The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: a synergy between family values and strategic philanthropy. An interview with Edmund J. Cain, Vice President Grant Programs
With an annual grantmaking of more than $109 million and the inauguration of the world’s largest humanitarian award in 1996, the Hilton Foundation’s philanthropic approach lives up to its founder’s motto: “Think Big. Act Big. Dream Big.”
22 May 2017
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation was created in 1944 by international business pioneer Conrad Hilton, founder of the Hilton Hotels. The history of the Foundation moves alongisde the Hilton family’s engagement to creating impact for humanity – from Conrad Hilton’s establishment of the Foundation, to its legacy giving in 1979, to son Barron Hilton’s decision in 2007 to donate 97 percent of his $2.3 billion fortune to a charitable trust that will eventually benefit the Foundation.
The Hilton Foundation focuses on six strategic initiatives and five major program areas and, since its inception, has awarded more than $1,5 billion in grants, distributing more than $109 million in the U.S. and around the world in 2016.
In 2008, the Foundation’s board of directors decided to move towards a more strategic approach to grantmaking, a choice that encompasses larger multi-year grants, non-monetary giving, and the definition of impact metrics. We met Edmund J.Cain, Vice President Grant Programs in Washington and the Independent Sector Conference 2016: in our interview we go through the evolution of the Hilton Foundation’s model, on a fascinating journey that has managed to keep a balance between the push for innovation and professionalization in philanthropy to achieve greater impact and the need to always keep family’s values at the centre.
Let’s start with a question on the engine behind the work of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation: a philanthropic family. The Foundation’s policy ensures that a majority of the directors shall always be composed of direct descendants of Conrad Hilton, highlighting the will of maintaining the family foundation status and carrying on its values in a strongly engaged manner. Did the family’s involvement in the Foundation evolve during these years?
The family involvement has evolved since 1944. Actually, Conrad considered those with whom he worked as the equivalent of a family, so the early board was largely comprised of Hilton Hotel corporate executives. Over time, the board evolved towards including actual family members and in 2005, there was a board decision to formally make the Foundation a family foundation – consisting of 11 board members, six of whom should be family members. While six of the board members are family members, there is a commitment to identify five non-family members for the board who bring perspectives, skills and knowledge in such fields as education, public health, media, economics and the Catholic Sisters. The Foundation’s board members are custodians of the values that we want to preserve and practice based on Conrad’s will and testament. The board is augmented by expertise and perspectives that can help advance our values in a meaningful and impactful way.
“While six of the board members are family members, there is a commitment to identify five non-family members for the board who bring perspectives, skills and knowledge”
In 2008 the Foundation’s board of directors decided to move towards a more strategic approach to grantmaking. This choice is reflected in the “2014 Grantee Perception Report” produced by the CEP, that highlights for example the use larger multi-year grants (a median figure of $750k for three yrs) and a comprehensive support to grantees that goes beyond monetary giving – a consistent increase in comparison to the 2007 analysis. What are the accomplishments you are more proud of and the challenges that lay ahead and for what concerns the Foundation’s grantmaking and its research for social change?
You can almost divide the evolution of the Foundation’s grantmaking since 1944 into three epochs. The first period – or Hilton Foundation 1.0 was the period of Conrad’s oversight beginning in 1944. Then, the leadership of Don Hubbs (Hilton Foundation 2.0) brought the themes, in pursuant to the guidance of Conrad, “thinking big” and “acting big” from 1989 until 2008. During this period, the practice of giving major grants over a multi-year period began. The grantmaking was principally characterized by giving to a few well-known, major service providers like Perkins School for the Blind, the Carter Center and World Vision.
In 2008, and guided by an increased recognition in the philanthropic sector that strategic grantmaking increased the likelihood of increased impact, then President and CEO Steven M. Hilton promoted this 3.0 approach to Hilton Foundation grantmaking. This approach entails a landscape assessment of a particular field that board members are interested in, to see what are the neglected needs in that field. Once we identified the issue areas, we embarked upon identifying a vision of what we sought to achieve and the goals to get there. The goals we identify include measurement mechanisms, or metrics, to guide us and our partners on the path to what we seek to achieve. We call this our MEL (Monitoring, Evaluation and Learning) program. Guided by our overarching vision to address the needs of the disadvantaged and vulnerable, the board of directors determines our areas of focus. These areas may be influenced by Hilton family legacy interests; but it is most significantly and most importantly influenced by the Will and Testament of our founder. Currently, we support six strategic and five major program areas: the six strategic areas are very rigorous strategic process of landscaping, goal identification, setting in place a MEL system; and the five major programs, though a less rigorous process, nevertheless has broad goals on what we hope to achieve in those areas.
“In 2008, and guided by an increased recognition in the philanthropic sector that strategic grantmaking increased the likelihood of increased impact, Steven M. Hilton promoted this 3.0 approach to Hilton Foundation grantmaking”
What is the Foundation’s approach to social impact assessment and how does the Foundation select its grantees to make sure its resources are used in an effective way?
As I mentioned one of the pillars of our strategic approach is attaching a MEL process to each of our strategic initiatives. We recognize from the outset that anything we do will be a contribution to solving a problem, and not the sole reason for solving a problem. We are very conscious of the fact that we contribute to an issue’s resolution, as opposed to solely solving it ourselves. We seek to learn how we can align ourselves with others in the same field (e.g. public sector actors or other foundations). In order to keep track of how we are progressing or having any impact, we bring in a third party evaluator as an objective assessor of how that program– not just the particular project– is contributing to solving the strategic objectives in that particular area. This is our MEL program, which informs progress in the field to not only us as a Foundation, but also the sector as a whole. The MEL program is a tool to help inform the sector at large if we are making effective progress towards achieving our shared goals.
“In order to keep track of how we are progressing or having any impact, we bring in a third party evaluator as an objective assessor of how that program is contributing to solving the strategic objectives”
In these last years, we are witnessing a growing phenomenon, with funders that are more and more joining their resources in collaborative partnerships for greater change. What is the Hilton Foundation’s approach to this theme, also in light of your global scope and growing strategic philanthropic approach?
We have recently articulated, under the leadership of our new president and CEO, Peter Laugharn, our philanthropic approach, which is a definition of how we practice not only our grantmaking but also other philanthropic activities – beyond the grant like program related investments, advocacy, and convening. A central part of that approach is the notion of collaboration. Recognizing that we can contribute to solving a problem, we should never be so arrogant as to suggest that we are the only ones that can do that without working with others. Collaboration is in our DNA. To foster collaboration, we must align with our partners and stakeholders to have a set of common goals and objectives so that we all are working towards the same end. With that, it is imperative to adopt metrics that you can follow to chart progress in meeting those goals. Those goals are served by what we like to call is a framing of what we do within a broad contextual framework of goals, objectives, targets and indicators.
When we met at the 2016 Independent Sector Conference in Washington, you presented the SDGs as a framework for philanthropic organizations to set up their grantmaking agendas. Which are the key benefits of the SDGs for funders? Do you think they can contribute to bringing together different players (e.g. foundations, charities, companies, governments) for transformative change?
The Foundation sees the value of the Sustainable Developmental Goals (SDGs) framework as a way to leverage our investments and to foster the kind of collaboration that we’re committed to practicing. All of our work, both international and domestic, can be framed within the universal SDGs. For example, we’re dealing with children’s issues with our Young Children Affected by HIV and AIDS Strategic Initiative; adolescent issues in our Foster Youth Strategic Initiative and Substance Use Prevention Strategic Initiative; and poverty within our Chronic Homelessness Strategic Initiative. The SDGs advance what we’re trying to achieve in a more focused sense with our strategic initiatives, as well as our major programs.
SDG 6 is a single, standalone goal that is a perfect illustration of the Foundation’s commitment to the shared global vision. Goal number six seeks to achieve sustainable access to clean water and sanitation by 2030. Being an investor in the safe water space for more than 25 years, framing our work within this goal was a no-brainer for us. We encourage our partners to see the SDG framework as something that they should also align their work. By doing so, we can greatly enhance our ability to collaborate with one another, to be accountable to our boards and ultimately to the people we serve.
The Foundation has also helped to support a SDG philanthropy platform in two of the countries in Africa where we are working: Kenya and Ghana. Ghana is also the country we have invested in most from our water portfolio. By investing in that collaborative mechanism, the SDG platform, we can see how our water interests and investments can be more impactful and enhanced by pursuing in a common collaborative SDG 6 by 2030.
“All of our work, both international and domestic, can be framed within the universal SDGs. We encourage our partners to see the SDG framework as something that they should also align their work. By doing so, we can greatly enhance our ability to collaborate with one another, to be accountable to our boards and ultimately to the people we serve”
At $2 million, the Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize is the world’s largest humanitarian award. Beside its size, the Prize awards an organization rather than an individual, adding up to its uniqueness. Can you explain the strategy behind that choice and the key drivers the jury focuses on in the evaluation process? What advice do you have for other philanthropists who are considering starting a prize?
We seek to recognize both humanitarian and development organizations with the Hilton Humanitarian Prize that are both relieving human suffering and promoting sustainable human development and bydoing so, make the world more secure, peaceful and equitable. For the evaluation process, it is really not up to us as a Foundation, but up to a jury, which includes extraordinary international leaders as well as board members that decide on the recipient. The jury’s decision is something staff of the Foundation and the board of directors as a whole have no say over. I say as a whole since two board members, Hawley Hilton McAuliffe and Jim Galbraith, also sit on the Humanitarian Prize Jury. We are very pleased that the Prize has typically led those organizations to not only benefit from a $2 million unrestricted grant, but to also become a Hilton Prize Laureate – of which there are now 21. In being a Laureate, this allows the organization to seek increased support for their activities from other funders.
In terms of advice to other philanthropists exploring the idea of including a prize in their philanthropic approach, I would encourage them to notmake it an overly onerous process for the applicant. When you know there will only be one awardee, and you have as many as 200 organizations applying, you want to ensure the vetting and due diligence process does not distract from the good work the organization is already doing. Meeting the requirements of a prize should not draw away excessive resources from an organization’s mission.
One of the distinguishing features of our Hilton Humanitarian Prize, other than it being the world’s largest humanitarian award, is that the Prize award ceremony is complemented by a symposium. This symposium allows us to assemble thought leaders to discuss the humanitarian and development challenges of our time, whether it is the refugee crisis, healthcare challenges or climate change. It also gives the Prize recipient an opportunity to share their mission with a very impressionable audience of other funders and practitioners in the field. We share discussions on solutions and approaches to these problems with wider audiences, thereby enriching the knowledge on what action needs to be taken in these respective fields.
For further information: www.hiltonfoundation.org