Innovation Ecosystem

United we thrive

One-on-one with Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, putting a spotlight on her leadership efforts to translate data into action – and sustainable investments in the nonprofit sector

Photo by Richard Asinof

Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, in her office.

By Richard Asinof
Posted 1/16/23
The leadership of Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, offers a way forward to change the landscape for the way that the state’s nonprofit community organizes itself as a force in shaping policy and investment.
What is the status of the re-procurement of Medicaid managed care organizations, moving forward? How will the data analyzed by the R.I. Office of the Health Insurance Commissioner on Medicaid trends change the dynamics around rate reimbursements in the state’s budget process? Which hospital system in Rhode Island is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to house patients in hotels that are coming to its emergency departments? How much is the McKee administration paying Duffy and Shanley as a public relations consultant related to housing and homeless policy narratives? Will the continuing chaos at the R.I., Department of Education force Gov. McKee to make changes in leadership, as legislative oversight committees dig into the controversies? When will the studies conducted by Joseph Braun at the School of Public Health at Brown on the efficacies of the Corsi-Rosenthal filters find greater traction for adoption by businesses in Rhode Island? Will the Opioid Settlement Advisory Committee meeting on Wednesday, Jan 18, set the stage for the formal announcement of moving forward with the Harm Reduction Pilot program in Rhode Island, a partnership between Weber/Renew and CODAC? What kinds of new data constructs are needed at the R.I. Department of Health to track the deaths of those Rhode Islanders who are homeless, beyond measuring deaths from hypothermia? What will it take for Gov. McKee to be willing to be honest enough to declare a homeless emergency in Rhode Island, focused on developing more state resources rather than debating how best to spend the money?
The health care crisis continues to escalate in Rhode Island. The latest domino to fall is the breakdown of the primary care system of care for patients, who are now unable to schedule regular checkups with many of their providers, because the providers are being overwhelmed by the demand – whether you go to a community health center or a hospital-owned primary care system.
The alarm bells started to sound when young reporters found out that they could not schedule an appointment to see their primary care doc. When the health care story boomerangs and hits a young reporter in the face, no amount of corporate public relations spin is going to glaze over the problem.
At the same time, the merger and acquisitions of corporate primary care practices continues unabated, with rumors that CVS is considering acquiring Oak Street, a corporate health care firm built through private equity investment that has targeted the Medicare Advantage market. The assumptions that are being made about access to health care very quickly fall apart when the ability to be seen by primary care providers for normal check-up appointments disappear.
Further, all the talk about the promise of new job creation in Rhode Island falls apart when those who are working on the front lines of health care and nonprofit community service agencies start leaving their jobs because they no longer pay enough to stay alive.
The work being done by United Way on redefining the nonprofit sector and giving it a voice as part of the small business world is critical component of Rhode Island’s ability to move forward into the future economy. The United Way actually has a long history, going back more than 30 years, with its “Needs for the Nineties” study done by Ira Magaziner, Seth Magaziner’s dad, attempting to quantify the human services needs for Rhode Island. This, in turn, led to a series of initiatives focused on childcare and educational investments, including Child Opportunity Zones. The problem, which still exists today, is the belief that such programs can achieve sustainability in a mere two years without further infusions of cash from government and philanthropic sources.
As the state and the nation begins the week with the celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, it is clear that our politicians can use an injection of kindness, not petulance, when it comes to policy around human services delivery. A change is going to come, but it requires the recognition that all change begins on the inside, within ourselves.

PROVIDENCE – When the R.I. Low and Moderate Income Housing Act Study Commission convened on Tuesday afternoon, Jan. 10, the brilliant competence of the leadership of Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, was on full display, A pro bono report by Claudia Wack, an associate at Klein Hornig LLP, was presented, with recommendations on the changes needed to be made to the existing law on how best to overcome barriers and spur new affordable housing creation. Wack’s report was sponsored by United Way of Rhode Island.

The legal analysis of legislative fixes for the state’s affordable housing law was the latest in a series of initiatives undertaken by United Way of Rhode Island, under the direction of Nicolato, focused on strengthening the nonprofit sector in the state and improving the data analysis upon which such policies are based – to create a fact-based approach toward sustainable, impact investing when it comes to philanthropy.

The Housing Study Commission, chaired by Rep, June Speakman, became a virtual classroom for more than an hour on how best to change the equation around affordable housing in Rhode Island. [See link to the commission hearing below.]

The timing of the presentation was nothing if not auspicious: the commission meeting occurred at a time when the affordable housing crisis in Rhode Island is now front-and-center in the political discourse – and the policy divide – in the state.

What to do about homelessness, and what are the short-term and long-term affordable housing solutions, have emerged as the cultural dividing point in Rhode Island. [Indeed, the Commission meeting marked the last public appearance by Housing Secretary Josh Saal before Gov. Dan McKee asked for – and received – his resignation.]

Saal’s statement at the Commission meeting, his first in weeks where he was not tethered to his ubiquitous spokesman, Chris Raia, a contract consultant from the public relations firm, Duffy and Shanley, seemed to go to the heart of what has been wrong with the McKee administration’s approach: “Sometimes it feels like we are just trying to shelter our way out of a homelessness crisis and just managing homelessness instead of ending it,” Saal said, sitting next to Neil Steinberg president and CEO of the Rhode Island Foundation, at the Commission meeting, as reported by the Providence Journal’s Patrick Anderson. Saal argued that even the $250 million in federal money budgeted toward fixing the state’s housing problems will not be enough to solve the housing crisis without big policy changes. “To subsidize our way out of a housing crisis is not feasible, to be honest, and would take billions of dollars, not hundreds of millions of dollars,” Saal said, as reported by Anderson.

The approach taken by Wack in her presentation was to find consensus moving forward to remove barriers to affordable housing development in Rhode Island, creating the financial incentives to increase density – and to remove unnecessary roadblocks to speed housing developments.

Jennifer Hawkins, president of ONE Neighborhood Builders, one of the state’s leading community development corporations, who serves as a member of the Commission, praised the legal analysis and proposals made by Wack as “exactly what we need,” according to Anderson’s reporting.

However, in the wake of Saal’s resignation, and the emerging culture war apparently being waged in Woonsocket against the city’s homeless residents and worse, against the community agencies that serve them, the policy recommendations may get lost in the flood of vitriol.

Putting data into action
A few weeks before the Commission meeting, in mid-December, ConvergenceRI had the opportunity to sit down and talk with Cortney Nicolato, the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island.

Among the many tasks that United Way of Rhode Island has taken on is managing the hotline for community members when they need help – they call 211. “One out of every three Rhode Islanders call 211 every year,” Nicolato shared with ConvergenceRI. Rhode Islanders are “resourceful,” she continued. Whenever there is a backlog at government agencies who are not responding in a timely manner, when people can’t get through, they reach out to 211 to ask for help. This year, the number of Rhode Islanders experiencing emergencies is increasing, according to Nicolato.

Here is the ConvergenceRI interview with Nicolato, talking at length about her team’s efforts to build out the nonprofit sector in Rhode Island, to transform the uses of data as a tool of philanthropic investment, and to create new collaborate partnerships across the fault lines in Rhode Island’s business and philanthropic community.

ConvergenceRI: Thank you for taking the time in your busy schedule to sit down and talk with me. Last year, at this time, you were launching an initiative to look at the role that nonprofits play in Rhode Island as an integral part of the small business community in the state, given that the nonprofit sector is 18 percent of the workforce in Rhode Island. My first question: How has the needle moved on that? [See link below to ConvergenceRI story, “Forging a new social contract.”]
NICOLATO: I would say that we have made progress. But this is a long game, for sure. We have created a design process to build a nonprofit resource center.

In asking, what do we think the Rhode Island nonprofits need, we wanted to hear directly from Rhode Island nonprofits organizations themselves. And so, we talked to, as part of this process, about 400 leaders in the nonprofit sector. And, we learned a lot through the process.

I will send you the research study that we did. I think that it will be insightful [for you] to see what challenges there were, what we were hearing directly from the sector. We also wanted to make sure that if we were creating a resource center, it had to be owned by the sector. It couldn’t be something that United Way put together and put out into the universe. It had to be owned by the sector.

So, we learned about what the sector needed, [identifying] the collaboration opportunities, the technology resources, and shared services resources. These are the things that bubbled up to the top.

Now, we are thinking about: How do we want to prioritize programs, products and services that will support the sector at large? So, in 2023, it is our intention to launch the center.

ConvergenceRI: Will a physical space be created for the nonprofit center?
NICOLATO: Part of the process that we did was to build the business model for the center, [focused on] sustainability. It is anticipated that United Way will incubate the center until it can stand on its own.

Whether that is three years, or five years, we are still filling out what that would look like. It may have a physical location here; it may have a virtual start. All of that is in the works right now.

ConverenceRI: What do you see as the role that philanthropy should be playing in terms of investing its resources? When I looked at the recent news release put out by the Rhode Island Foundation about their investments in community agencies using money provided by the state…
NICOLATO: …$20 million to 80 organizations…

ConvergenceRI: …Almost all of the organization had been members of of what was known as United Way’s Community Care Fund, the names I remember from 25 years ago. They were the agencies that were the bread and butter of how United Way invested its donor resources.

My question: There is never enough money. And the agencies often compete against themselves for the money.

There is always a call for more collaboration. The community nonprofit agencies are, as you say, the backbone of small businesses in the state. Without them, a lot of the larger corporations, and even the other small businesses, would find it difficult to survive.

I am puzzled about what do we want government to be doing? What do we want for philanthropy to be doing? What do we want the business community to be doing? Their roles seem to have shifted.
NICOLATO: I think there is bit of tension about the roles. Let’s use housing as an example. My opinion is that the nonprofit sector has a clearer understanding of what the housing needs are.

We work directly with folks who are experiencing homelessness, all the way through [agencies] building homes in the community in the nonprofit sector as a whole. I think our government partners should absolutely be working with us.

Investments are a great example. That $250 million [targeted] toward housing is huge. It can go a long way. And, we are focused on making sure that it being spent – and spent correctly. But it is the sector that has been doing the work, for a really long time.

I have had conversations – we work with nearly 400 companies throughout the state. And, what I hear, time and time again from our business leaders, is that housing and education are the two most critical things that they see in order for them to build the workforce, to bring employees from out of state into the state. They can’t, because there is no place for them to lay their heads.

We have hospital systems – we learned from a hospital system in Rhode Island, I don’t know if they have publicly said so, but they are spending hundreds of thousands of dollars to put folks in hotels who are experiencing homelessness that are coming into their EDs, because of RSV and flu and COVID, they can’t have them in the Emergency Department, right?

You have all of this [occurring], and our government partners may not see all of [this]. Whereas, the nonprofit sector does [see], because they’re working with entities across the state.

I do think that philanthropy can be a partner to our government, and it should be, because we have a different view than maybe they do, or because we have a different level of lived experiences than they do. And, I think that partnership is critical to our overall ability to succeed. But partnership is the operative word there.

ConvergenceRI: I am well sourced.
NICOLATO: You are, no question.

ConvergenceRI: There was this whole discussion that was happening behind closed doors in early fall, with the Governor, focused on the emerging crisis in homelessness, with advocates urging the Governor to declare an emergency and to make new investments. The Governor apparently resisted those entreaties at that time.
NICOLATO: I think the thing that is really important in any good partnership is trust. And, one of the things that is really important, even just with data, I am hearing a lot of folks, and this is not just with the Governor, but I’m hearing a lot of folks saying, “Well, I don’t think that is the right data point…” Can we get past the data points and realize that we have a critical issue that needs to be solved?

When there is data around how many affordable units do we need in our state and how many encampments do we have, I am going to trust the nonprofit sector who are working on this, who know that data, the Coalition for the Homeless, and others. I’m going to lean in and say, if they are telling me that there are 82 encampments, there are 82 encampments. They have done their homework.

ConvergenceRI: When the Govenor says, we’re trying to help the homeless, and the people who are fighting us are trying to keep the homeless, homeless…
NICOLATO: That’s not the case.

ConvergenceRI: How do you get people to listen?
NICOLATO: That’s a great question. I keep going back to the fact that trust is really important. One of the things that I take great pride in, in our sector, is that we work to solve critical problems in our state.

We hear everyday from Rhode Islanders who are struggling [through 211]. I think that it is powerful thing when you hear directly from Rhode Islanders, who are struggling.

I also think about my personal career history. There is a paper called “Audacious Philanthropy,” that actually outlines big huge change that has occurred through public-private partnerships.

And, I was actually, out of eight of them, I was engaged in three of them during my career. I love this article; it is kind of a point of pride. They give one example – “smoke free.”

At the American Heart Association, we knew we couldn’t do it alone. We came together with the Lung Association; we came together with the Asthma Association, and many others. And then, we brought in government partners, before the issue became an issue, asking: What do you think about this? What would it look like?

We brought in the business community, because we knew that bars and restaurants and hospitality would be affected by a smoke-free workplace. Real partnership means change.

But, it also means that everyone has to come to the table knowing that concessions might need to be made. You’re not going to come out of it in the same exact position – revenue, whatever, fill in the blank that you went in [with] – and every single big project that has shown real change in any community that I have ever worked in, you have to come in with that mindset. You have to come in with that idea that is for the greater good. And, you have to put personal perspectives, egos, feelings, etc., aside.

I personally don’t think that housing can be solved until we bring the right people together, and that doesn’t just include our housing advocates.\It doesn’t just include our government. It includes our business community, it includes our municipal leaders, it includes everybody – but everybody coming to the table for the greater good in the economic development in our sector in the state. You can’t do that unless we all come to the table without ego.

ConvergenceRI: What would happen if the Governor would be invited to spend a night listening to calls being fielded from United Way’s 211?
NICOLATO: It would be an eye-opener, for sure. I know we put a ton of resources into supporting our teammates. Because what they hear everyday, how they have to support Rhode Islanders, the complexities of what is going on, it’s challenging, and it’s frustrating, and it’s stressful.

So, we put a ton of resources into making sure that our team has what they need to take care of themselves, because it is so challenging.

ConvergenceRI: have you ever put out an invite to the Governor to listen in?
NICOLATO: I have not. It’s a good idea. I haven’t thought about that. Anonymity is an important part of 211. I think it would be enlightening to hear directly from Rhode Islanders and what they are going through.

ConvergenceRI: Even if he sat in the room and observed?
NICOLATO: I think it is important to note. This isn’t just – many folks think that it’s the clients who are chronically experiencing homelessness – don’t’ get me wrong, there are a lot of Rhode Islanders who are homeless, and we need to solve that problem for them, no question.

But what we are seeing is this uptick in folks who were almost in crisis, and now, with inflationary costs, the job market, and other [problems], they are now in crisis. We are seeing this influx of Rhode Islanders who are now sleeping on family couches, or in cars, and it’s folks who have never, ever had the experience of that before. We are hearing and seeing a lot more of that, too.

ConvergenceRI: The level of crisis seems to b growing more severe. What do you think is the best way to talk about the data – and then translate that data into action, into effective programs?
NICOLATO: it is precisely why, three years ago, we started building a research and evaluation team at United Way. Because we are sitting on a ton of data – 211 data, grant data, program data, summer learning initiative data, you name it. We have had the data, but frankly, it wasn’t going anywhere.

That’s why we hired Dr. Adama Brown [as director of Research and Data Analytics]. Our goal is to bring data together, and we did that, for example, in concert with the Brown School of Public Health, specifically around being Black in Rhode Island, and what does it mean in terms of social justice. What does it mean from the perspective of housing? There will be a series of briefs that will come out of that. The work actually takes all the various data points from R.I. Kids Count, from HousingWorks RI, from the R.I. Life Index.

But there was nothing that was created specfically to say, home ownership as a Black person in this community looks like “blank,” and so my team has asked: How do we elevate those critical issues?

How do we bring together the data and insights so that they drive insights? Because, that is what we do internally, every day. We have our grant data; we have our 211 data. I can see where there are gaps in our community today. And then, we use our dollars to invest in ensuring that we are helping build solutions in those specific areas. The question is: how do we do that work more broadly?

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