agree that we need innovation. I don’t what they all may be. I don’t think it’s “innovate” and throw out everything else. I do think it’s a balance of what we know the basics are, with innovation.

ConvergenceRI: One of the things that I often write about is the difference between top-down innovation, innovation as brought to you by the CEO, and bottom-up innovation, that comes from the community, the mothers of necessity and invention. Where do those meet and collide, and whether or not they collaborate. Some of the state’s economic planning, such as Rhode Island Innovates 2.0, it seems to be driven by the top-down, rather than bottom up. As a result, they missed identifying any need for future investments in public health infrastructure.
In the Rhode Island Foundation’s role as a facilitator, as a convener, you appear to be really interested in hearing different voices. How can we make that happen, given that we’re all going to be living in a virtual world for a while?
I think it is a good question and a huge challenge. I go back to again, to our kind of traditional conversation early on, the bumping into each other isn’t going on.

I can reach out, or you can reach out, to people we know, or you can introduce me to new people I don’t know, but that kind of more random, orchestrated to some extent, meeting of a bunch of people we don’t know, it’s hard to come by right now.

Institutions need to do that. One of the things that popped into my mind, and I don’t know how relevant it is, when you were talking about top-down, is this: Many, many years ago, when AT&T was AT&T, the number of people working at AT&T labs that had patents was in the thousands, maybe tens of thousands They promoted in a large corporate environment a very entrepreneurial culture.

I don’t see something cohesive happening with the universities. You have a number of Big Pharma companies spending billions of dollars looking for a vaccine, and letting them all compete to see who gets theirs first.

Generally, on a local basis, you don’t want the duplication. You want people working together, and I think we need a better approach. I don’t profess to have it.

We are trying to do that in the areas of education and health, getting together more, and agreeing on what the challenges and the focus should be. Right now, a lot of it seems like it is every person for themself. That’s a long way of saying I don’t have an answer to what you are asking, but I do think it is a challenge.


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