Matt Hanna of ‘Next One Up’: “Be humble, or humble will find you”

There is no playbook, so don’t be in a rush to finish every page. It will always be evolving if you are doing it with purpose. As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Hanna. Matt “Coach” Hanna grew up in Upstate New […]

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There is no playbook, so don’t be in a rush to finish every page. It will always be evolving if you are doing it with purpose.

As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Matt Hanna.

Matt “Coach” Hanna grew up in Upstate New York in a family of public servants. His father was a two-sport athlete at Hobart College and the school’s athletic director for 37 years. Coach Hanna’s mother would never allow a visit home without reading a book to her second grade class at West Street Elementary, in Geneva. A proud product of public schools, Matt received a bachelor’s degree from the Johns Hopkins University in 2002. There, he served as captain of the men’s lacrosse team, competing in two NCAA Tournaments. After a distinguished career in Major League Lacrosse, Hanna spent a decade in the education field as an admissions director and history teacher before creating Next One Up (NOU).

Hanna founded Next One Up in 2009 while teaching at Cristo Rey Jesuit High School in Baltimore. With a focused vision to address the unmet needs he saw in his students’ lives as a teacher in Baltimore City, this “camp scholarship” program has evolved to a year-round, multi-generational program. Over the past eleven years, Hanna has shepherded the program from a small, loosely-organized charity providing funds for summer camps, to a high-quality, structured nonprofit organization that provides year-round services to promising scholar-athletes.

Today, Next One Up serves more than 120 young men, ages 13–25, who hail from some of Baltimore’s toughest zip codes but share a similar purpose; accepting the hill that must be climbed. It is here that Next One Up and Coach Hanna’s staff engage “high-risk’’ middle and high school students confronting significant barriers to achievement by providing long-term mentoring and coaching in the classroom and on the field. Next One Up’s hallmark is an innovative blend of sports, education and mentoring; as well as a long-term commitment to scholar-athletes. It boasts a 100% high school graduation rate among its students and alumni, and a 100% acceptance rate to two- or four-year colleges.

From NCAA athletes at Notre Dame, Old Dominion, Trinity, Hobart, Colgate, Wake Forest and more, Next One Up has evolved to serve those most committed to their future, not those with the most talent. NOU is an opportunity, not a charity. Some of Coach Hanna’s proudest moments are not the touchdowns on TV, but the graduate who passes truck driving school, or a civil engineer working on projects in his own neighborhood. The growing network of great men who have stayed the course, making an impact in the Baltimore community, is what Hanna and his team cherish most.

In 2013, Hanna was recognized as a social innovator when he was selected as an Open Society Institute-Baltimore Community Fellow under the Campaign for Black Male Achievement. In 2015, he earned a Certificate in Non-Profit Management from Georgetown University, as well as a Certificate in Effective Leadership from the Notre Dame-Mendoza School of Business.

After 12 years, Hanna still serves as CEO of Next One Up, now overseeing a growing staff of seven and over 150 committed participants in change. 100% of NOU alumni are working in careers that place them on a path of generational change. Mentors to the next young leaders rising at NOU, these men are the future of Baltimore. They are living the mission, serving others, and being the humble warrior that will change their community.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?

By my early thirties, I had spent over a decade in classrooms, from inner-city Baltimore, to Manchester, UK. Over this time, one takeaway always defined the success of my year with my students … relationships. My students furthered and helped sharpen my core values: empathy (to walk

through Moss Side in Manchester or a home visit in Park Heights, Baltimore), humility and accountability.

Next One Up ( became my vision in action: as young people evolve as students, social beings, athletes, and future ______, it became clear to me that we are all a collection of our major influences in life. Next One Up serves as that network of leaders, of models, of pathways, that other young men growing up in Baltimore can choose to follow. Next One Up is my vision of not a charity, but of a loving family with a firm foundation of tough love and unending hustle on behalf of those that want nothing more than to be a force in this world. The classroom was where I learned, listened and engaged. Next One Up was born out of fear … fear that we were missing something. We answer the question: What happens after 3 p.m. every day? In Baltimore City, there are not many choices.

Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?

I have some sad stories and many that are inspiring … some are “still in the works” but I would say: In 2019, Next One Up hired one of our founding members, Winfield Hopkins. He represents so much of what drives us: work ethic, reliability, and most importantly, he is a leader. Hiring him is the first of many. My vision has always been to grow a program that would have graduates as staff, board members and donors. We can check all three boxes at this point!

In the world of equity and diversity in the workplace, I know we can show how a mentor program can genuinely remain a transformational position in a young person’s life, well into adulthood. Again, it is the relationships that will prove this, not the cost per student or some other data point.

Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?

I started this in 2009 as a high school teacher. I had never been on a board or to a board meeting.

Looking back at our early meetings, I think I drew stick figures on a legal pad to show how NOU will change the world. No one quit at that point, but looking back on the “one-man show”, I would say the first two years were all pretty humorous. I once sat with a significant business figure and pitched him Next

One Up for 20 minutes. He listened all the way through, then said, “I have no idea what this program does.” Years later, he donated 🙂

I have countless stories of “firsts” that I had with program members: first flight, first train, first time leaving Baltimore … lots of quality stories there.

I cannot believe we have the organization we do today. The first five years were the hardest and packed with stories that so many early businesses have … every failure has been an education.

Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?

Long-term impact. Long-term relationships. Every step of the way, a student that is committed to NOU will always have a tutor, a therapist, a college counselor, career coach, training coach, direct mentor, school tuition, clothing … it keeps going. We are making down payments on homes for our alumni, building businesses around them, and keeping them healthy in so many ways. The key is, the student must commit to seeing this return.

Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?

Juanell Walker is a young man who is a rising sophomore at Trinity College in Hartford, Conn. He is very vocal about the impact NOU has had on him. He was born in Gilmor Homes, the same housing project in West Baltimore that Freddie Gray grew up in. Throughout his life, Juanell was an underdog. He was held back in school, labeled as a “bad kid,” and although a superior athlete, he struggled to keep up in sports because of issues with his vision. He attended a failing high school, and with the support of NOU, he transitioned to a boarding school, received a cornea transplant at JHU, and now plays football at Trinity and is a 3.0 student.

Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?

Home. Street. School. Taking a look at the breakdown of neighborhoods: access to quality food, stable employment, and suitable housing … all of these can create a stable home, which will lead to safer streets, more strong educational values, and better outcomes. We must understand that it all starts at home. Yet, we still point fingers at principals, parents, politicians, and those that hold the purse strings. It is all of us, as a collective, that must see societal change starts with stability at home; parents that work and create generational wealth. Start with that statement and see where you fit in. We all bring something to the table.

How do you define “Leadership”?

Humble in your aspirations, gracious in your success, resilient in your failures.

What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why.

1. Shut up and listen, you don’t know everything.

2. Bring a notebook to every meeting.

3. There is no meeting that is not worth taking when you are starting out; the weirder, the better.

4. There is no playbook, so don’t be in a rush to finish every page. It will always be evolving if you are doing it with purpose.

5. Be humble, or humble will find you.

You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Love Your Home. Love Your Street. Love Your School. If these are in order, in THIS order, we will see young people in a society that flourishes. However, it is a long-term commitment; not tomorrow, but it will happen.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson” quote?

Craziness and Success are neighbors, and sometimes they borrow each other’s sugar.” -Joe Rogan

Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Joe Rogan. I found myself a father of three, pushing 40 years old, and a few years back I got into this podcast. I get a lot of news, laughs and such a variance of guests; it keeps me interested. It is hard to find a media space where real talk happens. He gets it right and I don’t need heroes, just real people sharing their stories, success and struggles.

How can our readers follow you on social media?

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

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