Steve Hilton takes helm of Hilton foundation

By Ret Boney

Steve Hilton is taking over the organization his grandfather started more than 60 years ago – not the hotel business that caters to travelers worldwide, but the foundation that caters to needy people worldwide.

As the new chairman, president and CEO of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Steve Hilton is carrying out the vision of his late grandfather, hotel magnate Conrad N. Hilton, who started the foundation in 1944 and left the bulk of his estate to the group when he died in 1979.

Today, the foundation has assets of about $2.5 billion, is on track to distribute about $45 million this year, Hilton says, and annually awards the world’s largest humanitarian prize, worth $1.5 million.

“It’s like a boat that is sailing – it’s got a good direction,” he says.  “Part of my job is to make sure the boat stays in the same direction.”

The course was charted by Conrad N. Hilton in his last will and testament, in which he directed the foundation to “relieve the suffering, the distressed and the destitute,” with a special emphasis on children, who he said were “the repositories for our hopes for the upward progress of humanity.”

That includes funding programs for disabled infants and toddlers, supporting a school for children who are blind and have multiple other disabilities, supporting the work of Catholic sisters worldwide and funding efforts to prevent domestic violence and substance abuse.

And because there were Hilton Hotels around the world, Conrad Hilton requested that the foundation make grants throughout the world.

Steve Hilton

Job: Chairman, president and CEO, Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, Los Angeles

Education: B.A., history, University of California, Santa Barbara; M.B.A., UCLA

Born: 1950, Los Angeles

Family: Wife, Lisa; son, Christian, age 17; daughter, Fiona, age 14

Hobbies: Surfing, gardening, photography, travel

Inspiration: Parents, “My dad in terms of his incredible business success…my mother because of her love and being herself.”

Little-known fact: Second-degree black belt in Aikido, a Japanese martial

“Hilton Hotels was international, so he saw the world much differently that most Americans at that time,” Steve Hilton says.  “He understood the global nature of things.”

In keeping with that international charge, the foundation awards more than half its grants to overseas groups.

Steve Hilton says he will keep the foundation true to his grandfather’s philosophy, and to that of the CEOs who came before him, but hopes to add a dash of the entrepreneurial to the organization.

“What I hope to do is bring more of Conrad Hilton’s entrepreneurial creativity into the Hilton Foundation,” he says.  “One word we use is leverage.”

That leverage will come in the form of funders pooling their resources for greater financial impact, he says, and encouraging nonprofits with similar core strengths to work together for a broader reach.

Some of that is already underway, says Hilton, pointing to the West Africa Water Initiative in which the foundation has worked with about a dozen groups, including UNICEF and World Vision, to turn the foundation’s $19 million investment into $43 million to increase access to safe water and improve sanitation.

And the foundation is working to bring three separate nonprofits together to provide housing and services for young homeless mothers and their children, and hopes to present a preliminary plan to the board in December, Hilton says.

“When the pieces are in alignment, the result is far greater than funding separate nonprofits,” Hilton says of encouraging such collaboration.

In response to the suffering wrought by Hurricane Katrina, the foundation has given $2.5 million to the Salvation Army, $1 million to the American Red Cross, and another $2.5 million to two foundations in Louisiana and Mississippi to help rebuild the region’s nonprofit social services sector.

Hilton joined the foundation as an entry-level program assistant 22 years ago and has learned the group’s operations from the bottom up, he says.

Shortly after college, he worked in the family’s international hotel business for five years, but left after discovering that a career in hotels would mean moving every few years and living on hotel properties.

“I just didn’t feel it was a good fit,” he says.  “I couldn’t see doing that lifestyle for the rest of my life.”

He left the hotel world to work on an experimental oyster farm and surf the north shore of Oahu, Hawaii.

The oyster farm went bankrupt about a year later and Hilton began looking for “a job and a direction,” not long after his grandfather died and left his estate to the foundation.

“I had the feeling I was connecting to something that was part of Conrad Hilton’s legacy,” he says of his decision to join the foundation.  “And the fact that I could be involved in philanthropy that was touching lives – that was very important to me.”

Over the next two decades, Hilton worked his way up through the foundation, taking over as CEO in June after the retirement of Donald Hubbs, who had led the organization for 36 years.

One of Hilton’s first duties as CEO was awarding the $1.5 million Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, given each year to a nonprofit that has “made exemplary and extraordinary contributions to alleviating human suffering.”

This year, the prize went to Partners in Health, a Boston-based group that works to bring high-quality health care to some of the poorest communities in the world, including Haiti, Rwanda, Russia and inner-city Boston.

Still an avid surfer, Hilton hopes to dabble in fish farming again someday, but for now he says he feels fortunate to have the opportunity to make real his grandfather’s vision and apply that inspiration to the foundation’s philanthropy.

“In terms of touching the lives of those in need, I don’t think I could have selected a better type of work,” he says.

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