Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Consolidates Its Programs

Tuesday, June 5, 2018

Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Consolidates Its Programs

News that a foundation is engaged in strategic planning is rarely welcomed by its grantees, who often worry—and rightly so—that they'll be in a portfolio that gets whacked by a funder looking to sharpen its focus.  

So it was probably humane of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation not to make a big deal of the fact that it was rethinking its program priorities over the past year. This funder, which tends to be low-key in general, quietly sorted things out without a lot of fuss creating jitters among grantees. And today, it delivered the news that it’s phasing out four programs.

The foundation is ending its longtime work on avoidable blindness, substance abuse prevention, Catholic education/school choice, and multiple sclerosis. But it’s exiting some of these areas slowly. It will wind down the substance abuse work, for example, over three and a half years and “with enough funds to do so thoughtfully,” said Hilton CEO Peter Laugharn.

Laugharn took the helm at Hilton in 2016, after decades of work in global health and development, including many years living in Africa. He arrived at a foundation that stands out for its deep compassion—and was also a textbook example of an overstretched grantmaker. Hilton had 11 priority areas, “which is a bit of an oxymoron,” Laugharn told me in an interview.

Inside Philanthropy had made the same point about the foundation in 2014, when Steve Hilton, the grandson of the founder, Conrad Hilton, said that he would be stepping down as president. In a post titled “Never Mind Those Reassuring Words. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Is Headed for a Shakeup,” we noted: “Even for a place with a couple billion dollars, it's spread pretty thin.” And we predicted that whoever took over the foundation "is going to make some big changes.”

Of course, change takes time in the foundation world. It’s been four years since Steven Hilton announced he would be stepping down at Hilton to bring in another leader who "can take us to the next stage of our evolution.” And it’s been two and a half years since Laugharn started the top job. 

Laugharn said that the streamlined grantmaking was the result of discussion by the board. Describing this process, he said, “We agreed that our resources could be used more strategically and with greater leverage.” Laugharn said the board looked at how long the foundation had been working in its various areas, what impact it was having, and where things stood with current commitments. Deciding which lines of grantmaking to wind down “was not an easy process.”

Foundations can find themselves trying to do too many things for many reasons. In the case of an older family foundation like Hilton, an overly broad agenda can reflect the interests of both the founding donor and subsequent generations of family members engaged in managing the giving, as well as non-family board trustees...

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