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A Quick Word With…

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A Quick Word With… is our ongoing series in which Communications Network members from a range of organizations tell us about themselves, their work and where they draw their inspiration.  This installment features Bill Hanson, director of communications and technology at the Skillman Foundation.

What is a recent communications success you are particularly proud of?

Hiring communications officer Krista Jahnke, who was a rising star at the Detroit Free Press. She’s a talented storyteller, and has hit the ground running since joining the foundation in July.

When you were 13 years old, what did you want to be when you grew up?

Understood. The dream of 13-year-olds everywhere.

What’s something unique about Skillman that other foundation staff might not know about? 

We’re like a family. A big blended family, to be sure, with sibling rivalries and quirky in-laws. But we get along and get things done because we have a common goal of changing the odds for kids in Detroit, a place we all love and care for deeply.

Your hardest target audience to reach?

The next one.

What percentage of your communications is new media based?

Pretty much everything. We just view it all as content now.

What was your undergraduate major?


Does Skillman create an annual communications plan? 

Yes. Every department here is accountable for an annual plan of work.

Does Skillman evaluate communications efforts? 

We do, and we’re getting better at it. Like everybody, we’re trying to get more sophisticated at measuring impact. But we’re very entrepreneurial here, which I’m proud of, and there is no fear of experimenting.

Who is your favorite underappreciated journalist?

The good ones are always underappreciated. But if I had to name one it would be Seymour Hersh. I spent an evening with him in Detroit when I was a college journalist at the Michigan Daily. He was promoting a book about Henry Kissinger, and after doing Dennis Wholey’s “PBS Latenight” show, was gracious enough to spend the midnight hours with another Daily editor and me, talking about his book, and the craft of journalism. A great guy — a Pulitzer-winner, mind you – talking shop and drinking beer with a couple of earnest Midwestern college boys.

Tell us about Skillman’s “Grant Maps.”  It’s in partnership with the Foundation Center, correct? What were your goals for it? What sort of feedback are you getting? 

It’s a wonderful tool. Data visualization is a hot topic, of course. We’re really just scratching the surface right now, but we wanted to partner with our friends at the Foundation Center to help show our grantees and fellow place-based funders what was possible.

Your favorite communications tool that you think more foundation folks should be using?

Building meaningful and mutually respectful relationships with the media.

Biggest complaint about how foundations get covered in the media?

There’s nothing unique about how our sector is covered. The media will always look for quick and simple ways to tell stories. Program experts at foundations – like baseball managers, lawmakers, bankers, and cops — are regularly frustrated by this fact. It’s the job of a good communications department to help broker and validate these relationships.

The last nonfiction book you read? 

The Swerve, by Stephen Greenblatt, which is a beautiful book about the ancient Roman Lucretius’ epic poem “On the Nature of Things.”

Another foundation whose communication work you admire?

I learned much about the philanthropic sector when I worked as a communications officer at the Mott Foundation 15 years ago, and I have remained an admirer of its mission and work. Michigan has a vibrant philanthropic sector, and I’m fortunate to have good friends at the Mott, Kellogg, and Kresge Foundations. We’re competitive, of course, and each of our communications departments is very different, but we support each other and share ideas all the time.

Your favorite non-professional, non-general news blog?

Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight blog. I’m speaking to you the day after the election, and he’s a native Michigander. What else am I gonna say?

The last time you learned something important from a communications colleague?

The Network’s annual meeting in Seattle, in a session run by my friend Lisa Witter of Fenton Communications. Pick one or two communications tools or competencies, she said, and do them well.

Do you have a book deep down inside you?

Of course I do. But I’m not sure I want to spend that much one-on-one time with myself. I’d probably tire of the company.

What’s a question we should have asked you but didn’t?

Am I overwhelmed and stressed out by the ever-changing fragmented communications and media landscapes? Yes, I am, when I stop to think about it. But the good news is that I’m surrounded by smart and supportive colleagues, and we have as good a shot as anyone to figure it out, and focus on the things we do well.

What’s a question you have for your Communications Network colleagues?

See above. And I already know their answer.

A Quick Word With… was created by Michael Hamill Remaley, vice president of communications & public policy, Philanthropy New York, and a frequent Communications Network contributor. This interview was conducted and edited by Courtney Williamson, community manager, The Communications Network.




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