Innovation Ecosystem

The importance of asking questions

Efforts to engage with Congressman David Cicilline with questions about his new role as President and CEO of RI foundation hit a perplexing snag

Photo by Richard Asinof

A certificate of special recognition presented by Congressman David Cicilline on Oct. 6, 2022, when CODAC honored the reporting of ConvergenceRI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 3/6/23
Asking questions of the new president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation proved to be a perplexing challenge.
What is the proper role of the state’s leading philanthropy in dispensing tax dollars to implement public policies for the state? Should arrangements with private business consultants to conduct state business be made public? How are conflicts of interest identified for board members of the Rhode Island Foundation when it comes to designing and implementing public policies at the direction of the state legislative leaders and the Governor? Which news media in Rhode Island cover the philanthropy beat?
In a recent interview with Attorney General Peter Neronha, he made clear his worries about the future of two hospitals, Roger Williams and Fatima, once they have exhausted the $80 million in escrow, and the likelihood that the private equity owners will seek to close down the two hospitals. Neronha also talked about the need to develop new regulatory tools to look at the health care industry – outside of transactions, sales and mergers. Neronha identified the lack of primary care providers in the state as a big challenge moving forward. The question is: where is this regulatory function to be found in state government?
Imagine a potluck gathering where all the CEOs who are members of Partnership for Rhode Island have to bring a dish that they cooked and prepared themselves, and couldn’t farm it out to an underling – to do the shopping, to do the prep work, to do the actual cooking, and then the presentation of the dish.
When we talk about preserving wealth, we do not talk about preserving things like recipes handed down by family members, or the ceramic mixing bowls and baking dishes used. The knowledge that gets passed around at the dinner table often begins in the kitchen.

PROVIDENCE – The art of reporting often comes down to simple tasks: the ability to ask questions, to listen carefully to the answers, and then to record what is said – or what is not said – in response.

And persistence – the gumption to keep asking questions, pursuing answers, even when folks may not want to talk with you. [ConvergenceRI freely admits that at age 70, now disabled, experiencing great difficulty in walking, the chase can be difficult. It can result in my becoming feisty.]

On Tuesday, Feb. 21, the Rhode Island Foundation announced that Congressman David Cicllline had been selected to become the next President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, a big news day for the community foundation, with more than $1.4 billion in assets, transitioning from the leadership of outgoing President and CEO, Neil Steinberg.

Under Steinberg’s guidance, the Rhode Island Foundation has emerged as a new kind of de facto government, a nonprofit private philanthropy that now serves as a distributor of government resources in Rhode Island, developing policies about how taxpayer funds should be spent on the future of health care, on housing, on behavioral health, on education, and on the life sciences industry.

The transition from Steinberg to Cicilline – from banker to lawyer, from nonprofit philanthropist to former elected official – comes at a critical time for Rhode Island, as the state confronts and grapples with crises in education, in housing, in health care, and in business development.

As a reporter, ConvergenceRI believed it was a perfect opportunity to engage with Congressman David Cicilline – to ask him questions. The task, however, proved to be a bit more difficult than anticipated.

As an editor and reporter, ConvergenceRI has had an ongoing “relationship” with Congressman David Cicilline for more than two decades. By “relationship,” it means the asking of questions, as a journalist, in on-the-record interviews, often in a one-on-one, in-person exchange.

For instance, in mid-September of 2003, when Cicilline was serving in his first tem as Mayor of Providence, I interviewed him at length in his mayoral office, as editor of The Jewish Advocate in Boston.

And, twice in the last three years, at ceremonies where my skills and prowess as a reporter were being honored, Congressman Cicilline presented me with certificates of special recognition.

• On Nov. 14, 2019, I received a certificate of special recognition from Congressman Cicilline in honor of my receiving the 2019 Media Award from the Childhood Lead Action Project.

• On Oct. 6, 2022, I received another certificate of special recognition from Congressman Cicilline, in honor of my recognition by CODAC for “the advocacy, honesty and integrity of your reporting,” at the agency’s 50th anniversary celebration.

The inability to engage
When the Rhode Island Foundation announced the selection of Congressman Cicilline, I immediately reached out to spokesperson Chris Barnett at the Rhode Island Foundation to arrange an interview. Barnett, in turn, forwarded to me the media contact, Jennifer Bell, for Cicilline.

I first called and spoke with Bell, who assured me that she would find a time for me to talk with the Congressman, and asked me to send her an email. Which I did:

Good morning:

We just spoke briefly on the phone; I would like to schedule an interview with David to talk about his new position as President of the Rhode Island Foundation; thanks!

Richard Asinof
Editor and Publisher

Bell replied:
Hi Richard,

Unfortunately, I was a bit too optimistic earlier and we wont be able to get you on the phone with the Congressman today. Wanted to make sure you had our full release.


I immediately responded, thanking Bell for her efforts and suggesting an interview for later in the week.

Thanks, can we try to schedule an interview for later in the week? Yes, I have seen the news release and the initial stories; if an interview is too difficult to schedule, can I send you some questions for the Congressman to answer? I am happy to send those to you ASAP.

Three days later, no response had been received from Bell, and so, on Friday Feb. 24, I followed up with an email and a phone call to Bell.

Following up on our phone call and the email I sent to you,, which apparently fell under the radar screen, here are my questions for Congressman David Cicilline, with, as we discussed, a deadline of Wednesday, March 1, at 5 pm for his responses:

• What are your plans for continuing the Foundation’s Equity Leadership Institute, in terms of resources and continued support for Angela Ankoma, who is leading the initiative?

In recent years, the Foundation has taken on the role of serving in a kind of de facto government funding source, distributing government funds to nonprofits. Do you believe that is an appropriate role for a community foundation to play? What kinds of accountability measures do you think need to be in place to protect against potential conflicts of interest?

• As part of the RI Foundation’s expanded role as a “quasi” public entity, the Foundation entered into a pro bono relationship with McKinsey & Company to work with the state in preparing the state’s responses to the COVID pandemic response. Why is that an appropriate role for the Foundation to play in partnering with private business consulting firms to direct and decide state policies, working without a state contract?

• Similarly, last week, the RI Foundation contracted with the Boston Consulting Group, a private consulting firm, to address issues around housing and homelessness, but refused to reveal how much money the Foundation is paying the Boston Consulting Group for its services. Should such investments be transparent and public, in your opinion?

• It has been the modus operandi of the RI Foundation under Neil Steinberg to convene groups of stakeholders to develop future health and education policies for the state. Given that the current chair of the Foundation board of directors, Dr. G. Alan Kurose, MD, MBA, is a vice president at Lifespan, does his participation in the stakeholder’s group represent a conflict of interest? If not, why not?

• What do you see as the biggest barriers to harm reduction strategies being implemented in Rhode Island, in particular, the efforts to establish a harm reduction center in Providence as a pilot project? [Two RIF board members, Angela Ankoma and Carrie Bridges Feliz, sit on the advisory committee dispensing legal settlement money.]

• How do you envision your role as a public speaker, using your position to champion civil rights and health equity in Rhode Island?

• What questions haven’t I asked, should I have asked, that you would like to talk about?

For sure, these were not softball questions being lobbed in Congressman Cicilline’s direction, but insightful questions regarding some of the challenges that Cicilline will face in his new job.

The response
Unfortunately, the questions apparently proved to be a bit too much. Bell responded by declining to answer the questions, saying that they had been forwarded to the Rhode Island Foundation.

Hi Richard,

Hope you had a nice weekend.

Since these questions are Rhode Island Foundation-specific and don't pertain to the Congressman's current role or his transition from elected office, I'll send your email along to the team there.


Response to the response
ConvergenceRI emailed back to Bell:

Thanks, Jennifer:

My questions were directed to the Congressman, not to the Rhode Island Foundation, given his new job; if the Congressman and his office were following ConvergenceRI, you would be aware that these questions have been part of an ongoing dialogue with Neil Steinberg in numerous interviews I have conducted with him.

I am sending along the most recent issue of ConvergenceRI, which includes an in-depth interview with the AG. I would hope that the Congressman reconsiders his decision and decides to respond to the questions; thanks!

My plan is to run the questions in the next edition, at this moment.

Moving forward
ConvergenceRI may never get answers to the questions asked of Congressman Cicilline about this new leadership role at the Rhode Island Foundation. Simply asking the questions is the first important step in beginning a dialogue about how the Congressman addresses ongoing challenges at the state’s leading philanthropy.

Perhaps the answers will need to wait until Cicilline is officially installed as the President and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation later this year.

© | subscribe | contact us | report problem | About | Advertise

powered by creative circle media solutions

Join the conversation

Want to get ConvergenceRI
in your inbox every Monday?

Type of subscription (choose one):

We will contact you with subscription details.

Thank you for subscribing!

We will contact you shortly with subscription details.