How Does the Hilton Foundation Approach WASH Giving?

This spring, the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation demonstrated its continued commitment to water, sanitation, and hygiene (WASH) programs in rural Africa. The foundation’s two recent WASH grants provide $8 million in funding over the next three years. These grants continue the Hilton Foundation's decades-long history of support for clean water access, one of the foundation’s six key initiatives.

The Hilton Foundation split the grants between two heavy hitters in the WASH world, giving $5 million to WASH supergroup Millennium Water Alliance (MWA) and $3 million to IRC, which began life as the International Reference Centre for Community Water Supply back in 1968. Both grants support work to build water and sanitation infrastructure maintenance capacity in rural districts. MWA’s grant supports a $10 million, multidonor project in Ethiopia, while IRC’s grant supports work in Ghana.

Steven Hilton, the president and CEO of the Hilton Foundation and grandson of founder Conrad Hilton, has passionately advocated for sustainable clean water access for years. In a 2012 essay co-authored with UNICEF executive director Anthony Lake, Mr. Hilton stated that humankind faces “a moral imperative” to work toward eliminating “the harsh markers of elemental iniquity” represented by unimproved or dilapidated water and sanitation systems. Even though Mr. Hilton announced this March that he will retire in 2015, the press release made clear that the “Hilton Foundation will continue to conduct strategic initiatives in six priority areas,” listing “providing safe water” first among these six.

WASH grantmaking is a big deal at the foundation, constituting 11% of its $92.2 million in total giving in 2013. And with the foundation’s recent $8 million in WASH awards matching 79 percent of its total 2013 WASH giving with more than half of the year remaining, the Hilton Foundation seems poised to not merely sustain its WASH commitment, but to expand it.

While Steve Hilton’s passion may have sustained the foundation’s involvement in WASH support, organizations hoping for a Hilton Foundation grant must win over Shaheen Kassim-Lakha, the foundation’s director of international programs, who has a background in both international development and environmental epidemiology.

Despite the Hilton Foundation's longstanding, generous financial support for WASH programs, nonprofits working outside of the United States may have an exceedingly tough time attracting Ms. Kassim-Lakha's attention. The foundation describes itself as a “proactive” grantmaker and does not accept unsolicited grant applications.

Furthermore, the Hilton Foundation prefers to work with large, longstanding organizations and favors supporting existing relationships over taking a risk on a new one. The Hilton Foundation's 2010 WASH grantmaking strategy restricted geographic focus to sub-Saharan Africa and arid regions of India and Mexico. The 2010 strategy also emphasizes support for low-population density communities. The foundation's two recent African WASH grants suggest that the 2010 geographic focus still guides giving.