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Nonprofit Innovation Lab launches today in Rhode Island

Courtney Nicolato, president and CEO of the United Way of Rhode Island, looking to harness new ideas, boost philanthropy

United Way of Rhode Island President and CEO Cortney NicolatoPeter Goldberg

The Boston Globe has launched a weekly Q&A with Rhode Island innovators who are starting new businesses, conducting ground-breaking research, and reshaping the state’s economy. Send tips and suggestions to reporter Edward Fitzpatrick at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com.

This week’s Ocean State Innovators conversation is with Cortney Nicolato, president and chief executive officer of the United Way of Rhode Island.

Question: What is the Nonprofit Innovation Lab and when does it begin?

Answer: The Nonprofit Innovation Lab, an initiative of United Way of Rhode Island and the Social Enterprise Greenhouse, is a selective six-month program that will help 10 local nonprofits develop their best innovative ideas. It kicks off Jan. 13 (today). The goal is to spark development of new solutions to hard-to-solve issues -- ranging from developing affordable housing to helping people start small businesses. These nonprofit organizations have some amazing ideas that have great revenue potential -- revenue that will be able to support their nonprofit work.

Q: Who has been chosen for the first Nonprofit Innovation Lab and what organizations do they represent?


A: Mario Bueno, Progreso Latino

Mike Chea, Dorcas International Institute of Rhode Island

Kate Corwin, Smith Hill Community Development Corporation

Janice Falconer, Impact R.I.

Raul Figueroa, Fuerza Laboral

Dana Ginestet, College Crusade of Rhode Island

Laura Jaworski, House of Hope Community Development Corporation

Jonathan Kabak, Oliver Hazard Perry Rhode Island

Rhonda Price, Man Up Inc.

Joshua Riazi, Genesis Center

Q: Can you tell us about the “Shark Tank-like” event for Nonprofit Innovation Lab fellows in June?

A: The final pitch event in June marks the culmination of the program. It follows six months of rigorous instruction and expert mentorship. While each nonprofit leader will develop a solid innovation plan that they can take to future investors and collaborators, five will be selected to pitch their final plan, and the top three will receive a total of $90,000 in prize money (1st place, $50,000; 2nd place, $25,000; 3rd place, $15,000). My favorite part is that everyone in Rhode Island will be able to participate in the pitch event and vote for their favorite concept via social media.


Q: What are the details of the “401 Gives” program that the United Way of Rhode Island is launching this year?

A: We have an incredible nonprofit community in Rhode Island that employs 18 percent of the workforce. This spring, we hope to raise awareness about all of the good work that is happening through our nonprofit community. Each day, nonprofits are saving lives, keeping people safe and giving our Rhode Island neighbors access to critical services. Nonprofits certainly deserve this day. “401Gives” is a statewide day of giving taking place on April 1, 2020. We have lofty goals: We’re seeking 300 nonprofits who want to share their stories more widely and raise more funds, and we’re asking the community to contribute $1 million dollars in one day. If you are a nonprofit in Rhode Island, the time to register for this event is now.

Q: Compared to other states, Rhode Island often ranks low in terms of philanthropy, especially in volunteering and service. Why do you think that is, and what can be done to boost philanthropic activities here?

A: I know that Rhode Islanders want to help Rhode Islanders. But very often, they don’t know how or they need help identifying where help is most needed. That’s on all of us as nonprofit leaders to find more ways to lift up the good work that is being done and to engage potential donors in the ways that are most meaningful to them. For example, we know that millennials want to get to know an organization well before becoming a donor, so it’s critical to provide them with volunteer opportunities to help them see and experience the work. We’re looking at all the ways we can help Rhode Islanders be philanthropic, whether that’s being an advocate for an important issue such as affordable housing, volunteering time, or donating to support good work in the community. We know, for certain, that it will take all of us in Rhode Island to work together to make impact happen.


Q: How do you see the United Way’s role in fostering innovation in Rhode Island? Why is it important to the state’s economy?

A: In my career, I have been fortunate to work with some of the brightest minds in the world on some of the most complicated issues there are. I am a firm believer that in order to solve the significant issues hurting our state today, we must turn to innovation. Status quo won’t make the impact that Rhode Island deserves. When we are unable to provide sufficient housing that our families and our workforce can reasonably afford, and our schools receive failing grades, our businesses can’t be competitive. United Way is in the unique position to foster innovation in our community. We can convene partners from the corporate and public sectors, from education and nonprofits, to come to the table and work on solutions. This is something that United Way of RI has been proud to do for the last 94 years. Now, we are amplifying that in a big way.


Edward Fitzpatrick can be reached at edward.fitzpatrick@globe.com. Follow him @FitzProv.