Poul Olson Uses Strategic Communication to Better Humanity

In September 2016, The Task Force for Global Health, an Atlanta-based nonprofit was awarded the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the largest award of its kind at $2 million. The Task Force received the prize for its extraordinary contributions to alleviating human suffering. The organization works to address large-scale health problems primarily affecting people living in poverty. Surprisingly, it is the second largest nonprofit in the United States behind the United Way due to significant in-kind donations of medicines for its programs to eliminate neglected tropical diseases. The Task Force and its partners are working to eliminate three of these diseases – blinding trachoma, river blindness, and lymphatic filariasis – by 2025, which will improve the lives of hundreds of millions of people in developing countries.

The Task Force has excelled at solving complex global health problems that stem from poverty, poor sanitation, and a lack of access to clean water, in Africa, South America, and Asia. With the Hilton Prize, the relatively small team at The Task Force – including Poul Olson, Director of Communications and Development, now has the opportunity to have an even greater impact on global health. We talked to Olson, who received his Master of Science in Strategic Communications (now known as the Executive M.S. in Strategic Communication) in 2010, about his role at the nonprofit and the importance of meaningful work.

What was your experience like at the School of Professional Studies?

My time in the strategic communications program was tremendously rewarding. I was challenged on many levels to develop my critical thinking and writing skills, which I draw on daily in my role at The Task Force. Through the program, I developed a strategic mindset that has completely changed my approach to communications. The degree has taken my career and opened my mind in ways that I couldn’t have imagined when I started the program in 2008.

Tell me about your role at the Task Force.

The Task Force is a dynamic organization and I’m fortunate to work with an amazing group of people. We all share a passion and commitment to the people whom we serve. I joined The Task Force at a time of rapid growth and transition. I was fortunate in many respects to be handed a clean slate. Over the last two years, I’ve worked to build a communications program from the ground up that is driving awareness and engagement with our work. I apply my strategic communications expertise at all levels from fundraising to business development to employee recruitment. We are purchasing a larger headquarters and I’m charged with raising $24 million for this project. So far, we’ve raised $12 million. What I learned in the strategic communications program has helped make this possible. We’re also looking at how we can increase our impact on other areas of global health. I’m involved in helping developing a new program in noncommunicable diseases, which is a growing epidemic around the world.

What is the significance of the Hilton Prize and what does it mean for The Task Force?

The Hilton Prize recognizes our history of contributions to alleviating human suffering, starting in the late 1980s when we and our partners raised global immunization rates from 20 to 80 percent in six years; continuing on in the 90s with our work on river blindness and multi-drug resistant tuberculosis; and over the last 16 years, due to our contributions to the control and elimination of neglected tropical diseases and polio eradication. The Hilton Prize is one of the most prestigious humanitarian awards and, at $2 million, is actually twice the amount of the Nobel Prize. We are part of a prestigious group of laureates that include Doctors Without Borders, Partner In Health, and PATH. We have intentionally kept under the radar most of our history because of our collaborative approach and our belief that partnerships are key to solving large-scale problems. The Hilton Prize is our coming out party, so to speak, and has given us an incredible opportunity to tell our story to potential donors and partners. We recently received a $10-million grant from an Atlanta foundation to buy and renovate a larger headquarters. The Hilton Prize undoubtedly had an impact on this foundation’s decision to award us a grant of this size. We’re hopeful that other donors will also see the Hilton Prize as a signal of our credibility and value to global health.

What is most meaningful about your work?

For me, the real value in the work is knowing that we are contributing to meaningful improvements in health and ultimately well-being for vulnerable populations around the world. You can really see that when you go to countries where we have programs. I recently returned from Malawi where we are helping to eliminate a bacterial disease called trachoma. This is a disease that has burdened people there for millennia with blindness. I visited communities literally at the end of the road where trachoma is no longer a threat. During our visit, we also saw how this program is laying the groundwork for other public health improvements, particularly in the areas of sanitation. It is tremendously rewarding to be a part of these programs. We’re helping alleviate suffering and remove barriers to healthy, productive lives. In some small way, I think communications is helping propel that work forward.