Hilton Foundation's CEO on its evolving priorities

Peter Laugharn, CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation. Photo by: Manuel Lopez / World Economic Forum / CC BY-NC-SA

SAN FRANCISCO — Last week, the chief executive officer of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation announced a number of significant changes to its priorities, focusing its programmatic investments in areas including homelessness and disaster relief, while phasing out its avoidable blindness program and three others.

“Throughout the past year, we have been interested in increasing the Foundation’s focus with the resources we are honored to steward,” Peter Laugharn wrote via email on Thursday.

When Laugharn, who previously worked in global health and international development, joined the foundation in 2016, he outlined how a donation from Barron Hilton, the son of the hotel entrepreneur who founded the organization, would double the assets of the Hilton Foundation from $2.5 billion to $5 billion in the near future.

Last week, the Hilton Foundation, which is based just outside Los Angeles, California, and has a stated mission to alleviate human suffering, announced that it will focus its programmatic investments in seven areas — foster youth; homelessness; hospitality workforce development; safe water; disaster relief and recovery; young children affected by HIV and AIDS; and Catholic Sisters. It will also begin slowly transitioning out four of its programs: Catholic education, multiple sclerosis, substance use prevention, and avoidable blindness. Every five years, the board of governors of the foundation goes through an in-depth review of its programs, and this announcement is a result of that discussion.

“There are a lot of needs out there, and we tend to add programs over time, and I think every once in a while, we need to look at how many we’re doing and whether we would do better to focus our resources,” Laugharn told Devex the day after the announcement. “So that’s the discussion we’ve been having with the board and staff over the last year. And we felt that 11 programs, which is what we went into this with, was a large number, and it’s difficult to keep your attention on all of them, and that greater focus would allow us to be more strategic and get more leverage out of our grants.”

In the U.S., the Hilton Foundation will continue to invest in foster youth, homelessness, and hospitality workforce development. Internationally, it will continue to support disaster relief and recovery, safe water, and young children affected by HIV and AIDS internationally. And Catholic Sisters, a program that is both domestic and international, will continue to be a priority.

Laugharn framed the work of Catholic Sisters in the context of the Sustainable Development Goals, saying they “further the people work of the SDGs,” by advancing human development — through their work educating children, caring for the vulnerable, and advocating for justice. The Hilton Foundation invests in membership, leadership, and resources for Catholic Sisters, and aims to connect them with the global development community.

Laugharn told Devex that because the Hilton Foundation has a mandate from its founder to alleviate human suffering without regard to race or country or religion, it will continue to fund both domestically and internationally, but the Catholic Sisters is one priority program area that is truly global in nature.

Laugharn often frames the work of the foundation in the context of the SDGs. “We are … on the verge of delivering some important things as a global community in terms of the SDGs,” he said. “We really want to put our shoulder into some of those.” The question for Laugharn and the board is how to strike the right balance of domestic versus international grants, as well as how to have the maximum impact possible for every dollar invested, leading to some of the recent changes they have made.

“We’ve been involved in water for 25 years, and our approach has evolved,” Laugharn explained. “Originally, we were kind of a Johnny Appleseed. We would go village to village and help drill wells and bore holes. It’s satisfying work because it gives an immediate benefit. But it was not tied into what governments were doing, it wasn’t tied into long-term sustainability, and it wasn’t tied into market-based approaches.”

In 2016, the board of directors approved a strategy to focus on efforts at the local administrative level, with three primary approaches: Advancing proven solutions and testing promising models, strengthening the capacity of service providers, government authorities, and others involved in water governance, and building and disseminating credible evidence. With the design and release of its 2017 -2021 grantmaking strategy, the Hilton Foundation aligned its safe water strategy with SDG 6 on clean water and sanitation. The first target of that goal is, “by 2030, achieve universal and equitable access to safe and affordable drinking water for all.” Laugharn said that in safe water and other areas, the SDGs provide a helpful framework to the Hilton Foundation to develop replication strategies.

“I’m trying to integrate our field-based work into these global conversations … I’m saying we’ve got evidence, we’ve got experience, you’ve got access to policymakers and larger amounts of capital, so let’s work together on this.”

— Peter Laugharn, CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation

Beyond safe water, the Hilton Foundation is also making changes to its other international programs. For example, in its work on disaster relief and recovery, refugees are becoming a bigger priority, and localization is increasingly becoming a part of the approach. The Hilton Foundation is also connecting its work on children affected by HIV and AIDS to the growing momentum for action on early childhood development.

“I’m trying to integrate our field-based work into these global conversations. That’s the replication strategy. I’m saying we’ve got evidence, we’ve got experience, you’ve got access to policymakers and larger amounts of capital, so let’s work together on this,” Laugharn said of recent conversations with the World Bank and the United Nations Children’s Fund and others.

Laugharn wrote that in the coming months, the foundation would begin the process of transitioning out of its work on three U.S. programs as well as one international program, avoidable blindness. While the foundation will honor its current grant commitments to partners including the Himalayan Cataract Project, Sightsavers Inc., and Helen Keller International, it will not continue to fund efforts to eliminate trachoma, increase access to cataract surgery, or strengthen the eye health care sector. The Hilton Foundation has focused its efforts on trachoma elimination in three countries — Niger, Tanzania, and Mali — and several of those grants will continue through to the targeted 2020 elimination date.

“If you look at a country like Mali, they’re doing exceptional work, but the context is quite challenging,” said Laugharn, who spent eight years working in Mali for Save the Children. “So it’s only realistic to think about what if elimination takes longer than we’re thinking. I think we need to look at that as we work through it. Our colleagues are putting together a strategy over the next couple months and I’m pretty certain they’ll look at contingencies.”

For each of the programs that are phased out, the key, he said, is to come up with strategies that “honor and extend” the work the Hilton Foundation has already done and provide the best possible prospects for these organizations.

In November 2015, the Hilton Foundation made a nearly $3 million grant to the Fred Hollows Foundation to help develop and provide outcome funding for the Cameroon Cataract Performance Bond, which is a development impact bond, or pay-for-performance financing mechanism, with the aim of delivering 18,000 surgeries over five years in the country.

“Putting together a DIB is in itself a recognition that you won’t be in a space forever, and other funding streams that may well be present for a long time and are certainly larger than yours are an essential part of an effective strategy,” Laugharn told Devex. “The reason we chose cataracts for the DIB was that you want a really clear outcome … If you’re trying to invite private funding in, then you want to make it something concrete where the deliverable is quick. That was more the thinking in putting the DIB together than it being a part of our sunset strategy. But having done that, we feel comfortable with having a time-limited involvement.”

The majority of the Hilton Foundation’s international grantmaking for 2017 went to Catholic Sisters, at nearly $17 million — safe water and children affected by HIV and AIDS saw high levels of investment at over $11 million each, and $4.5 million went to disaster relief and recovery. Some $16 million of the Hilton Foundation’s nearly $115 million grantmaking in 2017 fell in its own miscellaneous category, which includes support for groups such as the World Economic Forum, funding to a range of media organizations, and the annual $2 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize. That prize is the largest annual humanitarian award presented to nonprofits working to alleviate human suffering, which will continue to be the central focus of the foundation.

Update, September 20, 2019: This story has been updated to clarify that Barron Hilton is Conrad N. Hilton’s son.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Catherine also works for the Solutions Journalism Network, a non profit that trains and connects reporters to cover responses to problems.