Over the last 19 months, Rhode Island’s nonprofit organizations have been the heart, hands and feet of Rhode Island’s relief and recovery efforts. They provided food and shelter to Rhode Islanders in need. Helped underserved communities access testing and vaccines. Supported children and families with the challenges of distance learning. Provided physical and behavioral health care. Helped isolated seniors connect with loved ones and services. Provided support and training for small businesses and social entrepreneurs. Trained workers for new jobs. Uplifted somber days with beautiful music and art.
In some ways, the last year-and-a-half has been a story of unprecedented commitment and heroism. Faced with the confluence of health, economic, and racial justice crises, Rhode Island nonprofits rose to the challenge of skyrocketing need. At great personal and organizational cost, they overcame public health restrictions, inadequate staffing, physical and emotional exhaustion, and fundraising limitations to deliver services in innovative ways. They were a lifeline to thousands of Rhode Islanders during their darkest moments.
In other ways, the commitment and heroism displayed by our state’s nonprofits during the pandemic is completely normal. It is what happens when organizations are driven by mission and collective social benefit.
Every single day, pandemic or not, quiet, essential work is done across Rhode Island by nonprofit organizations. Skilled, dedicated, compassionate staff work with limited resources to care for our neighbors, empower our children, and build flourishing communities. Community-based organizations provide the expertise, energy, and innovation to make the state’s vision for strong, equitable, prosperous cities and towns a reality. Every. Single. Day.
And every day, whether in times of crisis or plenty, the state depends on these same nonprofits to make Rhode Island lives and communities better. Yet, at nearly every turn, this vital sector is under-resourced, stretched thin, and often taken for granted.
Like the steel beams that undergird our bridges, the crucial work of our state’s nonprofits is so integral to the health and well-being of our communities that it can easily be overlooked. But like our physical infrastructure, our “civic infrastructure” of unheralded nonprofits, collaborative networks, and community-based initiatives cannot continue to carry the weight of our state’s critical needs without comprehensive, long-term investment.
For too long, the state has viewed nonprofits simply as vendors or as altruistic volunteers. It has not fully recognized the sector’s vital, central role in providing emergency relief, social services, community building, and economic development. Even though 17 percent of Rhode Island’s workforce is employed by nonprofit organizations, the state has not invested in nonprofit staff properly, especially since these are highly trained professionals who have been a cornerstone of the state’s work.
Nonprofit staff are exhausted and burnt out. They’re also increasingly leaving the sector for good, which should be an alarm for all of us who call the Ocean State home.
They have shouldered much of the burden of the state’s relief efforts with persistence and empathy, but the need and stress are unrelenting. Much attention has been given to the staffing issues facing retail and service industries, but the burnout crisis facing the nonprofit sector has been mostly ignored.
While small business recovery is an understandable focus of the state’s planning for American Rescue Plan Act funds, support and capacity building for our nonprofit sector is noticeably absent from the Governor’s Rhode Island 2030 work plan. It should not be.
In the decade prior to the pandemic, our New England neighbors all saw vigorous nonprofit job growth of more than 15 percent. Similarly, 25 other states benefited from growth of 20 percent in nonprofit jobs.
Rhode Island, however, missed out on this crucial economic engine. In fact, we are the only state in the country to experience a negative rate of nonprofit job growth during the same time period (-2.3 percent).
Now is the time to change that. The pandemic has highlighted the essential, irreplaceable roles played by Rhode Island nonprofits. And our state investments and attention to the sector needs to reflect that.
Investment in nonprofit capacity building and the nonprofit workforce should be a cornerstone of the state’s vision for the future, since the other pillars of the Rhode Island 2030 plan will be impossible to accomplish without the expertise and engagement of a strong, flourishing nonprofit sector.
In a time when Rhode Island needed nonprofits the most, they were there for us. Now Rhode Island needs to be as committed and intentional about its investment in our nonprofits as nonprofits are in strengthening our state every single day.
Mario Bueno is the executive director of Progreso Latino. Anthony Hubbard is the CEO of YouthBuild Preparatory Academy, Inc. Cortney Nicolato is the president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island. Daniel Schliefer is the executive director of New Urban Arts.