News & analysis at the convergence of health, science, technology and innovation
Innovation Ecosystem

Does giving change us; does it change everything?

This week, the Rhode Island Foundation celebrates its annual meeting, during a time of pandemic when the philanthropic giant has seemingly emerged as the premier policymaker for the state

Photo by Richard Asinof/File photo

Neil Steinberg, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, in a 2020 interview.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 5/9/22
The annual meeting of the Rhode Island Foundation marks an important nodal point for the state as it seeks to move forward in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.
How will the status quo of Rhode Island’s electoral landscape be disrupted by the “leaked” decision about plans by the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Roe v. Wade? Will the R.I. General Assembly increase the reimbursement rates for Medicaid providers in this year’s budget? When will unmet needs in behavioral health and mental health services become a talking point in the Governor’s race? How can prevention become part of the cost calculation for health care costs in Rhode Island? What is the best forum to be able to ask questions of our elected leaders and our business leaders and our philanthropists?
The only thing we have to fear is fear itself, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt declared in 1933 in his inaugural address. Nine decades later, we are faced with a similar crisis of confidence, it seems, with so many bad actors attempting to instill fear in our lives, to drive out the forces of connection and community and common ground. Worse, it seems, is the blatant lying and deception that is occurring, magnified by the merchants of distrust and disinformation on social media.
The best part of the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting was never the speeches or the hoopla, but rather the gathering around food and drink that took place after the pomp and circumstance and, in particular, the serendipitous conversations that occurred.
This year, ConvergenceRI looks forward to the gathering with a good amount of trepidation – being immuno-compromised, it is risky to be in such an indoor setting with so many who may not be masked. Such a gathering requires extreme vigilance, beyond being masked, beyond being fully vaxxed and boosted, beyond avoiding the more boisterous and oblivious who will be part of the crowd. For someone as myself, now disabled, with great difficulty in walking, managing such an event prevents real obstacles. The decision to attend is still up the air, so to speak.

PROVIDENCE – As the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, Neil Steinberg serves, in many ways, as an unelected leader of Rhode Island. In 2021, the Rhode Island Foundation had returns of more than 20 percent on its approximately $1.4 billion residing in the community foundation’s endowment, while attracting more than $98 million in new funds.

Under the guidance of Steinberg, a former banker, the Rhode Island Foundation has used its wealth to influence – to direct, to push, to cajole, and to manipulate – the state’s policies and investments when it comes to shaping the future of health care, education, housing, racial equity, and the workforce – even weighing in with a comprehensive plan recommending the best ways to spend more than $1.3 billion in federal government funds under the American Rescue Plan Act.

From providing a bridge loan to secure the public-private financing for the planned resurrection of the former Industrial Trust “Superman” building to sponsoring a stealth workshop on finding solutions to address the state’s health workforce crisis, from promoting a $10 million line item in the state’s proposed FY 2023 budget to support nonprofits’ response to the coronavirus pandemic to the development of a new compact to Accelerate Advanced Value Based Payment Model Adoption by the health care industry in Rhode Island, the presence of Steinberg has been ubiquitous. And all those activities occurred in just the past two months. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Uncovering a stealth summit on the health workforce crisis.”]

Sometimes, the Rhode Island Foundation’s work behind the scenes has proven not to be “successful” – such as the effort conducted in March of this year to broker a solution with stakeholders to address the current homelessness crisis in Rhode Island. Or, in its efforts to coordinate and channel community feedback around the proposed merger between Care New England, Lifespan, and Care New England, which fell by the wayside when R.I. Attorney General Peter Neronha rejected the proposed merger. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Getting to no.”]

And, there is the still unexplained and mostly unpublicized role that the Rhode Island Foundation played in coordinating a “pro bono” arrangement for McKinsey & Company to work for the state of Rhode Island without a contract, during the early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

2021: a banner year
In terms of giving, the Rhode Island Foundation handed out more than $76 million in grants in 2021, and, as documented in its 2021 annual report, the investments have often been in concert with supporting those working to rebuild communities, such as ONE Neighborhood Builders, the community development corporation whose story was the first one featured in the Foundation’s annual report, “Building much more than homes.”

The good work being done by ONE Neighborhood Builders, for instance, has been featured again and again by ConvergenceRI, most recently in the story, “Positive vibrations: Reclaiming the mean streets of Providence, one building at a time,” as well as in the stories, “Changing life trajectories in Providence,” and “Investing in neighborhoods and residents,” the latter with its memorable lede:

• If Providence had its own home-grown breakfast cereal to celebrate its champions of place-based development, one of the faces on the inaugural cereal boxes would no doubt be Jennifer Hawkins, the executive director of ONE Neighborhood Builders, who in the last few years has stewarded a series of remarkable achievements and tangible results [though Hawkins would certainly demur and insist that members of her team share in the spotlights].

[See link below to stories.]

[Editor’s Note: Not that ConvergenceRI would, could, or should claim any credit for influencing the communications efforts of the Rhode Island Foundation, but as a long-term subscriber to ConvergenceRI, the Foundation is a member of what ConvergenceRI would describe as an “engaged community” of readers.]

This week, when the Rhode Island Foundation holds its annual meeting on Thursday, May 12, at the Rhode Island Convention Center, the gathering will bring together many of the state’s biggest donors, decision makers, and movers and shakers when it comes to honoring the prestigious roll call of private philanthropy in Rhode Island.

It brings to mind the frequently quoted adage, often attributed to Stan Lee in his “Spiderman” comics, “With great power comes great responsibility.”

This year’s honorees include:

• Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott, the former director of the R.I. Department of Health, who, after abruptly resigning from her position in early January, has begun to re-enter Rhode Island’s highly charged political atmosphere. [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “An intimate conversation with Dr. Nicole Alexander-Scott.”] Dr. Alexander-Scott will also be receiving an honorary degree from Brown University at the school’s commencement exercises.

• Jane Hayward, the former president and CEO of the Rhode Island Health Center Association and co-chair of the stakeholder group convened by the Rhode Island Foundation to fashion a long-term, 10-year plan to make Rhode Island the healthiest state in the nation. Hayward will receive the Foundation’s Community Leadership Award.

• Elizabeth Manchester, Esq.., a partner in the law firm, Partridge, Snow & Hahn, who chairs the firm’s Charitable and Nonprofit Organizations Practice Group, will be receiving the Foundation’s Harold B. Soloveitzik Professional Leadership Award.

• The Papitto Opportunity Connection will be receiving the Carter Inspiring Partner Award

In addition to Steinberg, Dr. G. Alan Kurose, who was appointed in 2022 the chair of the Rhode Island Foundation Board of Directors, will speak. Kurose is president of Coastal Medical and senior vice president for Primary Care and Population Health at Lifespan [which acquired Coastal Medical in 2021].

The annual meeting, with both Hayward and Dr. Alexander-Scott being honored, and with Kurose as a featured speaker, promises to have a definite “tilt” toward health care as an overriding concern.

Meeting the needs
In its mission statement, the Rhode Island Foundation sees itself as “a proactive community leader dedicated to meeting the needs of the people of Rhode Island.”

The vision of the work before the Rhode Island Foundation in the post-pandemic world, as Steinberg articulated in an interview with ConvergenceRI in June of 2020, was the need “to get things done,” [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Not good enough to return to what we thought was normal.”]

In the interview from two years ago, Steinberg pushed back against the idea that the Rhode Island Foundation was somehow taking over the role of government, in an extended answer to a question from ConvergenceRI.

STEINBERG: 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 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 a 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.

Two years later
Every year, around the time of the Rhode Island Foundation’s annual meeting, ConvergenceRI has sought to sit down with Steinberg to re-engage in an in-depth conversation about the state of the state and to ask Steinberg for his views of the current landscape.

ConvergenceRI had hoped to do so in advance of the upcoming annual meeting, but as Chris Barnett, the Rhode Island Foundation’s senior communications and marketing officer explained, “There isn’t enough time to do it [a sit down with Neil Steinberg] in advance of the Annual Meeting.” Barnett added: “I saw that you RSVP’d for the event. See you there.”

For sure, two years later, the world looks and feels much different than it did back in 2020, from which the lengthy excerpt from the interview with Steinberg is taken.

Joe Biden is President, not Donald Trump, although there are some deluded folks who still persist in what is known as “the big lie.” A vicious invasion by Russia of Ukraine has focused the world on the perils of dictators and fascism and oligarchs – and war crimes.

The nation and Rhode Island are still in the grips of fighting back against the coronavirus pandemic, with more than 1 million having died – and perhaps more – from the virulent virus. It is worth repeating: One million lives have been lost; and the trauma continues to reverberate.

The federal government has provided its largesse, in its ability “to print money” to help states overcome the financial losses caused by COVID-19. But how and where that money should be spent is still open to vigorous debate, both here in Rhode Island and in Congress.

Huge holes have ripped apart the safety net for Rhode Island’s most vulnerable residents, and yet, there still appears to be a stinginess to invest more government funds in addressing core problems – homelessness, substance use programs, community mental health, most of which are tied to the failure by the state to increase the reimbursement rates for Medicaid.

At last count, there were nearly 350,000 Rhode Island residents receiving their health insurance through Medicaid. Translated, that means 38 percent of Rhode Islanders are living at or near the federal poverty levels. Worse, if and when the federal government lifts its COVID emergency declaration, as many as 50,000 of those currently on Medicaid may be removed from health care because of eligibility requirements.

So, ConvergenceRI looks forward to the opportunity to engage with Neil Steinberg, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, in an in-depth conversation, to capture his insights about where Rhode Island is headed in 2022 and the future. Because, in so many ways, Steinberg has his fingers on the pulse of Rhode Island.


No comments on this item Please log in to comment by clicking here

© | 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.