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Celebrating a century of philanthropy
By Chris Barnett / June 14, 2016 /   Loading Disqus...

We celebrated our Centennial by staging our 2016 annual meeting at the Temple to Music in Roger Williams Park. More than 1,000 community and business leaders, donors, and grant recipients gathered 100 years to the day in 1916 that industrialist Jesse Metcalf established the Foundation with a $10,000 gift. Here are highlights of what CEO and President Neil Steinberg told them.


Welcome to the Rhode Island Foundation “Community”- our generous donors, hard-working nonprofit partners, community and business leaders, collaborators, good friends, and especially the family of our founder – Jesse Metcalf.

Can you believe it’s been 100 years? If Jesse Metcalf could only see what his creation has become. And this beautiful, historic, people’s Park. If Betsey and Roger Williams could only see what this land has become. As Warren Buffet said, “someone is sitting in the shade because someone else planted a tree a long time ago.” I can’t help but think that Jesse, Betsey, and Roger have met, and are all looking down on us now.

This is a night of celebration and appreciation. The Rhode Island Foundation reflects Rhode Island: the needs, the challenges, opportunities, and generosity. We help shape Rhode Island - an awesome opportunity and responsibility. We embody and embrace this “lively experiment.”

As we look to celebrate our 100 years, we take stock of our history. The first community foundation in the United States was founded in 1914 on the principle of unrestricted pooled philanthropy to address issues of the day. Our founders in June 1916 were a group of civic leaders who organized the Foundation at the Rhode Island Hospital Trust Company. They were active in Rhode Island business, politics, civic affairs, and the arts – all showing a strong sense of philanthropic purpose. They wrote, “there is a growing belief that the charitable problems of each generation can better be, and should be, solved by the best minds of each generation.”

While Jesse Metcalf was a prominent industrialist, civic leader, philanthropic champion, and eventually a United States Senator, it was little known that his wife, Louisa Dexter Sharpe Metcalf, left the Foundation an unrestricted gift of $1 million in her will.

Life in 1916 Rhode Island was good for many and challenging for others. It was the hub of the New England textile industry and the arts were growing. The Providence Grays baseball team only two years earlier had a young Babe Ruth on the roster. However, there were struggles - poverty was growing, child labor issues, and turbulent politics. Social reforms started to gain momentum leading to the founding of the Rhode Island Foundation.

The Rhode Island Foundation’s history is intertwined with the events of this centennial period; World Wars, epic hurricanes, economic downturns and resurgences, a growing diverse population, and many social changes, a renaissance in the arts, and climate change to name a few. Not only have we provided support and sustainability through the decades, we have been there at the beginning to catalyze many important and impactful initiatives still underway. They include Rhode Island KIDS Count, LISC, Neighborhood Health Plan, Green and Healthy Homes Initiative, Rhode Island Quality Institute, Social Venture Partners, Hispanics in Philanthropy, Black Philanthropy Initiative, Equity Action, and Teach for America - and I could go on and on.

Our legacy of scholarship funds established by many donors have provided thousands of scholarships to Rhode Island students across the State. In fact, award-winning actress Viola Davis received a scholarship that enabled her to attend Julliard.

And one of my favorites - in 1934, the Foundation received a $75 bequest from the estate of Harry C. Burnham, still the smallest bequest in our history. The community foundation model today allows us to accept donations of all sizes to contribute to existing funds or our primary unrestricted fund, the Fund for Rhode Island.

In 2015, as we closed out our first 100 years, we provided a record $41.5 million in grants, raised $43 million from generous donors, and our assets reached nearly $800 million.

We are solid and built to last another 100 years. Our current strategic initiatives focus on pre-K-12 public education, primary healthcare, and economic security, along with building philanthropy in Rhode Island, and remaining relevant, important, and aligned with the needs of the state.

We also, as you know, continue to support arts and culture, the environment, and human services – all so important to many.
And while we trumpet many successes, there is also no denying the needs. Income disparities, drug overdose crises, educational achievement gaps, affordable housing needs are among the issues of the day that we do not forget.

We get asked all the time why we continue to raise money with our sizable endowment- the answer is simple. We still turn down good grants, there is a big need for philanthropic capital in Rhode Island.

To address many of the challenges and opportunities, we have embraced our leadership role and champion innovation with vigor. For example, the establishment of our Civic Leadership Fund to support convenings, research, expert speakers. The Rhode Island Innovation Fellowship, initiated by philanthropists John and Letitia Carter, inspires and rewards innovative ideas and solutions. And advocating and stepping up as a State leader is now part of our DNA.

So now we start on our journey for the next 100 years. As we look forward, I am reminded of a quote from the late, great Muhammed Ali: “Don’t count the days; make the days count.” We commit to continuing to enhance our impact, with all our partners, in the Rhode Island Community. Inspired by the past, together we can transform the present and lead into the future. We go into the future with hope, with confidence, with drive and determination to improve life for all Rhode Islanders. To bridge the urgency of the present time to the patience and persistence required in the future. To embrace the cultural diversity of Rhode Island.

I will not try to predict the future. However, I will dare to say that, while technology may radically impact the future in ways we cannot possibly comprehend, the need for and the power of community will prevail. Jesse Metcalf and our founders would marvel at the progress his vision initiated a century ago—seeing now blended learning in our schools, patient-centered medical homes, and high-tech workforce development.

There will always be needs, challenges, opportunities, and issues of the day for the Rhode Island Foundation to embrace and support and lead- we plan to do that – (we are built to last). And there is no doubt, we can do more. We need to do more. And there is no doubt we can do better. We need to do better.

We are proud to be Rhode Island’s only community Foundation, your community foundation. A positive voice connecting the past with the future. Unwavering in our commitment for a better Rhode Island, to fulfill our mission to be a “philanthropic and community leader dedicated to meeting the needs of all Rhode Islanders.”

We believe in Rhode Island. As Cesar Chavez said, “we cannot seek achievement for ourselves and forget about progress and prosperity for our community. Our ambition must be broad enough to include the aspirations and needs of others, for their sake, and for ours.”

The Rhode Island Foundation believes in civic leadership. In our work, we are fortunate to collaborate with many of our state’s current civic leaders, from entrepreneurs launching exciting new initiatives to community organizations tackling the toughest issues. They are passionate and like us, they believe in Rhode Island and all Rhode Islanders.

Let’s remember how our great state and our great nation were built – on hope and the promise of a better life for future generations. We can discover new solutions to old problems, if we go forward, leading together, boldly and confidently.

As I have noted many times in the past, it really doesn’t matter if you think the glass is half full or half empty, this community requires that we all need to do our best to fill the glass.

So let’s Make It Happen Rhode Island - Be positive, look forward, take rhetoric to action, please join us as we continue the journey for a better Rhode Island for all. Ask us, inform us, and challenge us. And call, write, reach us on email, Facebook, or Twitter ---or call me at 427-4007.

Thank you to all of our donors, without whom we could not do our work. Thank you for all of our nonprofit partners doing such good and impactful work throughout the community. And, thanks to all of you for what you do and, I hope, will continue to do.
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