Innovation Ecosystem

Tracking the heartbeat of community

An in-depth, one-on-one interview with David Cicilline, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, discussing potential future investment strategies for the community foundation

Photo by Richard Asinof

David Cicilline, president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, talks about the learning curve in his new role in an in-depth interview with ConvergenceRI.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 2/19/24
David Cicilline, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, shares his priorities moving forward for the state’s only community foundation.
The latest investigative reporting by Moe Tkacik, “Attack of the Straw Doctors,” details how the Oregon House passed a new law, HB4130, to limit the loopholes to the corporate practice of medicine, despite the lobbying from Amazon, UnitedHealth, and telemedicine firms. The legal framework provides other states, including Rhode Island, the opportunity to better regulate the practice of what is known as “straw doctors.”
How will philanthropy invest in supporting new models of local journalism during a time of great media disruption? In calculating health care costs, will the new dataset being developed by the Rhode Island Foundation include the cost of health care denied and health care that could not be accessed? What kind of new federal and state regulation is needed to protect health care facilities from being swallowed up by private equity firms? Are there investments that can be made to improve access to primary care in local communities to change the dynamic around people going to the emergency room? How can social media platforms that push misinformation be made to be accountable? Will people participate in efforts to organize a citizen’s response to the potential closings of Steward Health Care hospitals in Massachusetts, organized by Primary Care for All Americans, featuring a discussion featuring Chis Koller, Dr. Michael Fine, and Moe Tkacik in a Zoom session on Feb. 21?
The lack of opportunity for patients to be heard within the process of determining the costs of health care make it difficult to find a consultant who can quantify the high cost of being ignored by caregivers, who rarely seem to listen very well. Male providers often discount information from women about pain. Similarly, older patients find that their questions are left unanswered. To paraphrase the Langston Hughes poem, what happens to the dream of health deferred or ignored? How do you calculate the cost of being denied care?

PROVIDENCE – It has been more than 20 years since ConvergenceRI first sat down in David Cicilline’s office to conduct a one-on-one interview. Back then it was at Providence City Hall in 2003, when Cicilline was serving in his first year as Mayor of Providence.

Two decades later, Cicilline now serves as president and CEO of The Rhode Island Foundation, steward of the community foundation with approximately $1.4 billion in assets.  He succeeded Neil Steinberg in that role.

The challenges of the leadership position of the community foundation that serves as the veritable fourth arm of government in Rhode Island, often called upon to serve as the safety net whenever there is a shortfall of resources to protect and nurture Rhode Islanders, are many.

“What I am most excited about,” Cicilline shared with ConvergenceRI in an interview that took place on Wednesday morning, Feb. 14, “is to be leading an organization that has, first of all, a long history of making a difference in the lives of Rhode Islanders for over 100 years.”

It is an organization, Cicilline continued, speaking in his trademark, rapid-fire delivery, stringing his thoughts together, “that is staffed by people who are deeply committed to this work, and has incredibly generous donors who understand the legacy of the Rhode Island Foundation and who are committed to ensuring that we have the resources to make a difference, to be leading an organization where you are only limited by your imagination – and your ability to bring resources to bear; it’s a great place.”

Cicilline paused, adding: “It feels like a very different place than where I came from. Here, everyone is working together, trying to get great things done, and moving in the same direction. That wasn’t always the feeling that I had in Washington, D.C.”

The biggest news items coming out of the interview were about shifts in investment strategies at the Rhode Island Foundation.

While continuing the community foundation’s support for public education, health care, affordable housing, equity, civic engagement and economic opportunity, Cicilline revealed that there were plans underway to make investments in developing a collaborative state climate action plan to address the growing urgency of climate disruption.

In addition, there were plans to make philanthropic investments in support of local journalists, supporting “the ability of citizens to have access to trustworthy, reliable news [that] is essential to the healthy function of our democracy.” Cicilline said he had had conversations with the CEO of the MacArthur Foundation, which recently decided to invest some $500 million in support of local journalism endeavors.

And, when it comes to health care, Cicilline revealed that the Rhode Island Foundation has decided to drill down and develop a comprehensive dataset detailing the costs of health care delivery.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with David Cicilline, the president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, who candidly shared the learning curve he has experienced in his first eight months on the job, after a career as a lawyer and then an elected official – as a state representative, as Providence Mayor, and as a member of Congress.

ConvergenceRI: It is really great to finally sit down and talk with you. It sounds as if you’ve had a very busy, busy, busy, busy seven, eight, nine months now.  
CICILLINE: It’s funny. I was saying to someone the other day, I feel like in this job, I am actually working harder. I thought I worked really hard before, but I think part of it is learning an organization. And, as the new president and CEO, there are a lot of grantees and other stakeholders that want to have conversations, even though many of them I already knew from prior work.

ConvergenceRI: How are those conversations going? Is it different now, that you are at the Rhode Island Foundation, rather than a member of Congress? Has the quality of the conversation changed? Or, is it still just like Rhode Island, where everyone is going to come up and start talking to you, regardless of what is going on.  
CICILLINE: It’s different, in that the conversations are typically about the role that the Rhode Island Foundation has played in their work, and the work of the organization. It’s different. As head of the largest nonprofit in the state, very often it’s about the opportunities for the Rhode Island Foundation to support the work that is happening all across the state.

What’s really great is that when I got here, I realized that almost every organization that the Rhode Island Foundation funds I have had some relationship with, either having visited, or had some relationship as Mayor, as a member of Congress, as a state legislator.  So, I came here with a set of relationships with people who have been leading work in all these areas that the Rhode Island Foundation focuses on, which is a great advantage, I think.

ConvergenceRI: How steep has the learning curve been? Did you have to re-learn things?    

ConvergenceRI: Did you allow yourself the time to listen differently to what people were saying?  
CICILLINE: Yes, absolutely. I came to this position with almost 30 years of [serving in] elected office – and having worked in all the areas that focus on The Foundation’s work on education, and health care, housing and economic development and equity. So, I spent – and I continue to spend a lot of time – listening to stakeholders.

First, I listened to the team at the Rhode Island Foundation; I met individually with every member of the Rhode Foundation team, to learn about their work and their experiences, and about the way that the organization runs. I did the same thing with donors and with grantees. I visited places where we are making investments all across Rhode Island, from Woonsocket to Westerly and Aquidneck Island, to see, first-hand, the impact of all we are doing.

We have a lot of other ways of listening to the community and learning from them. I wrote an op-ed recently in The Providence Journal where we invited the public to also participate in [sharing their thoughts].

I have also become active immediately in a number of organizations that are national organizations of community foundations, to learn from my colleagues. I am doing everything I can to learn from colleagues. I have done a lot of outreach, meeting on Zoom with other community foundation CEOs as a way to learn about their work, and also share some of the things that we are doing here.

I spent a lot of time in the first seven-eight months of this job listening and learning, and I will continue to do that.

ConvergenceRI: What has been the most surprising thing for you that you have learned?  
CICILLINE: I would say that what has really struck me is the breadth of the work of the Rhode Island Foundation. We are unique in that we are the only community foundation in Rhode Island, so it’s both a blessing and tremendous responsibility.

There are 300 community foundations in New York, so there is a lot of competition for philanthropic resources. We are the only community foundation in Rhode Island. It means we have responsibility for the whole state. So, it is both a challenge and a blessing.

I was familiar with the work of the Rhode Island Foundation in all of my previous roles. As a state legislator, as a mayor, and as a member of Congress, I worked with the Rhode Island Foundation on a number of different issues. But I didn’t fully appreciate how broad their reach was, how much they do, and how many organizations we support, and how many very generous Rhode Islanders trust us with their philanthropy.

The size – being one of the oldest and largest community foundations in the country is something that I really have come to understand.

ConvergenceRI: Downstairs I bumped into Angie Ankoma [vice president at the RI Foundation and executive director of the Equity Leadership Initiative], whom I’ve known for a couple of decades. Her work on equity – and the role that the Foundation is playing in equity – is, I think, really unique. I haven’t seen others necessarily step up to the plate in the same way. How do you see the work on equity progressing and the kind of leadership that you might bring to that work?  
CICILLINE: Equity has been a central part of all of my work. It is the reason why I became a civil rights and criminal defense lawyer. It is the reason why I worked on issues of equity in the state legislature. I have continued my work, both in Congress and as Mayor, focusing on issues of fairness, and opportunity, and equity. It is central to who I am as a person.

It is really critical for the Rhode Island Foundation. I want to be certain that we build upon the work that we are already doing, and really ensure that equity is deeply embedded in all of the things that we do.

In our health care work, in our education work, if we don’t address the issues of tremendous inequity in all of those spaces, we are never going to achieve the kinds of results that we are demanding for ourselves. If you look at the disparity between kids of color and white kids in public education, if we don’t address the issue of equity, we have no chance of really moving education forward. The same in health care; the same in economic opportunity.

It has to be not only an important program that we run, but really embedded in all the work we do internally and externally. I am excited that we have a deep commitment to that, and I look forward to building upon that.

ConvergenceRI: In my past interviews with Neil [Steinberg], I often described the Rhode Island Foundation as operating as the safety net for state government. You actually operate as sort of a fourth arm of government in many ways. And state government has come to depend on you to cover their shortfalls. They depend on you for grant making; they depend on you for vision. You play a unique role in so many cases, as a way to influence policy.

 Could you talk about what you see as the most important priority under your leadership that you want to establish in terms of impacting and effecting policy moving forward.  
CICILLINE: I appreciate your description of the Rhode Island Foundation. I think you have accurately described it. And I think that is a tribute to the extraordinary generosity of Rhode Islanders for more than 100 years that has allowed us to make the investments in things that make a difference in Rhode Island.

The Rhode Island Foundation also serves as a convener, as an organization that is pushing and advancing investments in equity, as someone who has the unique ability to bring together people who are concerned about big issues and help to shape solutions.

We have 100 years of being a trusted institution in our state. I think it gives us both a unique privilege at this moment, but also tremendous responsibility.

One of the issues that the Rhode Island Foundation has been working on for a long time – and one that will remain an important priority –  is public education. That will continue to be a big priority.

 Housing is another area that we have made big investments in. It always feels like a crisis, but it really is a crisis, because it is central to so much about people’s ability to get a job, to go to school successfully. Housing is central to quality of life.

I think you will continue to see us play an important role in health care, which is obviously important to you and your subscribers – and to all Rhode Islanders.

And, making sure that as we rebuild the economy of Rhode Island, that there is opportunity for everyone, that there is real equity in economic opportunity.

There are two areas that I am thinking a lot about. One is about the climate. We are the Ocean State. We have big challenges in terms of how we respond to climate [threats]. I think that Rhode Island is doing a lot good work around the state; sometimes I think there is an absence of an overarching strategy and plan. That is a role that the Rhode Island Foundation can play.

ConvergenceRI: The Rhode Island Foundation has a unique opportunity to try and bring together a lot of the competing interests around the threat from climate change and to help push the government to be a little more comprehensive, if I can say that, in its strategy.

 One of the things that the Foundation has done in the past is to develop consensus around policy. As you put your foot into the ocean waters, as it were, do you expect that you will be able to achieve consensus to the art, science and politics of climate change policies.  
CICILLINE: Yes, You defined exactly the way that I think about the most effective way that the Rhode Island Foundation can participate in that space.

As a model, the climate action plan developed by the state of Maine, which was really a collaborative effort, where the community foundation played a really important role, bringing people together from the business community, from the philanthropic community, from the scientific community, and from higher education, to develop what is really a gold standard in terms of climate action plans,

In addition to helping build consensus and inform and improve the quality of the state climate plan, I think the Rhode Island Foundation is then likely to play a role to make sure that the plan actually happens.

Sometimes that is advocating at the local level; sometimes it’s advocating at the state level. But a plan is only as good as it is executed. And so, I think the Rhode Island Foundation will play a very important role in helping to develop a really good plan, but then also making sure that we are doing the things we need do as the state to respond to climate [threats].

The other area that I think there is a lot of interest in is there are obviously deep divisions within our state and our country, and people ask: What can we do to heal the country? What can we do to bring communities back together and to recreate a sense of a shared future?

Community foundations began with community. That’s really the heartbeat of who we are. There are lots of interesting work being done by community foundations about how we can strengthen our democratic institutions, deepen civic engagement, and build more connected communities. Look at the levels of isolation and the mental health challenges because people feel so isolated after the pandemic. You can look at the divisions that occur because people disagree and don’t know how to disagree in an agreeable way.

The Foundation has supported local journalism, which is obviously central to the function of a democracy and of civics, and we support civics education. I believe that’s an area where there is real opportunity for the Foundation to strengthen the civic health of Rhode Island.

ConvergenceRI: Let’s talk about health.  
CICILLINE: Funny you should bring that up.

ConvergenceRI: Your board chair is Al Kurose [the former executive vice president of Lifespan]. When I interviewed the Attorney General recently, he said that you were involved in producing some data regarding comparisons of commercial rates paid to providers by insurers –looking at what Rhode Island [providers] get in terms of payments, compared to Massachusetts and Connecticut.  
CICILLINE: I am not sure I would describe it that way.

ConvergenceRI: Why don’t you tell me what you are doing?.  
CICILLINE: It [became] clear to the Rhode Island Foundation that there was not a common dataset that all the important actors within the health care system were using to advance certain arguments

Where we thought we could be helpful is, that everyone recognizes we need to have a common understanding of what the facts are. Not what we think they are. Or what you hope they are. But what are the costs, broadly, of the health care delivery system.

It’s not just about hospital reimbursements rates. And so, we have been working with all of the key stakeholders, part of our long-term health care planning group, which has existed at the Foundation for a number of years.

It’s probably the only place in Rhode Island where all of the key stakeholders come to the table together to have really serious conversations about health care in Rhode Island and ways to improve it.

I was really impressed when I got here, that all the CEOs of all the hospitals were all in these conversations. And, I think that this is one of great treasures of the Rhode Island Foundation: our ability to bring together and convene the right set of people to work on an issue. And so, we offered to help to develop this common dataset.

ConvergenceRI: What will be the dataset? Can you describe it?    
CICILLINE: We will make it available when it is done, but we’re looking at the drivers of health care delivery costs – insurance costs, health care costs, when people are accessing health care, how frequency you access care, there’s a medical term for it, utilization.

And, then, I expect, there will be a very robust discussion, such as: What are the public policies that make sense to advance in response to this dataset?

We thought it was very important that, as a community foundation, the role we can play is, “Let’s help you.”

To be very frank, this is normally part of a robust state health planning process. I think there is a lot of health care planning that is going on at the state level. But,, again, we wanted to quickly provide some useful information that everyone said they needed.

So, I think that once that dataset is available, and including a comparison about how we compare to our neighbors, Connecticut and Massachusetts, it will give us a sense of where we stand.

I think there will be a really healthy discussion about: What does this data tell us in terms of good public policy? What are the things that we need to change? What are the challenges? And, there will be a fiery debate, I expect among this group. But at least we will all be using good data.

ConvergenceRI: Do you have a consultant that is working with you on this?  
CICILLINE: Yes. Manatt; they are a well-known health care consultant.

ConvergenceRI: Have you been briefed by the Attorney General about what he’s been doing?  
CICILLINE: Yes, I have spoken with the Attorney General. What will come about as a result of this dataset will help inform what he is doing. I think he recognizes as the Attorney General that he has regulatory authority which gives him a unique ability to impact our health care system. I know that he is particularly focused on the hospitals that have some financial challenges. He is a member of the long-term health care stakeholder group.

ConvergenceRI: I know that Neil was part of the CEO group, Partnership for Rhode Island. Are you also a member now?    CICILLINE: Yes. I am an active member and happy to be there.

ConvergenceRI: As you talk about civic engagement – there is so much disinformation that’s out there, and it is often hard to overcome that disinformation. Do you have particular ideas about how to change the way that people communicate with each other, and the way that they talk to each other, as part of that civic engagement?  
CICILLINE: Yes, I do. The first is, the ability of citizens to have access to trustworthy, reliable news is essential to the healthy function of our democracy.

And, all of our work in education and in health care and in economic opportunity and in equity becomes much more difficult if we don’t live in a functioning democracy, obviously.

So, it’s not only important, in and of itself, but it is important to all of our other priorities. The Rhode Island Foundation has already – and will continue to support – local journalism and a number of nonprofits that are engaged in reporting.

There’s a lot of pieces to that. One is making sure that we have a good ecosystem of local journalists who can continue to report on news. You are one of them, as an example. We want to make sure that that continues.

 In helping people develop good media literacy, the question is: How do you learn, as a consumer of information, whether something is trustworthy and a reliable source of information. That is a skillset that really needs to be developed.

I also think that thrre is lot of work that we can do to help people learn how to engage with each other and learn from each other in respectful ways, and not to vilify people with different opinions.

I have some experience about the use of social media platforms to spread misinformation. I was chair of the antitrust subcommittee in Congress and led the antitrust investigation, the first one in 50 years, about the social media platforms.

We learned in our investigation that they are monopolies and that they have a business model that incentivizes the sharing of information; that’s how they make money, with algorithms that amplify the information. It turns out that the stuff that has the most engagement, where they make the most money, is the most untruthful, the most violent, the most toxic content. So, they have business incentive to amplify the worst stuff.

So that’s why, there is an important responsibility of Congress and others in government to regulate these big technology platforms. Because they are not going to regulate themselves.

But, in the meantime, we can do work to give people the tools to be good consumers of information.

The community foundation can play a role in helping people to develop the tools and the skills to navigate social media.

ConvergenceRI: I believe that my model in publishing ConvergenceRI has great value in providing a source of accurate, in-depth reporting.  
CICILLINE: It has great value for the public. There’s no question that the public is deeply interested in having access to that kind of reporting, that kind of information. I think we really need to rethink as a community, as a state, as a country, what those business models are.

© | 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.