Then and Now

United Way of Rhode Island traces its roots to the Providence Community Fund (PCF), started in 1926 in response to a growing number of private agencies that were raising funds individually. The PCF was organized on the premise that a combined effort would give more Rhode Islanders the opportunity to have a positive impact on the lives of their neighbors in need. Resources would be distributed according to assessed needs—as defined by the community—thereby ensuring a balanced response.

Henry Sharpe was the Fund’s first president and campaign chair. Over a remarkably successful one-week campaign in October 1926, more than $480,000 was raised.

Over the years, other Community Funds were established in several Rhode Island communities. In 1935, Cranston became the first to join forces with the Providence Community Fund to conduct a single campaign.

The Hurricane of 1938 brought unprecedented destruction to the state and stretched the ability of PCF agencies to meet the needs of the community while at the same time restoring their own operations. PCF headquarters on Weybosett Street in Providence was flooded and most records were damaged or destroyed.

It was also in the 1930s that Royal Little, the founder of Textron, established a trust fund administered by the Rhode Island Foundation that to this day helps pay the organization’s fundraising and administrative costs.

In the 1940s…

In 1941, all of Rhode Island’s Community Funds or Chests were combined into one organization. Blackstone, Burrillville, Central Falls, Cranston, Cumberland, Lincoln, North Smithfield, Pawtucket, Providence, Warwick and Woonsocket joined forces as the United Campaigns of Community Chests in order to create a stronger sense of statewide unity in philanthropic work.

A year later, the group refocused as the Rhode Island United War Fund to meet the increasing burdens World War II was placing on families, especially those with loved ones serving in the military. The 1942 campaign raised $2.1 million dollars—130.8% of the goal!

It was in 1943 that compulsory withholding of income and social security taxes created the payroll deduction option as a method of donating to workplace campaigns.

This remains the favored method of pledging for United Way to this day.

Its mission accomplished, the War Fund was disbanded in 1946 and was reestablished as the Rhode Island Community Chests, Inc.

In the ’50s, ’60s and ’70s…

The Rhode Island Community Chests became the United Fund in 1955. Responding to the community, the organization also began to focus on accountability of donor investment.

The 1960s and ’70s were turbulent times for the country and for the Rhode Island Community Chest.  While “Great Society” social programs brought an unprecedented influx of money into the community, it also led to duplication of efforts between long-established private agencies and newer government entities.  Philanthropic activities faced challenges as it appeared to some that tax dollars would replace individual contributions as the way to improve the quality of life of those in need.

In 1973, the United Fund was reincorporated as the United Way of Southeastern New England in recognition that many who were supporting workplace campaigns lived in neighboring Massachusetts and Connecticut and that Rhode Island based agencies provided services to residents of those areas.

More recently…

United Way of SENE developed Critical Issue Funds in the 1990s to encourage more experimental and collaborative solutions to key issues facing the community. Programs such as Making It Work and the Community Schools-RI initiative foster creative approaches to problems, and bring together local groups with partner-funding organizations to expand the impact of United Way funds.

After an unprecedented outreach to the community, the organization began transforming itself in 2002 by changing its name—to United Way of Rhode Island (UWRI)—and adopting a new mission: To mobilize the caring power of the community to improve the lives of people in need.

In early 2004, two Community Summits involving 800 people were convened to identify key problems and issues faced by the community. Members of these summits made up a microcosm of Rhode Island and included consumers, service providers, government leaders, and representatives from the business and faith-based communities.

Because of the input from the Summits, UWRI’s Board of Directors chartered three Impact Groups (IGs) that best fit with the organization’s experience and expertise in the areas of Solutions for Children, Youth and Families; Helping People in Crisis; and Building Adult and Neighborhood Independence.The IGs—with a membership of 300 representatives from the community—worked through 2004 further defining program and funding priorities. Eight RFPs were issued in the late summer for IG funding.

In January 2005, United Way awarded its first-ever competitive grants through the Impact Group process. More than $9 million was awarded to 66 organizations for 77 programs. Twenty-six had never received funding before from United Way’s general fund. Since then, two additional rounds of grants covering the periods 2006–2009 and 2010–2012 totaling $25.8 million have been given to scores of social service organizations in Rhode Island.

UWRI has been on the path of an “Impact United Way” since 2005.  The “Impact United Way” is focused on generating measurable results to create a better community and to be relevant to donors. We have executed strategies that have combined strong public policy work, funding, and advocacy with measurable success. We have moved to a new location and made the headquarters come alive with community organizations and people in need of service from United Way 2-1-1 in Rhode Island.

The “great recession” has brought major challenges in fundraising and increasing community need. Our future hinges on our ability to build personal relationships with donors inside and outside the workplace. UWRI, through our Board and staff, must convey a sense of urgency, of competence, and of trustworthiness to continue to attract the partners we will need to continue our place among the top philanthropic organizations in Rhode Island.