Ending chronic homelessness in Los angeles is a high priority for the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Matt Gush/shutterstock

IP Funder Spotlights offer quick rundowns of the grantmakers that are on our radar, including a few key details on how they operate and what they’re up to right now. Today, we take a look at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, an international funder focused on children and disadvantaged individuals that two years ago saw its endowment double to $7.5 billion.

What this funder cares about

Established by Hilton Hotels founder Conrad N. Hilton, the foundation’s grantmaking focuses on ensuring healthy early childhood development and sustainable livelihoods for youth, transitioning young people out of foster care, improving access to housing and support services for people experiencing homelessness, identifying solutions to safe water access, and supporting Catholic Sisters, a global network of nuns serving local communities. Since its inception, the Westlake Village, California-based foundation has awarded more than $2 billion in grants.

Why you should care 

An open secret in philanthropy is the degree to which a foundation’s wealth correlates with the amount of interest it generates from nonprofit leaders and digital media sites. The wealthier the foundation, the logic goes, the more we care. If we apply this premise to the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, then interest in the funder should grow considerably in coming years.

In 2018, the foundation had $2.8 billion in total assets, making it the sixth-largest private foundation in Los Angeles County. The next year, Conrad’s son and foundation chair Barron passed away and left 97% of his wealth to the foundation. His bequest more than doubled the foundation’s endowment, which now stands at a formidable $7.5 billion. The foundation ramped up its annual grantmaking after Conrad’s bequest, from $110 million in 2019 to $207 million the following year—an increase of 88%. It is on pace to at least match 2020’s total outlay this year.

But of course, wealth alone isn’t the only reason to care. It’s what a foundation plans to do with its wealth that also matters. In the case of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, this means “exploring ways we can work with partners around the globe to shift and share power and move toward more ethical representation in the development and philanthropic sectors” and elevating “community engagement in program design and evaluation and increase funding to local/community-based organizations.”

Where the money comes from

Born in San Antonio in 1887, Conrad Hilton bought his first hotel in 1911 and went on to build a global hospitality empire. He established the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation as a philanthropic trust in 1944 with the mission to “relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute.” In 1950, the foundation was legally established as a nonprofit corporation, separate from Hilton Hotels Corporation.

When he passed away in 1979, Hilton was one of the richest men in America. He left a mere $150,000 to his three surviving children—and $169 million in Hilton stock to his foundation. In 2007, Hilton’s son and foundation chair Barron announced he would follow in his father’s footsteps by contributing 97% of his net worth. In 2019, his bequest did precisely that and made the foundation one of philanthropy’s wealthiest private grantmakers.

Where the money goes

In addition to an online grants database, the foundation’s site includes a pie chart showing how funding is distributed across 13 program areas by grant year.

Check out the chart for 2020, and you’ll see that the foundation awarded $207 million. The largest portion of the chart represents $31.5 million for Catholic Sisters. The next largest areas are disaster relief and recovery ($26.22 million); ending chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County, ($26.2 million); “other,” which includes small and matching discretionary grant programs for board members and Hilton family staff ($19.8 million); career development in the hospitality field ($18.4 million); and supporting youth in foster care ($14.4 million). Readers can click on a specific priority area for more information about the foundation’s related strategy and partners.

The site also includes a chart showing that it has awarded $103 million from January to May 21, 2021. At $18.8 million, combating homelessness is the top priority area, followed by support for Catholic Sisters ($17.9 million) and providing opportunities for youth ($11.5 million).

Open door or barbed wire?

Perhaps the most applicable analogy here is a moat with the drawbridge coming down every once in a while. The foundation is mostly inaccessible to the average nonprofit, as it does not accept unsolicited proposals or respond to individual requests. Nonprofit leaders may be dismayed by this policy, but it’s not entirely shocking—this is standard operating procedure for many private foundations.

That said, the foundation does provide a wealth of useful information on its site. In addition to its online grants database and interactive pie chart, its site includes a news page, FAQ page, bios on staff and the board, and an array of financial documents including Form 990s.

Latest big moves

In late 2020, the foundation launched new, five-year strategies across seven program areas: Global Early Childhood Development, Opportunity Youth, Foster Youth, Homelessness, Refugees, Safe Water, and Catholic Sisters. Here’s a quick summary of changes to three of them:

  • The foundation’s Global Early Childhood Development work is now focused in the U.S., as well as Eastern and Southern Africa. Its goal is to see that all children ages zero to three will be developmentally on track by age three and ready for school at age five.
  • Its Refugees program evolved from the foundation’s disaster relief and recovery portfolio, and leaders are currently in a discovery phase to identify the most effective approaches to supporting the lives and livelihoods of children and families, exploring learning from refugees and host communities within Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia and Uganda.
  • The foundation expanded its Opportunity Youth work—formerly known as Hospitality Workforce Development, which focused on workforce development for youth in New Orleans—to include New Orleans and Los Angeles, and is analyzing Mexico City and Mombasa as areas for future expansion.

The foundation also established the Equity Fund in 2020 to address racism and other forms of bias and injustice across multiple dimensions, including gender, disability and LGBTQI+, and their root causes. Through the fund, the foundation has awarded $11 million in capacity-building and general operating support to organizations led and governed by historically underserved populations in the U.S.


One cool thing to know

At $2.5 million, the foundation’s Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize is the world’s largest annual humanitarian award presented to nonprofit organizations judged to have made extraordinary contributions toward alleviating human suffering. The 2021 prize winner was the Campaign for Female Education (CAMFED), a pan-African movement revolutionizing how girls’ education is delivered. The foundation views the organization as “a model for the global community to unlock local expertise for sustainable change.”

The foundation accepts letters of nomination for the prize via its website. While the nomination window for the 2022 prize is now closed, individuals may sign up to receive notifications when the next nomination cycle opens.