If I could pick one person in Rhode Island to run for office, let’s face it, I’d take Taylor Swift because those Westerly Town Council meetings would be bananas.
But since Swift appears to be busy in Kansas City these days, Cortney M. Nicolato might be the next best option.
Nicolato just hit her fifth anniversary as president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, where she has proven herself in the most difficult of times to be a prolific fund-raiser: The organization has brought in $129 million since she came on board. But she also has elevated the near-century-old institution’s voice at the policy level, especially when it comes to the housing crisis.
We were sitting in her office on Valley Street in Providence last week when I told her that I think she’d make a great governor someday, and naturally, she changed the subject to a topic she finds far more important: Nicolato is convinced Rhode Island can end family homelessness – like soon.
It’s a new obsession of hers since she learned that Milwaukee is on track to become the first large city in the country to accomplish that goal this year. The city had about 675 homeless households, but they’ve had zero families living on the streets since 2020, and they’ve seen a massive reduction in families living in shelters in the years since.
Family homelessness is defined as at least one parent and at least one child under the age of 18 who don’t have a permanent place of their own to live. They’re not always on the streets or in a shelter; most often they bounce among others’ homes, doubling up with family members or friends.
In Rhode Island’s case, Nicolato estimates that there are about 1,000 families that are homeless at any given time, but she thinks that if organizations like United Way and the housing providers and the state can work together, they can reach the same goal in just a couple of years. The key isn’t just having more housing available, but providing better resources – including money – directly to those at risk of not having a roof over their heads.
“I came home to say, ‘What are the big, hairy, audacious things that as a community we need to do?” said Nicolato, who grew up in Pawtucket, and graduated from Saint Raphael Academy and then the University of Rhode Island. “What do we need to make it happen? How do we set that goal and all charge toward that goal?”
Nicolato, 45, returned home five years ago after working her way up in the nonprofit sector in The Senior Source Dallas. She was at the American Heart Association and then worked as president and CEO of The Senior Source when the United Way job in Rhode Island became available after the retirement of Anthony Maione.
United Way affiliates all over the country have always grappled the same challenge: They have a sterling reputation in their respective communities for helping people, but it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly what they do and how they do it.
In Rhode Island, United Way oversees 2-1-1, the confidential hotline that takes hundreds of calls a day from residents seeking everything from housing or food assistance to mental health support. (Nicolato said 2-1-1 has fielded a million calls since she started.) The organization was especially vital during the COVID-19 pandemic, coordinating food deliveries to residents, offering rental assistance, and setting up vaccination clinics.
The organization has always raised and distributed millions of dollars to nonprofits that support its mission of building economic security, advancing childhood learning, expanding philanthropy, and driving policy and participation, but Nicolato led the effort to create 401Gives, a giving campaign held annually on April 1 that urges Rhode Island residents to donate to their favorite causes.
Since becoming president and CEO, Nicolato has made a concerted effort to ensure that the United Way has a seat at the table for the biggest policy conversations – not just to raise money, but also to drive the discussion. Behind the scenes, she played a key role in advocating for passage of House Speaker Joseph Shekarchi’s housing package, which is designed to spur the production of homes in Rhode Island.
“Cortney is very bright and very talented, but she is more than an advocate,” Shekarchi told me. “She really understands how government works.”
If you were wondering, you can count Shekarchi as someone who believes Nicolato should “absolutely” run for elected office down the line.
But first, she’s got work to do.
Nicolato has been talking to Housing Secretary Stefan Pryor and Governor Dan McKee about her latest mission of ending family homelessness, but she said achieving that goal is going to take a strategic plan that wins the buy-in of lots of government and community partners. And United Way is willing to put up plenty of money to assist with the effort.
Housing isn’t the only area where United Way is having a major impact. The organization has been working with the state office of the postsecondary commissioner to support residents involved in the Rhode Island Reconnect program, which puts adults on track to earn certificates or degrees at no cost. The United Way offers financial assistance to help students get through the program.
“If it’s one month of rent, we’ll give it to the landlords,” Nicolato said. “If it’s utility, we give it to the utility companies. If it’s a computer, we purchase a computer. If it’s a suit, it’s a suit. Whatever it is, we do that because that program is game-changing.”
Back to my original question: Would Nicolato ever want to run for office?
She’s not ruling it out, but she wants to get United Way through its 100th anniversary in 2026. She’s about to sign a new contract to stick with the organization through that point, and they’re planning another huge fund-raising round to coincide with their centennial.
So you’re telling me there’s a chance.