Mentoring Matters at First Niagara

First Niagara Foundation 2013 logoFirst Niagara is committed to community investment and development as a part of its corporate giving platform. Its primary focus areas are supporting youth and education initiatives. Both of these areas are the focal points of First Niagara’s signature program, Mentoring MattersSM.

Mentoring Matters is First Niagara’s company-wide, charitable giving program that provides monetary and employee volunteer support to exemplary mentoring organizations. Established in 2007, the program connects First Niagara with innovative mentoring program providers throughout the bank’s primary service areas in New York, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Massachusetts. In 2012, First Niagara awarded nearly $1 million to 33 impactful organizations through the 2012-2013 Mentoring Mattersgrant program.

Both top executives and First Niagara teammates felt passionately about the importance of mentoring and its positive impact on the lives of young adults, remarked Elizabeth Gurney, Executive Director of the First Niagara Foundation. The Mentoring Matters initiative created the opportunity for First Niagara to develop a branded giving program and raise awareness about the need for dedicated resources in this special area. However, the initial decision on whether to create a branded program presented a challenge for First Niagara. Because the concept of branded giving was new to the Foundation, there was some hesitation. One issue was how grantees would be evaluated; another was whether a new program would take away from the Foundation’s existing giving process. First Niagara overcame the challenge by agreeing to test the special program for one year and evaluate results objectively. The response to the inaugural Mentoring Matters round was overwhelmingly positive, and the program has continued to strengthen and grow since then.

First Niagara-Yolanda Fields with students
Yolanda Fields, chair of the bank’s Western New York Employee Volunteer Council meets with students from Buffalo’s Enterprise Charter School during the Day of Mentoring.

The initiative is run in partnership with mentoring organizations that have proven programs and broad reach. “Partnering organizations submit two rounds of applications, which helps First Niagara further screen applicants and identify the most highly focused and qualified mentoring organizations,” Gurney noted. A select group of past recipients are invited to re-apply the following year, furthering First Niagara’s goal of building sustainable partnerships with effective leaders in the field of mentoring. A number of indicators provide guidance for the ultimate selection, including program metrics, best practices and due diligence practices of the organization.

Mentoring Matters is coordinated internally with representatives from Corporate Communications, Regional Philanthropic Giving Committees and the First Niagara Foundation. This cross-functional team approach allows First Niagara to balance the different perspectives of its employees and generate increased interest in mentoring and volunteer opportunities. In addition to becoming mentors, First Niagara team members serve as volunteers for many of the nonprofit programs supported through Mentoring Matters. Teammates are encouraged to tell their stories on the company-wide intranet. These often highly motivating experiences help inspire others to volunteer. First Niagara’s “Day of Mentoring,” launched after the program’s initial success, brings students to its regional headquarters and allows them to gain first-hand experience of what it is like to work in the financial industry.

Each recipient organization’s success is determined through a variety of qualitative and quantitative measures. Partnering organizations submit a final report to First Niagara detailing the impact of their efforts. The analysis does not stop there. “We also value the work the providers do in the field, each and every day, to create better opportunities for our community’s youth and others in need of a mentor. We take this into account as well,” Gurney added. Big Brothers Big Sisters, Junior Achievement, and local Boys & Girls Clubs are among the grant recipients, most of them common grantees throughout the bank’s eight region geography.

Gurney advised that “Input from a variety of perspectives always helps. Reach out to a variety of people to learn their views and experiences -- from experts in the field, to your employees, the company’s leadership, and current service providers. Matching priority needs in your community with your corporate citizenship goals can result in great success!”

When developing an idea about a charitable giving program, Gurney suggested, companies should pursue a giving area in which they believe, develop a strategic plan that supports its implementation, and seek insights from diverse groups to challenge their assumptions. Much of the success of Mentoring Matters is attributed to First Niagara’s integration of both internal and external stakeholders. The program grows stronger each year thanks to the exceptional work Mentoring Matters grant recipients do in the field and the strategic annual assessments conducted by First Niagara.

For more information on Mentoring Matters and First Niagara’s community commitment, including its 2012 Community Report, visit