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Paul Brest Is All About Outcomes

If Paul Brest had his way, he would have majored in music. But his dream was dashed when his music professor told him he could “become a musicologist or do something [he] might be good at.” Brest chose the latter and went to law school, eventually serving as the Dean of Stanford Law School for 30 years.

But at night and on weekends, he pulled out the viola, playing chamber music with the likes of Walter Hewlett, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the Hewlett Foundation Board. When they asked him to meet with them in 2000, an unsuspecting Brest agreed. And so began an exciting new era for Brest and Hewlett together.

Under Brest’s 12-year tenure as President, he ushered the Foundation through a period of growth—to 100 employees and a $7 billion endowment. Bringing sharp problem-solving and decision-making skills, Brest instilled an outcomes orientation across all programs, realizing especially impressive outcomes in the areas of conservation and climate change. Key to achieving outcomes is having the right people and conditions for work. Brest was unafraid to spend dollars on capacity building, organizational effectiveness, general operating support, and new ideas—areas where many other philanthropists and foundations often draw the line.

A big proponent of sharing mistakes, Brest introduced a Worst Grant Contest, which has become enormously popular at Hewlett. He’s also come to endorse staff term limits as a way to keep ideas fresh and relationships professional.

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