Leaders in Philanthropy: A Conversation with the Daniels Fund’s Hanna Skandera

As students across the country return to classrooms this fall, Micah Sagebiel, Philanthropy Roundtable vice president of programs, sat down with Daniels Fund President and CEO Hanna Skandera to discuss the Daniels Fund’s “Big Bets” in education, civics and youth sports. Skandera is a member of the Philanthropy Roundtable board of directors. 

This conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

Q: Hanna, welcome to the conversation with the Roundtable. You are in your third year serving as president and CEO of the Daniels Fund, the philanthropic fund of legendary businessman and cable television pioneer Bill Daniels. Before this role, many of us knew you as an incredible leader in public education, most recently serving as secretary of education in New Mexico. What surprised you most as you moved into the philanthropic sector? 

Skandera: I have always had the privilege of working in a place and for people whose values I believed in. Maybe not 100% alignment, but pretty darn close. When you have that joy and privilege of living your values in your job, to me, it’s not a job, it’s a calling. And I consider this position at the Daniels Fund a calling. 

It is the opportunity to align what I believe and how I want to live in everything I do, including the job I get to do every morning. That is a gift. And I love it. Full stop. 

When you have a team and a board rowing in the same direction, the opportunities for impact are limitless. And to be in the philanthropic space at this time of upheaval, disconnect and disagreement provides an opportunity. I get to be in a place where we can bring people together to make a difference. That’s really powerful. 

Q: Let’s talk about values. You are tasked with protecting and advancing the legacy and values of Bill Daniels. Can you tell us about the Daniels Fund’s core values and the donor intent that you protect? 

Skandera: Values were important for Bill Daniels, and our board and team are incredibly committed to stewarding those values. Bill was very clear about the values that were most important to him – ethics, integrity, transparency, loyalty and professionalism. He had a deep commitment to the building of community, and a respect for people. He was a patriot, and he loved his country. He believed in investing in a way that put the individual front and center.  

We try and live those values in everything we do. And these values are the things that drew me to the CEO position.  

I love talking about scale and having a scalable impact, but I think one of the biggest things that strikes me about Bill Daniels is he had this huge heart and he wanted impact at scale, but he understood impact happens one life at a time. Our intent is to honor each individual and the life they’ve been given.  

Q: Your team’s mandate is to improve the lives of residents in Colorado, New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming. How are the Fund’s values expressed in its charitable giving priorities? 

Skandera: First, we have a scholarship program. We award about 230 scholarships every year to graduating seniors going on to college. Their full cost of attendance will be covered at any of our partner schools in our four-state region, or they can receive up to $100,000 if they choose to attend a school outside our four states. It’s a rigorous selection process to become a Daniels Scholar. Students submit an application, and we look for evidence of the values that Bill Daniels held so dear. 

Let me give an example. Bill loved and believed in the free market and capitalism. He was a businessman and entrepreneur. We look for young people who both have a need and a demonstrated desire to give back to their community.  

Beyond the scholarship, Bill Daniels defined eight giving areas. We stay true to these areas and will not stray. In fact, even in our bylaws, it says we cannot stray from these areas – and we honor that.  

I think so many times today, whether it’s in the corporate or foundation world, there is mission creep, but we are intent on holding on to our values.  

Bill set aside a billion dollars just over 20 years ago. We’re now a fund that’s worth about $1.7 billion and we’ve given away more than a billion dollars over 20 years.  

In that time, there’s nothing that has changed about the areas we’re giving in. But we are always looking for entrepreneurial endeavors or new ways to think about something. We are always looking for ways to do something better. Bill is famous for saying “The best is good enough for me.” So, the question we ask is, “How we can constantly raise the bar and seek excellence?” We try to set a high bar for ourselves and hold ourselves accountable for the return on that investment that Bill Daniels would expect. 

Q: Those of us who know you recognize your passion for K-12 education. Can you tell us about the Daniels Fund’s approach in this arena? Which opportunities do you see to help kids and families in 2023? 

Skandera: At the Daniels Fund, we have what we call “Big Bets.” 

Our “Big Bet” in K-12 education responds to the frustration we heard from parents during and following the pandemic. A lot of parents were frustrated by what they saw with their own children. They saw what their child was – and was not – learning at home. 

Because of this, many parents have opted out of our traditional public school system. Think about this. We saw a fivefold increase in Black families participating in home school education and a doubling of home education writ large.  

We saw a 7% increase in the charter school population, which shows us our public schools need to have more choice and options. We also saw an increase in private school enrollments, with over a million children leaving our traditional public education system.  

What that says to me is parents –  and we know this –  want what’s best for their child.  

This inspired the Daniels Fund to go bold – and we have set a goal to create 100,000 new choice seats for students by 2030 in our four-state region. 

We will fund seats in great schools, in homes, in hybrid school models or pods — you name it.  

We want to provide parents and our next generation with the opportunity to choose what is best for them — what will equip them to be great citizens who give back in our country.  

And we will invest across different policy environments. You know, Wyoming is more rural. New Mexico has rural and urban areas. Utah just passed an Education Savings Account law. 

Localized solutions matter immensely. Philanthropy can play a huge role in presenting and serving alongside local solutions.  

We are hoping that, across this country, philanthropists and those who are influential in education will continue to create new possibilities for every child. We should be responsive to this moment and be front-runners in creating solutions during this time of crisis. 

We have also set a “Big Bet” in civics education – with the goal to provide one million middle schoolers with the opportunity to participate in a Civics Bee. We helped launched this annual competition with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation. 

When a young person is confronted with decisions about how to vote, they will know the journey and the process of how a bill becomes a law and how they might influence it in meaningful ways.  

Q: Those are bold, clearly articulated social impact goals in both K-12 education and civics. At the end of the day, how do you think about a foundation’s responsibility to drive measurable impact and change? 

Skandera: The incredible opportunity we have in philanthropy is to be a spark that lights a flame. So, yes, the Daniels Fund has bold goals. And, yes, we plan to hold ourselves accountable for our goals. 

This goes back to Bill Daniels, who believed in generational change. He did not just think of the present moment, but of building a legacy that lasts for generations. To do this, you have to hold steadfast to your values. 

If you are changing values all the time – you can’t have generational impact. 

If you are changing what you’re investing in all the time – it’s a lot harder to have generational impact. 

There is a stewardship and consistency that allows for a multiplier effect when it comes to impact. 

We ask ourselves how we get to steward this little fire so it becomes a flame and becomes a burning desire across this country to create generational change. 

And that is what I think about when I think about the Daniels Fund. 

We want to be a foundation that positively influences American life – and we get to do this as a regional foundation. While we only invest in four states, we want our vision to have a ripple effect all across this country to impact generations to come. 

Q: Are there any emergent projects or organizations you’re particularly excited about right now?  

Skandera: We’ve got an incredible initiative that we have not publicly launched yet, but we’ve been investing in for a long time: youth sports.  

If you look at the data, young people are not participating in sports like they used to. As a former high school and college athlete and coach, I can tell you the values you learn from playing sports are game-changing.  

Grit, perseverance, hard work, teamwork, failure, success – all these things are built into sports.  

Sadly, we’re seeing an incredible decline in sports participation, particularly among kids in poverty, but really, across the board for young people. A lot of times, this is due to cost. 

I’m not trying to make a political statement, but K-12 education, the military draft and sports were historically three areas that brought people from different socioeconomic and demographic backgrounds together. These were areas where we could bridge big differences in America. Sports are an opportunity to give young people a chance to build character and to bring together different populations. 

So, we’re going to make a big investment and we’ll be announcing a big bet soon around youth sports. 

We want to be a part of providing young people with the opportunity to play sports – to have fun and be healthy. We are also thinking about the connection between sports and the youth mental health problem across the country. Frankly, we believe this can be game-changing. 

Q: Your investment approach is clear – educational excellence through choice, civic knowledge and rebuilding community and health through sports. I wish you and your team great success with the path ahead. Before we wrap up, is there anything else you’d like to share? 

Skandera: I think about Alexis de Tocqueville and how he talked about civic institutions and their role in America, and how important they were for the fabric of this country. You can read any statistic right now on the decline of trust in our country’s civic institutions and associations. 

Because of this, I believe philanthropy has an outsized role to play in rebuilding and stewarding these civic associations and finding opportunities for America to thrive. Philanthropy should be stepping up to take calculated risks and to be the front-runners when it comes to entrepreneurial endeavors. We need to help provide the ideas and concepts that can be implemented at scale. 

Preserving our values in a way that is built into our civic associations provides the opportunity for all Americans to thrive – and to help our country be the greatest country in the world. 

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