10 to Watch 2013

Jessica David

Vice President for Planning, Strategy and Special Projects, Rhode Island Foundation

John Taraborelli
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Photo by James Jones

What that job title actually means:
David has worked her way up through the ranks of one of the state’s premier philanthropic organizations, starting as Special Projects Officer in 2006. Essentially her job (and her job title) has evolved around her as she has taken on more of what she calls “things that don’t fit neatly into our other areas.” Her responsibilities include innovative and promising new projects like the Innovation Fellowship, which began last year with two three-year, $300,000 awards to two creative ideas to improve Rhode Island, and the Make It Happen conference, which gathered 300 “key doers and thinkers” to brainstorm on ideas to rebuild the state’s economy.

Why these projects matter:
For most of its almost 100-year history, the foundation followed the more traditionally reactive model of community philanthropy, but under its current strategic plan it is moving in a more proactive direction to respond to the issues of the day. “We continue to see our role as convenor, champion and catalyst – the connection point between people and ideas,” David says.

Perhaps the best example is the Innovation Fellowship: while only two fellowships were ultimately awarded, the foundation received 438 proposals, several of which advanced to subsequent rounds of the competition. “It generated interest and investment from a group of people we’ve never reached before,” she explains. “There were people who were not on our radar and brought this whole wealth of ideas and perspectives to the table that really hadn’t been there before. And we found that once they were there, they didn’t want to leave.” Some of the finalists and semi-finalists have continued trying to bring their projects to fruition, with the foundation exploring the possibility of advancing some of them.

What comes next:
David will oversee the next round of Innovation Fellowships in April, launching two new ideas as the 2012 winners start to bring their projects online. She has also been tending to the suggestions and discussions that came out of Make It Happen, as the foundation has $1 million set aside to initiate and accelerate some of those things.