Things Are Going to Get More Interesting at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

As we pointed out in Philanthropy Forecast, 2016: Trends and Funders to Watch, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is definitely a funder to keep on your radar this year. In recent years, this funder has kept a pretty low profile, but things are definitely going to get more interesting. 

Here's why.

Nearly two years ago, Steven Hilton announced that he would be stepping down as the foundation’s longtime president, and the foundation commenced a nationwide search. That search led to hiring the first non-family member to lead the foundation, Peter Laugharn, who comes to Hilton with a long history of work on global health and development issues, most recently as head of the Firelight Foundation. Laugharn officially stepped into the presidential role on January 1, 2016 and made the following statement about the foundation:

Once again, we are poised for tremendous growth, as the son of our founder Conrad Hilton (Steven's father), Barron Hilton, has decided to follow in his father's footsteps by bequeathing most of his fortune to the Foundation. This donation will double the assets of our organization and allow us to have even more impact on the lives of the people we serve.

You read that right: the Hilton Foundation will be doubling its grantmaking power.

We’ve known that a bequest from Barron Hilton was on its way to the foundation for a while now. But what we’ve been dying to find out is how this money will change the Hilton Foundation's grantmaking in terms of its scope and priorities. Hilton already has assets of $2.5 billion, but the additional infusion of cash will vault it into the ranks of the top 20 foundations in the U.S. The foundation will be bigger than such well-known players as Rockefeller and Carnegie. 

This is another example of a point we make often at IP, which is that the landscape of the foundation world is changing at a rapid pace as vast fortunes come off the sidelineseither creating entirely new foundations or boosting the size of existing ones. There's never been a more exciting time to be watching this sector.

What changes can we expect with a new leader at Hilton and more money heading its way? Should some existing grantees be worried? Should other nonprofits anticipate new opportunities for support? 

Laugharn says that the foundation's programs will continue to focus on disadvantaged populations, but that’s really no surprise. He’s taking a cautious initial approach and is not announcing any big changes just yet, saying, “This year will be a time of reflection, exploration and planning, so that we are prepared for our next big step.”

Meanwhile, Barron Hilton is still very much alive. The 88-year-old's fortune only makes its way to the foundation after he passes.

But we stand by our earlier prediction, which is that the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation is likely to undergo big changes in the not-so-distant future. Inevitably, there will be an evolution from a very large family foundation to a top-tier, professionalized global foundation. Along the way, our hunch is that Hilton will downsize certain existing lines of grantmaking as it gets more strategic. 

We've seen this movie before. Family foundations often evolve over time in a somewhat haphazard way to reflect the different interests of family members, with commitments accruing over time. But if a foundation wants to get to the next level of impact, it needs to set priorities in a more focused and systematic way, making some painful choices in the process. Peter Laugharn doesn't have an easy job. 

In recent years, among other things, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation has been an important leader in taking on substance abuse, especially the fast growing crisis of opiate addiction in rural communities. The foundation awarded over $3.5 million for substance abuse prevention in 2015. It's also been a key and innovative player in efforts to tackle the huge homelessness problem in Los Angeles.

And last year, we reported on how Hilton awarded its $2 million Humanitarian Prize of unrestricted funds to Landesa, an organization that aims to reduce poverty by securing land rights for vulnerable and disadvantaged people. This is an issue of burning importance in developing countries.

Staying true to the Hilton name and brand, the foundation also recently committed $5 million to Cornell’s School of Hotel Administration to boost inclusion initiatives, diversity, scholarships, and financial aid.

On Twitter, Laugharn has been mostly talking about improving lives for the homeless through housing, foster youth programs, substance abuse prevention and advocacy. So we wouldn’t be surprised to see more near-term funding, in the Los Angeles area and beyond, dedicated to eradicating homelessness. You can follow Laugharn on Twitter at @peter_laugharn. To keep up with Foundation this year, sign up for the funder’s quarterly email newsletter and stay tuned into our coverage here at IP.