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Collaborative spirit links Hagley & M&T

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This is the first in a series of planned articles on the partnerships that can evolve between funders (banks, foundations, and other organizations) and grantees to continually find ways to better serve the needs of their communities. 

For M&T Regional President Nick Lambrow, the key to successful nonprofit partnerships is collaboration. He is particularly proud of the bank’s longstanding relationship with the Hagley Museum.

The two organizations have “created innovative educational programs for young people who live in areas that are typically underserved,” he said. “Their willingness to work side by side with us to deliver impactful and customized programs of the highest quality is why our relationship has thrived for more than 30 years.”

M&T/Wilmington Trust and Hagley are a great example – but most certainly not the only example – of how long-term relationships can move beyond being just transactional to being a true partnership that meets the needs of the entire community,” said Cynthia Pritchard, president and CEO of Philanthropy Delaware.

Students from Serviam Girls Academy get hands-on experiences at Hagley | Photo courtesy of Hagley Museum

For example, Hagley works with Serviam Girls Academy, which serves about 78 middle school-aged girls from underserved communities and introduces what Hagley Executive Director David Cole describes as “engineering endeavors.” These are six-week programs, offered every spring, through which Hagley teaches STEM lessons and encourages participants to explore their potential as innovators and inventors.

“It is a pleasure to offer our Serviam students a hands-on engineering and invention curriculum that complements their everyday classroom experience,” says Cole. “This program in turn has burnished our brand and M&T/Wilmington Trust’s — as institutions focused on encouraging innovation.”

DBT Editor Peter Osborne sat down with Cole and M&T/Wilmington Trust Regional Manager of Charitable Contributions and Community Affairs Joe Yacyshyn, whose oversees contribution to more than 350 organizations, to talk about what makes their relationship work. They started with Cole’s view of branding.

DBT: I don’t know how many museums think of themselves as a brand rather than stressing their mission.

DAVID COLE: Well, branding and mission fulfillment go hand in hand. At Hagley, we’re focusing on encouraging all our visitors and particularly our young visitors to absorb stories and lessons that will inspire and encourage them to become innovative in their own right. Over the past several years, as our innovation-focused programs have gained traction, people in the community have started to view Hagley as a place that visitors from across our region find inspiring, accessible, and welcoming.

JOE YACYSHYN: We’re giving kids from inner city communities an opportunity for their life to be better. There are opportunities out there and there are resources. So get in, explore and see if something wakes you up.

DBT: How do you get kids from Sussex and Kent counties engaged?

DAVID: Hagley used to take community-engagement programs on the road, but over time we learned that it was better simply to focus on encouraging visitation. We’ve built incentive programs — including discounted admission, to encourage first time visitation from visitors in Wilmington and downstate. We’ve also offered free days to the military communities in Kent and Sussex counties.

JOE: If we hear of an academic institution in Georgetown that wants to come but can’t afford it, we’ll pay for the bus. We want to expose kids at younger ages, because if you wait until they become 11 or 12, you’ve missed it. If you can light the rocket, talk with them early on, you can change their lives. We’re talking about Hagley changing lives. You can live a better life than your parents. It’s not as complicated as you think.

DBT: Do you have a particular focus where you’re focusing your resources?

JOE: We don’t have designations like other companies do. Other companies say we’re doing housing, we’re doing reading. We’re meeting community needs. I chair a committee of 13 people from up and down the state and what they tell me we need to be doing in Bridgeville is very different than what we need to be doing in Elsmere. It goes back to the premise that this is our home, this is where we live. We have 29 staff members who serve as Principal for a Day. They are coming back with an ‘oh, my God!’ moment. ‘You’ll never guess what I saw,’ and I said, ‘Good. That’s why we sent you out there.’ 

DAVID: I think Joe is pointing to a powerful element that our organizations share: Our most innovative people are fabulous listeners. We don’t want to presume that we know what’s good for the communities we serve. We listen actively and try to absorb a lot of information to help us figure out how to align our organization around program themes that mean something to our audiences. That’s the root of our innovation efforts.

DBT: What impact has the change in Delaware’s corporate structures had, with the loss or downsizing of organizations like MBNA, Hercules and DuPont, on nonprofit funding?

JOE: There’s been a thinning. It’s a perfect storm: more demand, less supply. We’re looking for good programs and we’re measuring outcomes and we want to serve the underserved. Everyone in our organization volunteers at least 40 hours a year. We don’t have a preference for what you do. But we do want you to do something because we think when our communities survive, we survive as a company.

DAVID: Wilmington is an enormously attractive area. Good housing. It’s beautiful, huge number of great cultural institutions relative to the size of the community and good work opportunities. We ask our partners how we can help make this an attractive place for people to work and put down roots?’ If they stay and grow their numbers, that’s good for our institution. 

JOE: We partner with lots of political and business leaders and many others across the state. We do a lot of listening. We eat a lot of chicken and drink a lot of bad coffee. We often say, ‘That’s a good idea, but if you want it to become a great idea, you might consider this.’ We’re not about transactions. We’re about relationships and we want to know how we’re moving the needle. (With Hagley’s STEM programs), one of those kids may go to MIT and become an engineer. That’s absolutely great, but it’s all about opening the door to provide opportunities for kids from underserved communities.

DAVID: There’s a reason why Zip Code Wilmington is thriving, for example. The demand is here. It was simply a question of recognizing an unmet community need and creating an innovative solution to meet it. 

DBT: A lot of parents and kids have a goal of getting to a four-year school. There’s another part of the population where the best thing for them — and they may not even realize it — might be the trades.

DAVID: You’re preaching to the converted. The exercises in most science centers around the country are very digitally based and involve pressing a lot of buttons and touchscreens. I think what you get at Hagley that’s different is that we offer a hands-on introduction to the STEM spectrum. Our programs are very engineering focused and put a premium on solving problems with your mind and your hands. Young people are coming to Hagley and they’re seeing actual machinery perform. They’re using their own hands to conduct hydraulic experiments. They can be creative in ways that go beyond just memorizing what’s in a textbook and spitting it out. 

When we see the kids in our programs open up a sluice gate in our mill races and the water pours throw a turbine, and they see how they can change the flow rate – that’s a vivid and powerful way to cement a key piece of STEM learning. We’re actually planting the seed in the mind of a young visitor: I could make a gizmo like this! I could tinker with it and make it better. I can make a product from that. I don’t necessarily have to go to college to do that, although that’s an option that we also encourage. Our focus is on problem solving through exciting, hands-on activities – something that a cultural institution like Hagley can offer to complement what kids are doing in the classroom.

DBT: How do you know when you get 700 applications, which are the ones to fund? What are the two or three things that you could highlight?

JOE: We’re looking for measurable outcomes and for good governance. How do you run your organization? It’s got to be objective arms-length. You can’t hire your brother-in-law to be on the board. We’re looking for impact in low-income underserved communities where people have seen that there’s nobody else there. You see that more below the canal. We’re looking for established; we don’t really look at doing startups. You need to have three years under your belt. We’re looking for people who are willing to make compassionate — but not emotional — decisions. And they have to be open to getting feedback that we can’t fund this now but if you come back and it looks like this, maybe we have something that could work. It needs to be a partnership.

We have an obligation to tell people straight up and in a way that’s not offensive to just say, ‘We ain’t buying what you’re selling. But if you made it look this way, we could do it.’ Too many not-for-profits are running a business the way they ran it 25 years ago. We say you need to change your model and we’re going to help you with it. But we need you to embrace the partnership.

DAVID: Environments and communities change, but we as cultural organizations are often slow to adapt to these changes. Banks, because they lend and do business with lots of stakeholders in the community, know what’s going on in virtually every sector and can be great sounding boards for Hagley and many of our peer organizations.? 

DBT: So if you’re talking to nonprofit X and you’re making suggestions about business models or whatever you need them to be listening and not just nodding their heads.

JOE: Because we don’t buy off the rack. We’re going to tell people it’s a mound of clay. You can push it over to me and I’m going to play with it and then I’m going to send it to David and David’s going to play with it. At the end, we’ve got something that works for everybody. It may not be what we envision going in. It rarely is. But it’s different and it’s concise. 

DAVID: Joe’s been at this a lot longer than I have. We’ve been working together for six years and I would say that many of the educational programs we offer at Hagley have been the result of conversations we’ve had with M&T/Wilmington Trust over that time. And the end result was often not what we envisioned in the beginning but rather was the result of a really helpful feedback loop. 

JOE: We are willing to raise awkward conversations in a positive way with each other. I may call to say we’re going to have an awkward conversation, but we never lose respect for one another.

DAVID: We learn something all the way along. We both learn, which is how innovation happens, right?

(Editor’s Note: Joe Yacyshyn announced after this interview that he will be retiring in October). 

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