What Does New Leadership Mean for Conrad N. Hilton Foundation?

Just as some families are more tightly knit than others, some family foundations are, too. For example, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has maintained a very strong family focus across generations. But now, for the first time in 70 years, a nonfamily member is taking the reins.

Sure, nonfamily members have previously been involved with the foundation, but not as its chief executive. Peter Laugharn will step into this role on January 1, 2016. He’s taking the place of Steven Hilton, who led the foundation for over 30 years and announced his retirement over a year ago.

Related: Never Mind Those Reassuring Words. The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation Is Headed for a Shakeup

Conrad N. Hilton’s fortune came from his Hilton Hotels chain. The foundation's grantmaking has historically been focused on Catholic nuns and education, foster youth, homelessness, substance abuse prevention, blindness, and multiple sclerosis. There are actually quite a lot of unrelated program areas that Hilton funds (yes, the hospitality industry is one of them), which raises questions about assets being spread too thin and what the foundation’s overarching theory of change might really be.

Back when he announced his retirement, Steven Hilton reassured nonprofits that grantmaking won’t change much.

And in announcing Peter Laugharn's appointment, he said, "I look forward to working with Peter in the fall, helping him prepare his transition to the foundation and introducing him to our staff and many of our partners. Together we want to pave the way for a smooth start as he assumes his leadership role."

As Laugharn settles into his new gig, he’ll have around $2.5 billion in assets to work with. So who is this Mr. Laugharn, and how could this big transition impact grantmaking for nonprofits?

Well, first of all, he’s certainly no newcomer to foundation life. He’s been in the sector for over 25 years and led the Firelight Foundation for the past seven. Firelight is a Santa Cruz-based public charity that has received grant funds from the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation in the past.

Firelight’s objective is to support health, education and resilience programs in Africa that help poverty-stricken and HIV/AIDS-affected families. Before that stint, Laugharn worked at a children’s charity in the Netherlands and at Save the Children, which focuses on Africa. He’s also the guy who co-founded the International Education Funders Group and the Coalition for Children Affected by AIDS.

So if we were to speculate, we’d guess that the appointment of a globally oriented leader like Laugharn is a sign that the Hilton Foundation will gravitate more toward the international parts of its work and perhaps launch some ambitious new forays in this area. 

In 2014, the foundation paid out $99.9 million in grants: 44 percent international and 56 percent domestic. We think those figures could inch closer together in the years ahead. The priority area for children affected by HIV and AIDS received $10 million last year.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is an important player in supporting human services in Los Angeles, so there are surely jitters right now among local grantees—likely none of whom relish the thought of the foundation thinking more globally and less locally. As of now, though, there is no hard evidence of such a shift in the works. And even when 2016 rolls around, Steven Hilton will continue to be involved with foundation giving. Although the search for a new executive to evolve the foundation into its next stage is over, he’ll still be the chairman of the board of directors.

To learn more about where the foundation has been and where it’s headed, check out IP’s profile of the Hilton Foundation’s Los Angeles grants and the foundation’s grantmaking page