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R.I. Foundation funds good ideas

July 20, 2011

PROVIDENCE — From humble beginnings nearly a century ago, through good times and bad, the Rhode Island Foundation has grown its endowment to a whopping $565 million.
But the state's leading philanthropic organization knows that no matter how much it grows the pot, it's never going to be big enough.
“There are always more good ideas than we can fund,” says Owen Heleen, RIF's vice president for grant programs. “That's why we're always challenged to support more and more of the good ideas that come our way.”
Founded in 1916, RIF gave away a record $29.2 million last year to support a legion of non-profit initiatives in health care, education, social services, the arts, and job-creation. Many of these grants, large and small, found their way to the Greater Woonsocket area, supporting bedrock agencies of the city's social service network like Family Resources Community Action Program.
RIF grants have helped create some of the most innovative and highly-praised solutions to the region's educational, job-training and health-care problems.
When St. Antoine Residence in neighboring North Smithfield realized it couldn't train certified nursing assistants fast enough to meet its staffing demands, the Catholic nursing home partnered with RIF and other agencies to create a special program to do so.
Thundermist Health Center has won national recognition for its efforts to create a patient-centered, electronic records system for its clients, another program nurtured with grants from RIF.
And RiverzEdge Arts Project, a program that marries training in business and the arts, has been recognized by the White House as a pioneer in supplemental after-school education.
“We got started with them when they were just an idea and that's tremendously rewarding,” says Heleen.
RIF began 95 years ago with a gift of $10,000 from civic-minded businessman Jesse H. Metcalf. It might not seem like much, but Metcalf's then-anonymous gift, adjusted for inflation, would be worth more than $200,000 in 2011 dollars.
In the original articles of incorporation, RIF's founders spoke of “meeting the needs of the day.” Often, that meant taking care of widows, orphans, and dealing with incurable diseases.
The passage of time has changed some of the details, but the general mission remains largely the same. Tuberculosis, a concern around the the time of the Great Depression, has been all but erased from the gene pool thanks to modern medicine, but RIF has moved on to support programs dealing with cancer, HIV-AIDS, and end-of-life care – among others.
RIF President Neil D. Steinberg, a Pawtucket resident, says the foundation makes grants in six core areas – arts and culture; the environment, community and economic development; human services; education and health care.
Responding to what it sees as some of the most urgent needs facing the state, RIF established two “strategic priorities” a year ago as it charts a course toward the future – primary medical care and K-12 education, according to Steinberg.
“We clearly think that investments to improve education in Rhode Island are key to economic development,” says Steinberg. “We support the initiatives of Commissioner Gist and the Board of Regents. We've been active in creating the legislation for a new school funding formula. We were active in leading the effort to win a Race to the Top grant of $75 million over four years. We were just one of 12 states to get that.”
In the arena of medicine, RIF says the quality of life in Rhode Island would be greatly enhanced by a broadening in the availability and affordability of primary health care. As in many other parts of the country, says Steinberg, the state suffers from a shortage of primary care physicians.
“We don't have enough new doctors coming into the country or into the state that we need to prevent chronic disease and to have a healthy next generation,” he says. “The availability and the affordability just aren't there. It's beyond just insurance coverage.”
Part of the reason is because primary care physicians are generalists who don't get paid as much as doctors with specialty practices, says Steinberg.
One of the things RIF is trying to do to reverse the trend is spearhead an educational loan-forgiveness program for physicians, nurse practitioners and physician assistants. In return for a pledge to “come into Rhode Island and stay in Rhode Island we will provide them with funding to help pay off their student loans,” says Steinberg.
With an ever-growing list of applicants seeking grants to underwrite a plethora of worthy ideas, it wouldn't be surprising if the fundraisers at RIF stayed awake at night worrying about running out of money.
“I worry about a lot of things but that's not one of them,” says Heleen.
Indeed, RIF ranks in the top quarter of all national endowment funds under $1 billion in terms of investment performance. That includes such endowment stars as Harvard and Yale.
Last year, said Heleen, RIF came out of the recession with earnings on its principal of 14.9 percent – substantially better than the DOW's overall performance of 11 percent.
With a goal of never-ending growth and ultra-long-range sustainability, RIF hews to a very conservative investment policy led by a group of in-house advisors, with help from Prime, Buchholz & Associates, an independent, nationally-recognized consultant.
“The Foundation is committed to a 'total return' investment philosophy, including a total current spending limit of 5.9 percent, to ensure that our endowment grows in perpetuity,” RIF says. “Any investment return earned over the spending limit is added to principal, thus increasing the size of the endowment to combat inflation and overcome cyclical down markets.”
No, it's not money that keeps Heleen awake at night – but a national economy in which resources for non-profits are growing increasingly scant.
To path ahead will call for unprecedented levels of collaboration, increasingly efficient operational models and more programs focusing on prevention, so problems can be nipped in the bud before blooming into costly crises.
“What I worry about, what's very challenging is that it's a very hard environment to run non-profit organizations,” says Heleen. “Large and small, these organizations are under all sorts of pressure because in this economy there's all sorts of need but fewer resources.”


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