Opinion
October 19, 2015

Hilton Prize Offers Important Lessons for Foundations

Courtesy of Landesa

Like past Hilton prizewinners, Landesa — which fights for land-ownership rights — has a very specific mission to fix an often overlooked problem, a track record of accomplishment, committed leaders, and a need for unrestricted money.

As men and women in their best evening dress gathered at the Waldorf Astoria last week for the awarding of the 20th annual Conrad N. Hilton Humanitarian Prize, they were there for more than a run- of-the-mill gala.

Outside the ballroom, massive and stunningly beautiful backlit photos portrayed the people whose lives have been changed by the winners of the prize, the biggest philanthropic honor for humanitarian groups. As guests cradled cocktails and munched mini crab cakes, the huge lighted images provided an arresting backdrop for a prize competition that in many ways demonstrates how more of philanthropy should work.

Start with the guest list at the gala: They weren’t donors but the staffs and board members of all 20 Hilton prizewinners — a group of nonprofit leaders distinctly lacking in shyness about their missions — and their passionate speeches and table conversation added a sense of urgency to the evening you don’t normally associate with big Waldorf affairs (and I’ve been to a few).

Then look at the prize itself. It is awarded each year to a single nonprofit organization after a rigorous nomination, review, and juried selection process that often takes years.

Hilton prizewinners 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 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.

Just as impressive, Hilton puts no strings on the money it awards.

This year’s winner of $2-million, Landesa, a group that fights for land-ownership rights, is typical of the Hilton prizewinners: It focuses on a very specific and often overlooked problem, has a proven track record, deeply committed long-term leadership — and has a real need for unrestricted funds. No wonder Tim Hanstad, the co-founder and former chief executive of Landesa, exclaimed as he reached the podium: “Is this really happening?”

Judy Miller, the energetic director of the award (who has overseen 18 of the 20 prizes and traveled hundreds of thousands of miles in the process), has worked hard to ensure that groups working on a broad range of causes have won the prize. The first winner Operation Smile, known for promoting cleft-palate surgery, while last year’s winner was Fountain House, which focuses on empowering people with mental illnesses; its president, Ken Dudek, said the prize helped it secure a partnership with the World Health Organization.

Other recipients have worked to prevent blindness (Aravind Eye Care System), end female genital mutilation and improve health (Tostan), and curb childhood prostitution (Ecpat International).

As William Foege, senior fellow at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, put it during his keynote address at the Waldorf: The Hilton Prizes shine the spotlight on “the most courageous and accomplished nonprofits in the world.” But he also quoted Lily Tomlin: “The road to success is always under construction.”

That one-liner represents two other key aspects of the prize worth discussing: its flexible sense of scale and its realization that nonprofit models grow and change over time.

The organizations that earn the prize clearly achieve “scale” — that heavily used cliche in the nonprofit world. But these are neither overnight successes nor single-note players. Their scale generally takes decades of work, and it often involves shifting models of change, a willingness to try new solutions (and abandon the old), and the ability to provide a range of services.

To be blunt: The Hilton Prize ignores the immediacy of “magical solution” organizations in favor of the deeply committed (yet innovative) grinders willing to stick it out.

This is to Hilton’s credit. As David Miliband, head of the International Rescue Committee, said at the gathering: “We don’t just need more aid, we need smart aid.”

And because the 20 Hilton winners possess so much of the knowledge it takes to build a truly smart aid system, the foundation is making a formal effort to build on the ideas and experiences of the people it has honored.

It has created the Hilton Prize Coalition, which is working under an independent structure to plot ways to work together to make a difference.

One of the coalition’s first priorities is to promote better resiliency in places where natural and human disasters are common and to improve emergency responses. “This is real sustainable development,” said Gro Harlem Brundtland, former Prime Minister of Norway and WHO director general (and now a Hilton Prize jury member).

Hilton has also started a new fellows program that seeks to build future leaders of the kinds of groups that win the foundation’s coveted prizes. It’s the rare foundation that has figured out how to better use its top grantees and build the next generation of strong activists and leaders all at the same time.

But that doesn’t mean the foundation is only focused on the nonprofits and their leaders At the gala, and throughout its work, Hilton makes clear that it’s the vulnerable people the prizewinners serve who are always at the forefront.

Liv Ullmann, vice chair of the International Rescue Committee, underscored this commitment when she told the gala’s guests the story of a moment in her travels on behalf of Unicef when she witnessed a mother who had to choose between giving her sick child contaminated water or waiting for relief that might never arrive. “To suffer,” she said, “is to have no choice.”

Tom Watson, a regular Chronicle columnist, is president of CauseWired, a consulting firm that advises nonprofits, and a lecturer at Columbia University.