Innovation Ecosystem

Forging a new social contract

United Way of RI’s Cortney Nicolato lays out plans for 211 2.0, developing a new tool to track how social services are delivered in Rhode Island

Photo by Peter Goldberg, courtesy of United Way of Rhode Island

Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, high fives a member of the summer learning initiative celebration. File photo.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 12/13/21
An in-depth interview with Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, talking about the new five-year strategic plan that seeks to redefine the relationship that nonprofits have with the state.
How will the state’s budget process change to reflect the changing relationship with the nonprofit community in Rhode Island? Will the R.I. General Assembly commission an audit of the Managed Care Organizations and their Medicaid business practices? What kinds of collaborations around data are possible between the Rhode Island Quality Institute and United Way of Rhode Island’s revised 211 2.0 reboot?
How will the new strategic plan for United Way of Rhode Island change the concept of advocacy and philanthropy in the state? The changing role of corporate philanthropy in Rhode Island raises some interesting questions about accountability and decision-making around targeted investments, where the Rhode Island Foundation has continued to play an oversized role in its investments in health care, in education, in racial equity, and in economic development, as state government has ceded much of the ongoing initiative to the community foundation. The apparent ongoing collaboration between the Governor, legislative leaders, and the Rhode Island Foundation about how to spend government funds, both state and federal, may be welcomed in many quarters. But it raises some sticky questions about the separation between private philanthropy and state government.

PROVIDENCE – The world of nonprofits in Rhode Island is in crisis – overworked, underpaid, viewed as vendors and not as partners by the state, beset by complex contracts where the state is slow to pay, and being asked to work extra hours to keep the social safety net from fraying during a time of pandemic.

Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, is pushing to rewrite the script when it comes to the nonprofit community, empowering them to develop a new relationship with the state and with the corporate world.

“The nonprofit sector is 18 percent of the workforce in Rhode Island,” Nicolato said. “Every other state in New England has, over the last 10 years, seen a 15-20 percent growth in their nonprofit sector. During that same period, we in Rhode Island have seen a reduction in our workforce of 2.3 percent, the only state in the nation to have seen a reduction in our nonprofit workforce. That tells me the structure is not working.”

One of the biggest challenges facing nonprofits, according to Nicolato, is overcoming the stigma about serving the community. “I think that nonprofits are mission-driven small businesses. Full stop. While we are not generating revenue to stockholders, we are generating revenues of services. I and my team are really focused on changing the mindset.”

Some of the structural problems that Nicolato would like to see addressed involve the complexities of state contracting, which she said doesn’t allow nonprofits to be able to grow as a business, or to pay their employees a livable wage, and problems with being paid on time. Nicolato said that one of the contracts United Way has with the state has not been paid for 11 months. Agencies, she continued, may not get paid in timely fashion, waiting for up to 90 days to be reimbursed.

To remedy the structural shortfalls, Nicolato and United Way of Rhode Island are planning to launch a nonprofit management center in the next year.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, seeking to redefine the relationship between nonprofit agencies and the state of Rhode Island during a time of pandemic.

ConvergenceRI: It seems as if you have been at the center of so much of the maelstrom that has been going on in Rhode Island.
NICOLATO: I have been abundantly grateful that United Way of Rhode Island has been able to serve the community in the way that we have.

Especially with 211, we are built to serve in this capacity. Are we built to serve for two years straight in a crisis? It has been tough, and it continues to be tough. My team has been remarkable and the nonprofit community has been remarkable through all this.

ConvergenceRI: What are the future plans for United Way of Rhode Island, as the state re-emerges from the current crisis? Where do you want to see United Way going?
NICOLATO: We launched our five-year strategic plan very purposefully in 2021, in the middle of the pandemic, because we wanted to make sure that we were looking at both the short-terms needs of Rhode Islanders, but also continuing our work on the long-term needs of Rhode Islanders, too.

That strategic plan is really our guide, as we think about our own transformation, and how we want to transform the state.

We are focused on economic stability and mobility. So, a livable wage is a really important area for us. Every one of my United Way team members is making a livable wage, and we have made a commitment to increasing that wage in the next few years. We want other companies to follow suit.

We want to continue to put our foot on the pedal in regard to housing. We are going to push the community to go deeper in how we think about the housing crisis. While investments are absolutely important, we couldn’t agree more with that, we have been advocating for couldn’t agree more with that, we have been advocating for such investments in housing, as you know, and we have seen some great wins over the last 12 months.

But we also have to look at the structures, looking at land use, looking at zoning practices at local levels of policy. And, looking at enabling legislation and how different that it is from one city and town to another.

We really want to get into the weeds, as it relates to our advocacy efforts, working more closely with our municipal partners, and help to flip the structural challenges that prohibit us from being successful in building safe and affordable housing in the state, through policies that support long-term viability.

One of the things around housing we will continue to push for is the concept that housing is health care, housing is economic development, and housing is education. If you do not have a stable and affordable place to call home, how can we expect [families to prosper].

Homes are where jobs go to sleep at night.

ConvergenceRI: I believe it was Nicholas Retsinas who coined that phrase.
NICOLATO: I love it. And it is so important. How can we expect children to be able to focus in the classroom if they don’t know where they are going to lay their head that night.

We know that families are going to do everything that they can to keep a roof over their heads – including taking less medication, and eating less food. And that is what is happening to far too many Rhode Islanders.

We are really pushing the envelope as it relates to the structural challenges in housing.

ConvergenceRI: What are your plans for 211, the call line?
NICOLATO: Our strategic plan focuses on creating economic stability and mobility, and that work is really centered around 211; 211 continues to take the most calls per capita in the country.

We want to continue to transform the capabilities of 211 as an information and referral network. We work with thousands of programs, more than 11,000 programs, in fact, all across the state that provide services and support for Rhode Islanders.

We know that we need to create a stronger data infrastructure about how we aresharing information, about how we are providing referrals, and about how we are communicating.

To do that, we are partnering with a technology firm that has done similar work with other programs in the country, to build what we are calling 211 2.0, which will be a technology-enabled platform. I am calling it the health information exchange for social services. The project is in progress and being designed right now.

ConvergenceRI: When do you anticipate that the new 211 2.0 will be launched?
NICOLATO: Good question. We are in the design phase right now; we plan to release it incrementally. We have been working with the state to connect with Medicaid providers so that will probably come first. We are developing a network of about 100 agencies throughout the state, called Unite Us Rhode Island.

We want to make sure that as different organizations are connecting, they are getting the proper training, designing proper workflow, proper testing, and all of that. We are moving much faster than we had even hoped, but it is going to be an incremental process.

We are hoping that by the end of 2023, we will have connections to some 200 different organizations, including thousands of programs, all up and running on this new tool.

ConvergenceRI: How are you currently tracking the data numbers from 211 callers?
NICOLATO: We have a Ph.D. on staff, her name is Adama Brown, she is director of Research and Data Analytics; she is amazing. We are consistently looking at 211 data through a variety of lenses.

I will say that the data that we are able to collect from an outcome perspective will be enhanced greatly with the technology and tools that we will be integrating as part of 211 2.0. This is going to up the ante on what data we can collect, and how we can evaluate the social services needs of the state.

ConvergenceRI: In your recent op-ed, published in the Boston Globe, you talked about many nonprofits were seen as vendors, not as partners, and that there needed to be a new relationship developed with the state. In many ways, you seem to be describing a marriage that is no longer working. So what happens? Do you get divorced? Do you go into counseling? What happens?
NICOLATO: That is a great question. Nonprofits have been stepping up and serving as extensions of state agencies for decades. Folks may or may not have realized that. And, COVID has amplified the situation. The nonprofit community has done nothing but step up.

But the contracting process with the state is unbelievably difficult. And, many nonprofit organizations cannot pay their staff a livable wage.

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