November 7, 2011

The Hilton Foundation: Funding—and Empowering—an Overlooked Cause

By: The Bridgespan Group

By Alison Powell

A few weeks ago, we wrote about some of the challenges facing families when they are left to execute on someone else’s philanthropic dreams. There are many families who meet this challenge with creativity and dedication. Consider the experience of Steven Hilton.

Having risen through the ranks of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation to become its president and CEO, Steven was faced with interpreting the philanthropic intent of his grandfather, Conrad N. Hilton, for the present day. Fortunately, Conrad—founder of the hotel chain of the same name—had the foresight to leave clear but flexible guidelines. Written more than 30 years prior, Conrad's will advised his heirs to “relieve the suffering, the distressed, and the destitute” and to never allow people “abandoned to wander alone in poverty and darkness.” In his boyhood, Conrad was a great admirer of Helen Keller and wrote of her influence on him in his memoir. Today, the Hilton Foundation honors those words by investing in a host of causes, all focused on “improving the lives of disadvantaged and vulnerable people throughout the world.” A particular area of focus—preventing and treating blindness—honors both the words in Conrad’s guidelines and the spirit of his genuine admiration for Keller and her ability to triumph over great hardship.

The Hilton Foundation has funded the Perkins School for the Blind for over 20 years—helping it to transform from a school primarily serving people in the Northeast United States (including Keller) to one that has worked with more than 240,000 children, parents, and teachers in more than 65 countries. Perkins works with children who are blind, deafblind, or visually impaired, including those with multiple disabilities. This work has enabled the children to learn the skills they need to create productive lives, something they likely would have little hope of doing without Perkins’ reach.
  How did the Hilton Foundation and Perkins partner for such results? First, they invested in a long, sustained engagement that created a strong partnership. Second, the foundation structured its financial support creatively. The Hilton Foundation gave grants, loaned money at below-market rates (in the form of PRIs, or program-related investments), and added to Perkins’ endowment to ensure there would always be a Hilton/Perkins International Program. Finally, the foundation focused significant funding ($65 million to date) on a relatively “niche” issue area. The result of this generous, longstanding, and thoughtful support is a level of trust and candor that gets results.

To read the full story on how this partnership has unfolded and what the results have been, click here.

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