Innovation Ecosystem/Opinion

Nonprofits flex their economic muscle

A new alliance, focused on the nonprofit sector in Rhode Island, takes shape

Photo by Richard Asinof

Nancy Wolanski, Director of the Nonprofit Resource Center, left, Cortney Nicolato, President and CEO, United Way of Rhode Island, and Jully Myrthil, United Way Intern.

By Nancy Wolanski and Niko Merritt
Posted 2/5/24
A new champion of nonprofits, the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, celebrated its official launch on Jan. 18. Here are two of the voices sharing the vision of the new organization.
When will CommerceRI create the statewide database that supports the work of nonprofit agencies in Rhode Island, who form an important core of small businesses in the state? When will the General Assembly boost the low rates for Medicaid providers by $45 million in 2024, as recommended by OHIC, an important strategy for boosting prosperity in Rhode Island? What is the best strategy to counteract the misogyny being practiced by many men on social media?
One of the advantages of living and working in Rhode Island is the fact that the state is small enough that people tend to know each other, particularly for those involved in covering the public sector. Having lived – and reported on events – in Rhode Island for nearly 40 years, I know lots of folks. And, they know me.
There are two ways of handling public relations – one is to restrict access, the other is to encourage an open exchange of ideas. It is always surprising, then, when I encounter those in the communications biz, the pr flacks, who practice the art of restricting access to their bosses [particularly when I have known their boss for more than three decades, longer than they have been alive]. Can you say ouch?
Worse, when a pr flack gets caught dissembling the truth [a fancy way to say they “lied”], it can get ugly, for no reason. Why would the pr flack then escalate the situation, rather than fix it. Stay tuned.

Editor’s Note: Do you remember where you were on Thursday, Jan. 18? Did you feel the humble rumble of a new umbrella organization, the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, taking shape? The new alliance celebrated its official launch at United Way of Rhode Island’s headquarters on Jan. 18, with the goal of creating more visibility and engagement for Rhode Island’s nonprofit sector, which employs nearly one-fifth of the state’s private workforce.

The problem is that many corporations – and state government – too often tend to treat the nonprofit sector as “disposable vendors” – small businesses without buying power.

All that may be changing, thanks to the leadership of Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, and Nancy Wolanski, the director of the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact.

Here is an introductory column, written by Wolanski, as well as the remarks presented on Jan.18 by Niko Merritt, the founding executive director of Sankofa Art and Solace in Newport.

By Nancy Wolanski

PROVIDENCE – Nonprofit organizations in Rhode Island do critical work. They provide food and housing; care for children and seniors; preserve communal open space; equip workers for careers; find healing and homes for animals; entertain, challenge and inform us; tell our history and inspire our future.

There is virtually no area of our lives that is free from the fingerprints of one or more nonprofit organizations. There is virtually no state agency that does not depend on nonprofits to provide essential services.

And yet… And yet, when we tell the story of our beautiful state as a vacation destination, we talk about the tourism and hospitality industries. But we don’t often talk about the fact that the arts and culture organizations that enliven our neighborhoods and entertain our visitors are nonprofit. When we tell the story of the Rhode Island economy, the focus tends to be on small businesses and national corporations being lured to the state, but we don’t usually talk about the fact that almost one in 5 private sector employees in Rhode Island work for nonprofit organizations.

And when we talk about the “state’s” response to local crises, we don’t talk about the reality that it is 211 answering the calls and linking residents with resources, and VOAD [voluntary organizations active in disasters] who are on the ground actually helping those affected with emergency supplies and housing.

Impact and importance.
One of the goals of the newly launched Alliance for Nonprofit Impact is to raise the visibility of the impact and importance of Rhode Island’s nonprofits through advocacy, data, and public engagement.

And we want the understanding of the vital role that “social profit” organizations play to lead to increased investment – from individual giving, philanthropic support, and public funding.

The Alliance’s priority audience is nonprofits led by people of color, which have historically been underfunded – and smaller organizations.

Organizations led by people of color – and grassroots organizations that are led by members of the community they serve – are not only doing great, exhausting, and overlooked work, but they are doing that work in spite of structural inequities.

We have to do better as a community in recognizing and resourcing that work. And, as a state, we need to do a better job of investing in the capacity of the nonprofits we depend on.

Public and private funders and donors gravitate towards new programs and initiatives that can make a short-term impact. But finding money to sustain programs with proven track records, or to pay market wages, or to pay for rent, utilities, technology, and finance and human resources staff, is almost impossible.

The Alliance was developed based on the input of hundreds of dedicated nonprofit leaders, and the investment of a few committed funders. And it will need to grow the same way – with the input and ideas of dedicated nonprofit leaders, and the investment of hopefully more than a few committed funders.

As we build up our staff team and progressively roll out programs and services in 2024, we will benefit from the excitement and energy demonstrated at the Alliance’s Jan. 18 launch. And, like the nonprofits we will serve, we will struggle with the overwhelming need and limited resources.

There is no magic wand that will provide nonprofits with all the support and funding they need and deserve. But we are committed to raising the visibility of nonprofits led by people of color and community-based organizations led by members of those communities.

They may lack the connections to funders and wealthy donors, and can be hamstrung by philanthropic practices that intentionally select larger, often white led, organizations for grant funding, specifically because they are not small and therefore have the infrastructure to “handle” large grants.

The Alliance will be providing practical tools like the impala foundation research platform, the Volunteer Center for posting volunteer opportunities and managing volunteers, and a year-round giving platform to be launched after 401Gives.

But unless we can also make the argument to funders to take a new approach to investing in local communities through nonprofits who are closest to the issues, and providing long-term operating support towards sustainability, these nonprofits will stay in survival mode.

Nancy Wolanski is the Director of the Alliance for Nonprofit  Impact.

For more information, or to join the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact, go to Membership dues waived until April 1, 2024.

By Niko Merritt 

I’m Niko Merritt, founder and executive director of Sankofa Art and Solace. Today, I stand before you to discuss a matter that is deeply important to me and to our community: the critical need to invest in nonprofits led by people of color. In a world where the term “diversity” is often mentioned, it's time to ensure that this diversity is more than just a word – it needs to be a reality, especially in the nonprofit sector.

Rhode Island statistics show that the racial gap still exists. This is why your investment in organizations like ours is so vital.

You might wonder: Why focus specifically on nonprofits led by people of color? The answer is simple yet profound. People like us, who lead these organizations, have lived the challenges and understand the issues our communities face.

Our deep, personal insight allows us to create solutions that are not only effective but also culturally attuned.

We’re not just addressing problems; we’re innovating and adapting, bringing new perspectives to longstanding challenges in our quest for a better world.

But to truly make an impact, we need more than just sporadic support; we need two things in particular.

  •   We need a place like this, the Alliance for Nonprofit Impact. I am grateful to be here and see all the things we worked on come to life. A place to get the knowledge and guidance to run a nonprofit.
  •   We need substantial, sustained backing like multi-year grants and larger funding amounts.

This kind of investment and supportive space levels the playing field and allows us to focus on what matters most – serving our communities.

Currently, the lack of adequate funding forces us to divert valuable time and resources toward constant grant seeking and writing. This is time and energy that could be better spent delivering vital programs, especially as we are often operating with limited staff. Your investment in us means we can dedicate ourselves fully to our mission, rather than being hindered by financial uncertainties.

Leveling the playing field  
Consider the powerful impact that when you support a nonprofit led by people of color, you’re doing more than just providing funds. You’re actively participating in leveling the playing field. You’re giving voice and power to those who have historically been marginalized, underrepresented, and underserved. This is not just philanthropy; it’s a crucial step towards building a just and equitable society. Isn’t that one of the goals we all share?

By investing in us, you affirm that every individual, irrespective of race or ethnicity, deserves the chance to contribute meaningfully to society. Your action creates a ripple effect that can reshape our future. Each of you holds the power to be a catalyst for meaningful change and be a leader in this movement.

It is my hope that you all have taken to heart what I’ve shared today. When you return to your workplaces, I encourage you to take a moment to reflect on this discussion. Reach out to an organization that needs your support; reach out to organizations that can offer support and encourage them to do the same.

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