At Brown's annual Staff Development Day in 2018, more than 500 employees filled 3,000 backpacks with school supplies for Rhode Island children participating in the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative, a program co-organized by the United Way of Rhode Island. The event was one of many initiatives that Brown has embarked upon in support of the United Way of Rhode Island. Photo: Nick Dentamaro

With a focus on serving Rhode Island communities, Brown deepens its partnership with United Way

Brown Gives has raised millions of dollars over decades to support United Way in helping Rhode Islanders in need, and the University has pledged a four-year commitment to support the organization’s new strategic plan.

PROVIDENCE, R.I. [Brown University] — Among Brown University’s many initiatives dedicated to serving the greater community, its partnership with United Way of Rhode Island is among the most longstanding.

Over the course of a decades-long partnership, the Brown community has raised millions of dollars for the organization through its annual Brown Gives fundraising campaign. Those funds support initiatives that provide essentials like food — nearly 121,000 Rhode Islanders struggle with hunger — housing, childcare, job training and utility assistance to Rhode Islanders in need.

The vast scope of individuals and communities in Providence and across the Ocean State that benefit from these efforts makes the organization an ideal partner for Brown, said University President Christina H. Paxson.

“At Brown, we partner with the United Way because we strongly believe in its mission of strengthening the community through education and ensuring that the most basic human needs, like food and housing, are met for all of our neighbors,” Paxson said.

In 2020 and 2021, the University has sought to deepen this commitment to the organization, becoming a leader among its community partners by offering sustained financial support for its strategic response to calls for pandemic relief and racial equity.

Every dollar contributed directly funds a range of programs that meet pressing needs.

Last year, United Way of Rhode Island’s 211 phone line answered 255,792 calls, connecting Rhode Islanders with food, housing, childcare, addiction recovery services and more. More than 8,935 eligible, working residents received free tax preparation services through the organization’s Volunteer Income Tax Assistance program, returning some $27 million to the pockets of low-wage Rhode Islanders and the state’s economy. A COVID-19 Response Fund launched with the Rhode Island Foundation deployed more than $8.5 million to secure medical supplies for health care workers and assist nearly 200 nonprofits in providing food and housing to affected Rhode Islanders. And the organization’s Women United Executive Committee granted $395,000 to eight literacy-focused nonprofits.

In April 2020, United Way of Rhode Island launched its first 401Gives, a statewide day of giving that raised more than $1.2 million for 366 nonprofits — from the Rhode Island Community Food Bank and Crossroads Rhode Island to the Hope and Main food incubator, Dorcas International and Farm Fresh Rhode Island.

In recognition of Brown’s ongoing and evolving commitment to supporting these and other efforts, the United Way of Rhode Island presented Brown University with its Corporate Partnership Award at its 94th Annual Celebration, held virtually on Thursday, Jan. 14. The award — which has been given annually for nearly a century — recognizes an organization that has demonstrated an exceptional commitment to serving the Rhode Island community in partnership with United Way.

Cortney Nicolato, president and CEO of United Way of Rhode Island, said Brown was a “natural fit” to receive this year’s award given both its support for the organization as well as the wide array of academic and community initiatives through which students, faculty and staff at Brown address community challenges. 

“We’re thrilled to be able to honor Brown with this award,” she said. “By regularly and routinely committing itself to the community in an immense number of innovative ways, the University has been a true role model for other community organizations.”

Extending Brown’s investment

While Brown Gives has supported the United Way of Rhode Island since the mid-1980s, Brown has deepened its commitment to the organization in recent years.

In 2018, University Human Resources dedicated part of the annual Staff Development Day to a Guinness Book of World Record-smashing event, in which more than 500 Brown employees filled 3,000 backpacks with school supplies for Rhode Island children participating in the Hasbro Summer Learning Initiative, a program jointly led by United Way of Rhode Island and Hasbro Children’s Fund.

The backpacks ultimately went to thousands of elementary school kids at 14 sites across the state, from Central Falls and Providence to Newport, North Kingstown and Westerly — each of which offers a six-week summer learning program, via partnership with a school district and community-based organization, to mitigate summer learning loss and build social, emotional and other essential skills. The programs include a core focus on service learning, encouraging young people to act as changemakers by addressing community challenges.

Brown also made a four-year commitment to support LIVE UNITED 2025, United Way of Rhode Island’s new strategic plan, which kicked off on Jan. 14, 2021. Developed over two years in conjunction with hundreds of community stakeholders, the plan deepens the United Way’s commitment to equity and racial justice. Brown has pledged $600,000 — $150,000 for four years — in support of the plan’s work.

Brown is excited about the specific goals that LIVE UNITED 2025 has established, Paxson said, which include doubling the number of Rhode Island cities and towns that meet the 10 percent affordable housing threshold; increasing by 50 percent access to and participation in out-of-school learning in low-income communities; investing in capacity-building and operational funding for local nonprofits; and reducing by 25 percent the number of people of color who are either underemployed or unemployed.

“From its founding, Brown’s focus has been on creating a special environment where students can learn, live and work alongside faculty and staff. This living environment is coupled with the understanding that participation in, and service to, our broader community is a necessity, a duty and an honor. Working with United Way of Rhode Island is one way for the Brown community to strive toward this important goal.”

Barbara Chernow Executive Vice President for Finance and Administration, Brown Gives Campaign Chair
Barbara Chernow

“This plan requires that we go deep, rather than wide,” Nicolato said upon United Way’s launch of the plan.

Nicolato said that the strategic plan’s success calls for a commitment to meaningful change from both United Way of Rhode Island and its partners.

“It’s about being transformative, and we choose to work with organizations that are themselves transformative,” Nicolato said. “We are proud to have Brown’s transformative leadership at the forefront of this effort.”

Brown’s long partnership with United Way demonstrates its commitment to the community values upon which the University is built, said Barbara Chernow, executive vice president for finance and administration and campaign chair of the Brown Gives campaign.

“From its founding, Brown’s focus has been on creating a special environment where students can learn, live and work alongside faculty and staff,” she said. “This living environment is coupled with the understanding that participation in, and service to, our broader community is a necessity, a duty and an honor. Working with United Way of Rhode Island is one way for the Brown community to strive toward this important goal.”

A campus-wide campaign

At the heart of Brown’s partnership with United Way of Rhode Island is Brown Gives, an annual campaign that has raised millions of dollars in faculty and staff donations for the organization since it began.

While the effort started as an employee pledge drive held over two months at the end of each calendar year, it has expanded to include fundraising initiatives and events held year-round by departments across campus. As the scope has grown, so too have Brown Gives fundraising totals, with the most recent campaign in 2020 raising over $239,000 — a record amount — from 331 donors across the University.

One of the campaign’s signature elements is the Brown Bookstore Round-Up, which invites customers to round their merchandise totals up to the nearest dollar during the campaign season, with the extra change being donated to United Way of Rhode Island. The roundup has raised more than $21,000 — all gathered from spare change — since it began just over a decade ago.

“We like to support the United Way because of the accessibility of its programs to the local community,” said TJ Cochran, director of the bookstore. “The Brown Bookstore is a part of that local community. We serve the community at large, and therefore we have a responsibility to contribute to the community.”

Since 2011, Brown Gives has also invited departments to appoint campaign leaders to plan year-round fundraising events for the campaign. Fifty-seven campaign leaders representing 36 departments and committees planned events in 2020, including (pre-COVID) dress-down days, holiday raffles and monthly homemade lunch sales.

And when the pandemic arrived in Rhode Island last March, campaign leaders learned quickly how to adapt their fundraising strategies to a virtual world, running events ranging from online game nights to a virtual raffle, said Christina Bernier, who has co-managed the University Human Resources campaign since 2019. 

“They did a fantastic job coming up with really unique ideas,” Bernier said.

Fundraising efforts often include staff from across multiple areas of the University, said John Luipold, vice president for real estate and strategic initiatives. As a campaign leader for Real Estate, Luipold has planned events that extend well beyond his own department, including a charity golf tournament and a silent auction held in the lobby of South Street Landing.

“The great thing about the United Way is that they support so many different organizations under their umbrella,” Luipold said. “There is so much need across Providence and Rhode Island, and the United Way does a really good job of making clear where needs are most acute. They focused on education this year in particular, and COVID and support for food banks. That resonated with me and a lot of the people on my staff.”

Paula Penelton, assistant to the vice president for Facilities Management, leads planning of Brown Gives fundraising events for a department that includes hundreds of staff members in roles that range from construction managers to custodians to sustainability experts.

“People in Facilities always get really excited when they can do something for someone else,” Penelton said. “The United Way is an agency where the money raised is not covering administrative fees — it really is going to help people in the community through the whole host of things that they do.”

In the past year, Brown has committed its own resources to addressing acute community needs arising from the COVID-19 pandemic and intensifying calls for racial equity through initiatives including its community meals program, its early degree conferral for advanced medical students seeking to join the pandemic relief effort, and the full funding of a $10 million endowment supporting Providence’s public schools. Brown’s decision to deepen its commitment to United Way comes at a time when stark challenges facing local communities make the organization’s mission more vital than ever, Paxson said.

“The events of the past year have only deepened the needs of the most vulnerable among us,” she said. “That’s why Brown is proud to deepen its commitment to this partnership as the United Way embarks on its new strategic plan.”

By strengthening its partnership with United Way of Rhode Island at this critical moment, the University also affirms the longstanding investment that Brown’s faculty and staff have made in the organization, Chernow said.

“It’s a way for Brown to reinforce the commitment that its community members have made for over three decades,” she said. “The University supports the United Way’s vital work for the well-being of both our local community and our neighbors throughout Rhode Island.”