News and analysis
September 14, 2015

Hilton Boosts Annual Humanitarian Prize to $2 Million

Zute Lightfoot/Operation Smile

Dr. William Magee, tends to a child treated by Operation Smile. The organization won the first Hilton Humanitarian Prize in 1996, and is now helping leading a new coalition of past winners to improve collaboration among humanitarian groups.

The world’s biggest humanitarian award is set to get bigger.

The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation will increase its namesake prize to $2 million from $1.5 million, chief executive Steve Hilton said Monday, and spend another $2 million to bolster collaboration and professional development among its network of past award winners.

The increase in the value of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize coincides with its 20th anniversary — this year’s recipient will be announced next month. The goal is to enhance the impact of recipient organizations and to mitigate inflation, Mr. Hilton said.

The prize exists to shine a light on groups making "extraordinary progress in alleviating human suffering," Mr. Hilton said, and spur additional support from philanthropy, governments, and corporations.

The Hilton Humanitarian Prize was first bestowed in 1996, with a $1-million gift, to Operation Smile. The amount was increased to $1.5 million in 2005 upon the 10th anniversary of the prize.

It is the largest humanitarian award in the world. The Nobel Peace Prize cash award varies from year to year, for example, but in 2014 was just under $1 million.

Other past winners include the International Rescue Committee, Casa Alianza, and Women for Women International. The foundation receives hundreds of nominations each year, and the winner is chosen by a committee based on criteria including performance record, long-term impact, and efficiency. The window for 2016 nominations opens on September 28.

Big Impact

William Magee, co-founder and chief executive of Operation Smile, said that winning the prize in 1996 created exceptional exposure for his group. He and his colleagues were able to put the unrestricted money to work immediately, expanding the number of children served by its corps of volunteer medical professionals.

"We still leverage it everyplace we go," Dr. Magee said of the award. "We just got a $25-million donation from Johnson & Johnson. When we talked to them, we were throwing the name Hilton all over the place."

In addition to increasing the prize money, the Hilton Foundation is making a $2-million grant to formalize and bolster working relationships among organizations that have won the humanitarian prize in past years. The cohort, to be called the Hilton Prize Coalition, launches with two projects on the table: a fellowship program to provide professional mentorship and development and a three-year pilot to build a model for collaborative disaster response.

Fourteen laureates are working on the latter, said Judy Miller, who oversees the prize at the Hilton Foundation.

"We feel that is going to be quite significant because we all see what happens when everybody rushes in when there is a disaster — inefficiencies, and everyone stepping on each other’s toes can make it very messy."

After gathering for many years at the Hilton Humanitarian Prize dinner, several of the laureates had already started working together organically, said Dr. Magee of Operation Smile, which is taking a leading role in the coalition. During the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, his staff worked with staff at other groups to provide surgical care for 350 crush victims.

Collective Action

With the 20th award winner being announced next month, the cohort is now at a point at which collective action stands to deliver major advances in how humanitarian work is executed, he said. Among his priorities is the elevation and implementation of safe surgical care.

"If you can take mature organizations and have all of their expertise, then collectively you are going to do a better job than what you could do by yourself," Dr. Magee said.

The increase in the value of the Hilton Humanitarian Prize and its investment in improving disaster response come amid a humanitarian crisis. A record 60 million people are displaced worldwide, according to a report published in June by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

Mr. Hilton saw it firsthand when he traveled earlier this year to a Syrian refugee camp in Turkey to meet with foundation grantees. More than 11 million Syrians have been displaced during nearly five years of civil war in that country, with four million fleeing to neighboring countries.

"The reality is the situation is not sustainable when you look at the scale of what is happening," Mr. Hilton said. "Unless more foundations or individuals step up, I think there is a great risk that this could spiral into something that is much more chaotic and serious."

He described the response to the Syrian refugee crisis thus far as "minimal."

With $2.4 billion in assets and $109 million in grants paid in 2014, the Hilton Foundation ranked 25th on The Chronicle’s annual survey of wealthiest grant makers in the United States.

Mr. Hilton, who was named president of the foundation in 1998 and chief executive in 2005, is scheduled to step down at the end of the year. He will be succeeded by Peter Laugharn.

Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly said the Johnson & Johnson grant to Operation Smile was $2 million. It was $25 million.

Send an e-mail to Megan O’Neil.