Innovation Ecosystem

Snapshots from the RI Foundation annual meeting

Rhode Island Foundation celebrates its banner year in 2016, with an optimistic message for the future, even as the storm clouds darken the horizon

Photo by Richard Asinof

The Rhode Island Foundation held its annual meeting on May 24, celebrating its banner year in 2016. Above, the cover of the Foundation's 2016 annual report

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/29/17
The Rhode Island Foundation celebrated its banner year in 2016 at its recent annual meeting, exhorting Rhode Islanders to be positive and optimistic and generous, despite the uncertainty of storm clouds on the horizon.
Would the Rhode Island Foundation be willing to underwrite an annual, longitudinal index of quality of life in Rhode Island, creating metrics and benchmarks around those indicators that represent the true wealth of Rhode Island? At the same time, will the Rhode Island Foundation be willing to underwrite a conversation about the darker side of Rhode Island life, the diseases of despair, including deaths by suicide, drugs and alcohol, tied to economic de-industrialization? How can a focus on aging, not just about preserving philanthropic wealth for the next generation, be integrated into the ongoing grant-making program at the Rhode Island Foundation? What does it mean to create an engaged community of participants, inviting them to sit at the decision-making table?
One of the biggest storm clouds of uncertainty hanging over Rhode Island concerns health care. The announcement on May 25 that Brown University and the Warren Alpert Medical School have created their own large group practice, known as Brown Physicians, Inc., is further evidence of a sea change underway in the state’s health care delivery system.
One way to look at the struggle is by a comparison to the medieval ages, when the authority of the church in Rome broke down and city-states competed against each other for their fair share of the wealth, pitting Florence against Siena, Venice and Rome.
In health care, the move toward value, not volume, in how reimbursements get paid, puts the risk of managing a continuum of care onto the physicians, in large part. In response, physician groups are being organizing into larger, statewide practices, aligned with health systems. In the medieval comparison, it would be similar to the creation of mercantile guilds as economic protection.
Like many analogies, it is an imperfect comparison. But another lesson from medieval history is the spread of divisive intolerance, manifested by what was known as the Bonfire of the Vanities, followed by the Inquisition, and the practice of burning heretics at the stake. The word origin of bonfire comes from bone fire.
The latest budget proposed by President Trump and the House version of Trumpcare makes no bones about the intent: to use the health care delivery system to extract the wealth of the poor and the middle class to benefit the wealthy. The question is: if you believe there is no divine right of kings or queens or corporations, what can you do?
On Tuesday, May 30, the R.I. Senate Policy Caucus will host U.S. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse for a briefing on ongoing efforts to repeal the Affordable Care Act and its implications for Rhode Island. Stay tuned.

PROVIDENCE – The Rhode Island Foundation celebrated entering its 101st year at its annual meeting held at the Rhode Island Convention Center on May 24, projecting an aura of optimism and hope about the future and its continuing philanthropic efforts to lead, transform and inspire.

The “Inspiring Partner Award celebrated the Frederic Wilcox family and its unrestricted gift of $26 million, which made Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, so excited, he told the gathering of more than 700 in attendance, that “I didn’t sleep for a week.”

Overall, in 2016, the Rhode Island Foundation had a banner year: raising $60 million from donors, with $45 million given in grants to more than 1,600 organizations, having reached nearly $900 million in total assets, and earning an 8.5 percent return on its investments.

The preservation of Roger Williams Park is proceeding apace, in partnership with The Champlin Foundation, which was awarded the Centennial Champion Award. And, once again, Steinberg announced that the Rhode Island Philharmonic would be performing a free concert in the park on Aug. 4 this year. “All are invited,” Steinberg said.

The Rhode Island Foundation, Steinberg said, is built to last – of Rhode Island, for Rhode Island, and by Rhode Island.

Yet, despite the promise to err on the side of future generosity, the acknowledgement that “we will have to do better” to make it happen here in Rhode Island, and the exhortation to “be positive,” there was a distinct if unspoken sense of uneasiness – call it a worry, a chill, an uncertainty – that seemed to pervade underneath the upbeat ceremony.

With storm clouds on the horizon caused by the threatening tide of rhinoceroses on a rampage in Washington, D.C., under the direction of President Donald Trump, the question before The Rhode Island Foundation is this: what resistance, if any, will the foundation offer, to preserve the quality of life, to protect the environment, to endorse the pursuit of scientific inquiry, to honor the diversity and culture in Rhode Island, now that the veritable barbarians are at the gates?

Driving the policy agenda
From a community investment perspective, the Rhode Island Foundation is the driving force behind so many philanthropic projects in the state, adhering to strategic initiatives: economic security, educational success and healthy lives. There are five additional grant-making areas of focus: arts and culture, children and families, environment, housing and basic human needs.

Foundation grants fall into two broad categories: discretionary grants made at the direction of staff and directors, and grants recommended by donors through donor-advised and designated funds.

The Rhode Island Foundation has also played a central role in recent years convening conversations and studies about the state’s economic future, including support for the recent Brookings Institution’s analysis of strategic economic paths for Rhode Island could choose to pursue.

Cocktails, conversation are served
For sure, arguments about climate change were not on the front burners of conversation as the attendees went from station to station to partake of a sumptuous dinner menu, which included: hot wieners, all the way, clam cakes, stuffies, doughboys, coffee cabinet shooters and Del’s lemonade; margherita pizza, sliced tenderloin of beef, and sliders served on a pretzel roll.

In keeping with the smorgasbord theme, here is a sampling of conversations at the event:

Gov. Gina Raimondo was not in attendance, but Dan Jennings, senior economic adviser at Commerce RI, was, and he told ConvergenceRI that he had recently heard Dr. Michael Fine, the clinical director at Blackstone Valley Community Health Care, speak, and Jennings was impressed. “He gets it,” Jennings said, talking about Fine’s grasp of health care. “He really gets it.”

Does that mean that Fine’s concept of Neighborhood Health Stations, with two now operating in Central Falls and Scituate, will get support as an economic development engine? Good question.

Rachel Flum, director of the Economic Progress Institute, thanked ConvergenceRI for his recent interview, and asked if he needed a hard copy of the Institute’s recent report, “The State of Black Families in Rhode Island – Left Behind But Making Strides.”

Among the findings were: there were 68,243 Black Rhode Islanders living in the Ocean State, some 6.5 percent of the population, representing a 45 percent increase since 2000; there was persistent inequality, reflected in the fact that for every dollar of income in the median White household, the median Black household realizes just 57 cents; and the Black unemployment rate and underemployment rate consistently exceeds the rates for Whites.

Being heard is hard work, particularly when you are talking about those being left behind. Working the crowds at the Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting is one way to be proactive.

• Standing in line at one of the food stations, a gentleman tapped ConvergenceRI on the shoulder and said: “I know you.” ConvergenceRI turned around and shook his hand, waiting for the other shoe to drop. “You’re on ‘A Lively Experiment,’ he said. “You’re really good.”

ConvergenceRI thanked him for his comment, saying it was probably my “15 seconds of fame.” The gentleman persisted, once again saying he liked what I had said. “Jim Hummel calls it the fastest 30 minutes in politics, and it’s true.”

It is true that ConvergenceRI has been invited to be a regular guest on the show for the last six months.

Being identified in the food line at the Rhode Island Foundation annual meeting for my guest appearances on A Lively Experiment was a different kind of social media experience, much better than a “like” on Facebook.

At a table, in conversation with two women also seated there, one asked: “What do you plan to do when you retire?” The temptation was to be a bit glib, and quote from Satchel Paige, one of the greatest pitchers in baseball, and say, “Maybe I’ll pitch [write] forever.”

The question about retirement was a good one, a question that ConvergenceRI had no real easy answer for. There was still an economic imperative to keep working, which was probably the same for many Baby Boomers. ConvergenceRI also thought about directing the conversation about how to tap the wealth, expertise and entrepreneurial know-how of an aging generation.

In the end, ConvergenceRI opted for a simple, polite, one-word answer: travel. Where would you go? Haleakala National Park on Maui. Which, in turn, launched the conversation back toward where the women wanted to travel to in their retirement, which, it seemed, was the purpose of the first question.

The wealth of our lives is carried in our own personal stories, our histories and our memories, and in our interactions with people, family and the natural world.

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