Hopeful Ties: A Rust Belt Funder Bets on Mentoring

 photo: GaudiLab/shutterstock

 photo: GaudiLab/shutterstock

Places like western New York, northeastern Ohio, and southeast Michigan aren’t easy terrain for philanthropy. The anxieties of the so-called Rust Belt, which helped Donald Trump clinch the presidency last year, are rooted in deep problems that defy easy solutions. Recently, we wrote about the Mott Foundation investing $1 billion in the city of Flint over decades but failing to stop an economic decline rooted in large-scale trends, starting with globalization. 

But major funders haven't given up on improving a region battered by industrial decline. Quite the contrary. New ideas and initiatives have been emerging, along with some new funders—including the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation.

This grantmaker was founded on the proceeds of the sale of the Buffalo Bills after Wilson, the owner, passed away. The foundation plans to spend down its $1.2 billion war chest by 2035, and has adopted a “responsibly aggressive” stance toward its funding in western New York and southeast Michigan. As a newcomer with a strong sense of urgency, and one that's tackling daunting challenges in a struggling region, Wilson is a foundation worth watching closely. 


Youth mentoring (and youth development in general) is one part of a multi-pronged strategy the Wilson Foundation is pursuing. Last month, the foundation announced a $2.4 million grant over the next two years to support the Western New York Mentoring Collective. The First Niagara Foundation is joining the Wilson Foundation as a funding partner. 

The collective’s nine-member organizations will work with MENTOR: The National Mentoring Partnership, as well as its state-level affiliate in New York, to boost outcomes and “create a learning community” around structured mentorship in the area. Founded over 25 years ago, MENTOR has been a steady national advocate for the mentorship movement. 

Mentorship strategies feature in many funder-backed approaches to youth development and job readiness, and MENTOR enjoys support from a wide range of philanthropic partners. They include the Carnegie Corporation, the Monteforte Foundation, the Raikes Foundation, and the Kelly Family Foundation. Corporate philanthropies have also strongly supported youth development lately, the financial sector in particular. MENTOR also counts MetLife, Bank of America and JPMorgan Chase among its top supporters. 

Note that while MENTOR’s expertise will benefit the Western New York Mentoring Collective, the grant itself is going to the collective, not directly to MENTOR. Also note the connection between the First Niagara Foundation and KeyBank, another regional giving stalwart. Last year, KeyBank purchased First Niagara Bank and committed $20 million to the latter’s foundation, stipulating that its forthcoming grants would be “in partnership with KeyBank.” First Niagara has been supporting mentorship programs in the region for nine years.

When the banks merged, they agreed that the two foundations would actively work to coordinate their impact, and that First Niagara’s grants would focus on western New York. Earlier this summer, KeyBank committed $24 million—its largest grant to date—to support small business and entrepreneurship, giving some of those resources to western New York.

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For both the Ralph C. Wilson Foundation and First Niagara/KeyBank, youth development through mentoring and similar strategies is only one part of a larger puzzle. To reinvigorate the region’s stuttering economy, funders are looking at ways to channel its strengths, like low cost of living, business-friendly policies, talent from local universities and ample space for entrepreneurial approaches. 

The Wilson Foundation has deeply involved itself in these efforts, giving multi-million-dollar grants to incubation efforts like Launch NY, Michigan’s New Economy Initiative, and TechHire. In fact, Wilson Foundation president David Egner spent several years heading the New Economy Initiative before his current gig. On a related note, KeyBank’s big $24 million grant went to JumpStart, a Cleveland-based public-private partnership to help entrepreneurs. 

Meanwhile, structured mentoring has benefitted nationwide from research suggesting its effectiveness for at-risk youth. Lots of youth development programs incorporate mentoring, and a full accounting is beyond the scope of this article. But it is worth pointing out how much support banks have given to these causes lately, and not just the Big Four. Regional players like First Niagara and KeyBank—partnering with local foundations like Wilson—are an important part of this ecosystem.