Steven Hilton laments the "quiet tragedy" of water-related disease that kills millions of people every year. The issue flies below the radar of most people, but that hasn't stopped Hilton from doubling down on efforts to expand access to safe water infrastructure through the foundation that bears his grandfather's name.
Hilton, who serves as chairman and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, believes that water and sanitation is as underfunded as it is critical to development. So in 2011, he put the foundation’s weight behind a five-year, $50 million campaign to expand sustainable water supplies.
The hallmark of the campaign is focus — grant dollars go only to projects in India, Mexico, and a handful of countries in Sub-Saharan Africa. They are also geared toward the most hard-to-reach places — rural and suburban communities that are more likely to fall behind their urban counterparts. By the end of the five-year campaign, the foundation hopes to bring reliable water and sanitation to 90% of the people in these areas.
When choosing projects to support, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation embraces the WASH continuum, funding everything from research to construction of water supply and sanitation projects. So while the latest push has involved projects like a $1.5 million investment in new infrastructure in Mexico, it has also invested $500,000 in activities at the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada.
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The foundation also wisely places a premium on sustainability. Putting a new water system in place is one thing, but Hilton believes a short-term fix can be transformed into a long-term solution with a little attention to policy development and education efforts.
"While a new water supply can be installed and completed in a matter of weeks, long-term sustainability of water systems has been a problem. Hygiene and sanitation work can be a challenge and take years to achieve because it often requires that individuals and societies change long-held beliefs and customs," Hilton said in an interview.
But don’t coming knocking on Hilton’s door with your proposal to end the water troubles of Mali. While the foundation accepts nominations for the $1.5 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize, they do not take unsolicited proposals. Instead, they seek out U.S.-based organizations that have proven themselves in partnerships with developing countries. A successful track record and the opportunity for long-term partnership — that’s the kind of thing that gets Hilton’s attention.