The Power of Ziti: A Community Foundation Taps Local Opinion Over Dinner

Together RI - woonsocket community dinner.jpg

Community foundations aim to keep an ear to the ground and the lines of communication open with their neighbors and donors. Inviting them all to an Italian dinner stands out as a particularly excellent method of sourcing local input—who is going to turn down a good baked ziti?

In the spring of 2018, the Rhode Island Foundation (RIF), the only community foundation in the state and the largest funder of its nonprofits, reached out to locals through a widespread free-meal campaign called Together RI. The campaign offered pasta dinners in every town in the state, inviting people to discuss what they liked and didn’t about Rhode Island, while also writing down their thoughts and completing a survey. And it was useful—much of the input RIF gathered ties into its main funding areas of economic security, educational success, and healthy lives, and can help it to better understand and guide its programming.

Almost 1,300 Rhode Islanders shared family-style meals, consuming 1,721 pounds of baked ziti, 2,304 meatballs, and 47 gallons of marinara sauce. Folks dined and talked—at schools, community centers, and other accessible places during the noodle blitz. These dinners and the resulting conversations were quite well-structured. Independent professional facilitators guided each dinner session and the Social Science Institute for Research, Education, and Policy (SSIREP) at the University of Rhode Island analyzed the anonymous discussion and survey results.

“As social media became increasingly divisive and polarizing, we offered people the chance to talk face-to-face over family-style meals. It worked,” Chris Barnett, a spokesman for the foundation, tells Inside Philanthropy.

While we won’t go into all the subtleties of the 100-plus page analysis, here is a look at some of the key findings and how they relate to RIF’s work, with input from RIF President and CEO Neil D. Steinberg.

Education is on Rhode Islanders’ Minds

Areas of concern and opportunity discussed at Together RI included the desire to build high-quality education programs and to ensure students who earn higher degrees remain in the state after graduation. Education was an issue many participants said they would be willing to spend time working to improve.

RIF is already engaged in improving state education—Steinberg says it is one of the foundation’s top priorities, a need he explained “has been validated by poor recent performance results.” For example, in 2018, Rhode Island students scored 17 points lower than Massachusetts students in English and 20 points lower in math on the RICAS—Rhode Island’s administration of the Massachusetts Comprehensive Assessment system (MCAs).

One education-related 2017 RIF grantee was the Center for Leadership and Educational Equity, which runs professional development programs for educators. It implemented the new Novice Principal Induction Network to support new school principals with services like peer networking, individual coaching and feedback. Steinberg says the foundation is also working with senior stakeholders from all branches of the Rhode Island education sector “to craft a long-overdue, long-term vision for public education,” which will include public input as well.

Addressing the Local Economy

Not surprisingly for the Ocean State, known for its extensive coastline and local fare, many participants identified natural resources and the coastal environment as the state’s greatest strengths in terms of beauty, environmental stewardship, and a source of economic opportunity relating to food production, restaurants and tourism.

While the coastal environment was seen as an economic boon, some people who took part in Together RI also expressed concerns about unemployment and homelessness. Rhode Island’s unemployment rate was 4.5 percent in 2017. Health care and social assistance are the sectors with the greatest number of employees in the state, and while employment continues to grow, the labor force level still falls behind 2006 pre-recessionary levels.

Economic security is another key funding priority for RIF, which it aims to address through workforce development, small business growth, and “high opportunity clusters with potential to produce many good-quality jobs.”

For example, RIF backs “Year Up,” a program designed to help low-income young adults transition to professional careers within one year through coursework, training, professional skill development, and corporate internships. Since 2005, nearly 1,000 people have completed the program.

Promoting Equity in Healthcare

While Rhode Island has one of the highest rates of health insurance coverage in the country, health equity remains an issue. When we asked Steinberg if there was a community concern and challenge gleaned from the Together RI feedback that the foundation now plans to engage more fully, he identified healthcare affordability and access.

RIF spearheaded a long-term planning group for the state that is working to create “a vision for health in Rhode Island,” which includes representatives from local hospital systems, provider groups, the state nurses’ association, and public health experts, including the director of the state Department of Health and representatives from nursing and medical schools. “There also will be a robust public engagement effort,” Steinberg says.

And, RIF recently awarded $3.6 million to six nonprofits working to reduce chronic disease and health disparities. It also funds a “Health Professionals Loan Repayment Program,” which encourages providers to focus on practicing and improving health outcomes in underserved communities in return for the reduction or forgiveness of their school debt.

Diversity and Community in Rhode Island

Inequality in general was another challenge area brought up by participants, and diversity was one of the most frequently mentioned topics.

The majority of the Together RI participants—almost 65 percent—were female. Most were white, and smaller percentages were Black, Asian, Hispanic/Latino, Native American, or chose not to self-identify. According to census data, Rhode Islanders are about 51 percent female, more than 80 percent white, 15.5 percent Hispanic/ Latino, about 8 percent Black, 3.7 percent Asian, almost 3 percent two-or-more races, and about 1 percent Native. Rhode Island has a relatively large immigrant community, with many people hailing from the Dominican Republic.

Diversity and culture were seen by participants as contributing to a positive sense of community, along with history and the arts, programs and services, and the state’s small size.

“Participants found Rhode Islanders to be interconnected and willing to help one another, and they also valued how our state’s small size [contributes] to collaboration,” RIF said.


The bulk of the local diners and chatters were 65 or older, while the median age in RI is about 40. The youngest diner was just over three months and the eldest was a 92-year-old Holocaust survivor. A total of 99 percent of the survey respondents reported meeting someone new.

Steinberg shared that his team learned a great deal from these events, but that they would aim to reach an even more diverse crowd in the future:

While we had significant outreach to publicize the meetings, the time, location and direct local engagement were all factors that determined who we reached. In the future, we would more directly partner with local community groups to engage more people of color and young people where they are, and with the community groups potentially co-hosting with us.

A couple of the most positive takeaways from the dinner series: about 75 percent of respondents said they are more likely to get involved in community issues after participating, and 72 percent said they better understand the issues their community faces. Both of these stats could potentially lead to greater future engagement with the foundation.

While it’s not uncommon for foundations to host dinners for fundraising or celebratory purposes, holding listening dinners is somewhat novel. This initiative, which combined the simple, timeless practice of a shared meal with meaningful inquiry and a rigorous follow-up analysis, seems like a fruitful one, both as an opportunity to convene neighbors—traditionally a primary role for community foundations—and as a way to source current, anonymous local sentiment.