Near a cluster of small villages in Ghana, women hoist watering cans atop their heads and trek anywhere from one to four miles each way to get clean water every day. “I saw women with these cans on their heads,” recalls Steve Hilton. “I remember picking one up [and putting] it on my head, and I thought, ‘Wow!’ It was at least 40 pounds.” Hilton’s enthusiasm is palpable as he describes how a single clean water well near a village can allow local residents to avoid sicknesses that have long since been eradicated in countries with more developed systems. The work of the namesake Hilton Foundation, formed in 1944 by the legendary hotelier and philanthropist Conrad Hilton, lives on with the work of his grandson, the Hilton Foundation’s current CEO. “I am amazed and inspired to see how our foundation touches the lives of millions around the world,” affirms Hilton.
Hilton is known for his hands-on approach to philanthropy. He even spent time at St. Joseph’s Center in Venice, volunteering in a restaurant that feeds the homeless, and he remembers most that the people were “polite, respectful, and appreciative of what we’ve done.”
Although Hilton grew up within an established “corporate” family, the surfboard painted with dolphins standing in his office hints at his roots. “I grew up on the beach in Santa Monica as the quintessential California kid.” Surfing, playing volleyball, and skateboarding were his passions. “As a college student at UC Santa Barbara in the early 1970s, I was exposed to a lot of movements where young people were speaking out; being heard,” Hilton says, “and that influences my outlook on the world now.” Yes, Steve Hilton is still the vocal optimist he was in 1969—only now, he has the force of a foundation behind him to make real change.
The great force of the Foundation can be traced back to Conrad Hilton. When founding the Hilton Foundation, Conrad N. Hilton mandated “to relieve the suffering, the distressed, and the destitute,” and so that became the Hilton Foundation’s mission. Conrad Hilton found success as a young child working in his father’s convenience store which doubled as an inn for fur trappers, mining prospectors, and traveling salesmen. By 1915, Conrad Hilton was president and partner of A.H. Hilton and Son General Store. His genuine passion—both for hospitality and for providing those in need with the best he could offer—lives on today in Hilton Hotels and the Hilton Foundation. “From the start of the foundation, he had a completely different mission than that of Hilton Hotels,” says Steve Hilton about Conrad, who bequeathed virtually his entire estate to the foundation in 1979.
One of Conrad Hilton’s sons, Barron, pursued the same career path as his father, becoming president and CEO of Hilton Hotels in 1966. He was involved in the Foundation since its early days and served as chairman from 2007 to 2012. In 2007, Barron Hilton announced he wanted to build on the philanthropic legacy of his father by contributing approximately $1.2 billion of proceeds from the sale of Hilton Hotels Corporation and Harrah’s Entertainment into a charitable remainder unitrust that will eventually benefit the Foundation. This brings the total value of the Hilton Foundation and its related charitable entities to approximately $4 billion. Though they have the same founder, Hilton Hotels and the Hilton Foundation are separate legal entities. The Foundation was created as Conrad’s vehicle for personal philanthropy. Says Steven Hilton, “As the grandson of Conrad Hilton and the son of Barron Hilton, I am following in the footsteps of two extraordinary men. Not only are they renowned for their business acumen, they have made significant contributions to alleviating human suffering. I consider it an honor and a privilege to be entrusted with carrying on our family’s philanthropic legacy.”
Innovation has been an important factor in the Hilton family’s success and now the Foundation’s success. In a stroke of inspiration, Steve Hilton advocated moving to scenic Agoura Hills. “One day at least 10 years ago, I was driving around and I saw this piece of property in Agoura Hills that seemed like a dream location for us to move to,” Hilton wistfully recalls. He dreamed of that land with no less foresight than what had brought to fruition his father and grandfather’s largest acts of will. Awhile later, he drove by the same plot and saw a “sold” sign. With some research, he found out it was in escrow by someone else. But not too long after, he saw the sign had been removed, discovered the deal had fallen through, and took his chance to finally snag his version of the promised land. Hilton took it upon himself to convince the board to move from an office space they had rented and occupied since 1981 into a property not yet built and outside the bounds of the Los Angeles corporate jungle. The foresight of Hilton’s vision was eventually what demonstrated the business logic of owning instead of renting, when the organization plans to exist in perpetuity.
The Foundation has a four-phase plan for expansion in the coming years, as it is expected to grow substantially when Barron passes away. In the Hilton Foundation’s current offices, a glass etching of their manifesto, written by Steve’s grandfather Conrad Hilton, graces the lobby, and the staff attends to visitors in the most courteous and professional manner, distributing water in actual glasses rather than Styrofoam or plastic cups. Glass walls—soundproof, of course—block off conference rooms from the casual visitor, and the hallway carpet comes as close to sparkling as fabric floor covering can.
But the allegorical glass of this office is about to be shattered. In November, The Hilton Foundation will relocate from Century City to Agoura Hills. Currently, the construction team is working on Phase 1 of what is to be a 4-phase building process. Phases 2 through 4 will be undertaken on an as-needed basis. “Steve is very sincere in his pursuit of developing practical green technologies that can be used globally,” says Frans Bigelow, project manager of the Agoura Hills Complex. “Those of us who have been fortunate enough to be selected to participate on this team realize that this has been a once in a lifetime experience.”
“I’ve always seen our foundation as more of an academic institution than a business firm,” says Steve Hilton, and any think tank would be envious of the Hilton Foundation’s new digs. This bucolic setting of a surrounding oak forest moves the foundation in a new direction, one where the specific form of inspiration that Steve acquires and relishes from nature can truly make a difference. More than physical and budgetary expansion, the Hilton Foundation has broadened and deepened its frontiers to include philanthropic causes such as homelessness, substance abuse, foster care, access to safe water, support for the work of Catholic Sisters, and children affected by HIV/AIDS. The emphasis is on long-term commitments rather than a large number of grantees. The Hilton Foundation distributed roughly $82 million in grants last year and has provided over $1 billion in grants since its inception.
The foundation typically divides its resources evenly between international and domestic causes. Both insufficient substance abuse treatment and a high degree of neglect for foster children over the age of 18 are under-recognized causes of homelessness. In many cases, forcefully emancipated young adults account for a portion of the homeless population at any given time. Recognizing the degenerative cultural progression, the Hilton Foundation is taking up a new priority in prevention services to help those who suffer in the Foster Youth system. Most of the foundation’s work on ending chronic homelessness and helping youth transitioning out of foster care happens right here in Los Angeles. “This is where most foster youth are located. We are the number one center for homelessness in the country. There’s a real need here,” Steve Hilton explains. Another major initiative of the Hilton Foundation has been aiding the relief, recovery, and preparedness programs that respond to natural disasters. Over $21 million in grants was awarded to these programs over the past two decades. Based on its experiences during this time and an indepth review of its grant making for disasters, the Foundation has become more conscious of best practices in the sector. “Participating in this incredible humanitarian endeavor has touched my heart and soul,” says Hilton, who becomes most animated when describing his own interactions with the downtrodden. Hilton says, “The work we do has opened my eyes to the needs of others, whether they are blind and multi-handicapped children in the Philippines or long-time homeless men and women living on the streets of Los Angeles. It has changed my life.”