Last fall at the Waldorf Astoria in New York, I watched as Judy Miller worked the room. The venerable Park Avenue pile was packed with philanthropic luminaries and social-sector leaders celebrating the 20th anniversary of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize, the world's largest philanthropic award, of which she was the longtime director. Former laureates told stories of challenge and redemption and impact as the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation justly marked one of the great philanthropic success stories in glamorous fashion.
Indefatigable, personally generous, insatiably curious, and possessed of the unmistakable glow that comes from organizing people and resources for the betterment of society, Judy was a true force in the world of American philanthropy. She didn’t have her name on the front door, she rarely stepped into the spotlight, and she worked the inside game. But she made a path that made a difference.
Her death Monday at age 77 shocked and saddened the huge network of nonprofit leaders and change-makers long accustomed to her stoic presence and quiet leadership. This was a person who logged millions of miles visiting nonprofit programs around the world in the service of making the Hilton Prize the most rigorous (and rewarding) of program achievements. Judy delighted in stories of exotic and occasionally dangerous travel, and she took pride in just how hard it was to win a Hilton Prize.
Her record of service to philanthropy lives on in the Hilton laureates, a group that includes nonprofits that have been more innovative and had more impact than most others on the planet. As I wrote here last fall, Hilton Prize winners never seem to represent the kind of international nonprofits with celebrity founders, glossy media campaigns, or global household-name status. Because the process of actually winning the prize — now worth $2 million in unrestricted funds — can take many years and always involves deep investigation, it feels like the Hilton Foundation seeks out the winners rather than the other way around.
As it undoubtedly was for scores of people who work in the nonprofit world, Judy’s passing was a personal loss for me. She generously promoted my work, championed my writing (helping to launch my book CauseWired in 2008), and provided counsel and advice. She was the kind of person who didn’t let newcomers stand awkwardly by themselves in a social setting; she'd grab you by the arm and drag you into the group. “Tom,” she said to me at one such event years ago, “do you know Muhammad Yunus? Come with me.”
Two other aspects of Judy’s life are worth mentioning here. She was deeply devoted to her family, particularly her daughters. After an international conference in Florence, I ran into her in the hotel lobby sipping a glass of wine alone. She was smiling happily. I asked why and her answer was instantaneous: “Work is complete, and I’m meeting my daughter here tonight!”
She was also an ardent feminist who believed in economic and political equality for women and girls and who did her best to promote those values — mostly by promoting others. This instinct came from experience. Judy lost her husband at a young age and not only raised her children but reinvented herself in the process, going from a profession in marketing and communications into a truly effective position in international philanthropy.
Judy was something of a pioneer as well. In 1975, she became the first woman executive at a major Japanese corporation (whisky distiller Suntory) and in 1981 was the first woman to work openly with men within Saudi Arabia, as a marketing executive whose clients included the country's ministry of information. She later represented the King Faisal Foundation International Prize, awarded annually in Riyadh. As Peter Laugharn, CEO of the Hilton Foundation, said this week: "We are very proud of her many accomplishments and will miss her dedication to discovering and advocating for nonprofit organizations that have made extraordinary advances in relieving human suffering."
New models in philanthropy and nonprofit impact fascinated Judy, and she was enthusiastic about the work it took to kick the tires on new social ventures. But she also believed strongly in the power of persistence and tenacity and argued that nonprofits should prove themselves over time.
As the word spread of her death this week, Judy’s friends and colleagues remembered that passion for excellence.
“It’s been such a sad week at the foundation,” said Marc Moorghen, communications director at the Hilton Foundation. “Judy was a remarkable person who was passionate about her work. She dedicated her time at the foundation to making the world a better place, particularly for women and children. She will be greatly missed by her colleagues and her nonprofit friends around the world.“
Tom Watson, a regular Chronicle columnist, is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University.