Learning Together with the Hilton Foundation

Have you ever been the one tasked with making the plans for a vacation with a large group of people? If so, you know what it is like to juggle many different schedules, preferences and opinions. However, when everyone puts the time and work in and shares the responsibility, it can be a wonderful experience. Coming together to accomplish something results in greater payoff than going at it solo.

For the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, the process of intentionally fostering learning with other organizations is paramount in its grantmaking for just this reason. When the Hilton Foundation decided to expand the focus of its grantmaking, it realized that it needed to similarly expand its understanding of learning to also include other organizations. So as it undertook these new areas of work, the Hilton Foundation took concrete steps to learn in real time with partners by bringing many voices and perspectives together.

As the Hilton Foundation demonstrates, learning is more than just a common  buzzword in philanthropy; every organization wants to grow and improve its efforts, and most grantmakers now evaluate their work — more than three quarters,   according to GEO’s 2014 survey, Is Grantmaking Getting Smarter? But many of us miss the opportunity to make what we learn even more powerful by learning in partnership with grantees and the communities we serve.

A family foundation based in the Los Angeles area, the foundation was created by Conrad N. Hilton, the man behind the hotels. In 2008, the Hilton Foundation broadened its scope by forming six issue-focused initiatives: ending chronic homelessness, enabling Catholic Sisters to advance human development, helping children affected by HIV and AIDS, supporting older youth in foster care, preventing substance use, and providing safe water. These new initiatives would last for five years and feature partnerships with 25 to 50 grantees. For this program to work, the foundation had to find ways to engage and support grantees as a community working together to solve complex problems. This meant intentionally bringing together core stakeholders to work toward a common goal and encouraging them to connect with each other to create more impact, rather than working in isolation.

In Learning Together: Actionable Approaches for Grantmakers, we took a deep dive into  how five grantmakers, including the Hilton Foundation, have found success in developing programs that allow them to learn alongside the organizations they fund and the communities they serve. Here are three examples from the foundation’s initiative around eliminating chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County:

1)       The Hilton Foundation built learning into the design of the initiatives. Making learning a priority from the beginning of the initiative insured that learning was present throughout each step of the five year timeline. The design also ensured that learning would extend to all parties; because there was a steady flow of information and data between partners, the initiative increased learning for all involved.

2)      The Hilton Foundation evaluated progress throughout and supported partners in making meaning of data and information. Rather than evaluating the progress of the initiative at the end of the five years, the Hilton Foundation prioritized doing so along the way. Evaluation was done annually, and reports were issued in a simple, easy to understand format. Doing evaluation in real time allowed for necessary adjustments to take place along the way, as Edmund Cain, vice president of grant programs at the Hilton Foundation said,

“We are not looking for one final, after-the-fact report. We want the learning to happen as the work happens so it can inform the work.”

By bringing in outside partners to help with this work of evaluation, the foundation also gave grantees additional tools to work with while not increasing the burdens of evaluation.

3)      The Hilton Foundation organized time for stakeholders to gather together. These annual meetings of grantees, funding partners, and policymakers quickly became an invaluable resource for everyone involved. Gathering together let partners share highlights of the reports, discuss issues, reflect on important concerns and offer real time feedback. Holding these meetings annually allowed stakeholders to adapt their processes throughout the course of the initiative, and it gave all a better understanding of the steps necessary to achieve shared goals.

As the Hilton Foundation demonstrates, learning together is key to achieving progress on the issues we care most about. The steps the Hilton Foundation took towards learning together were ultimately useful, not only for itself, but also for other players in the field. “The evaluation we are doing is designed as much for the field as it is for the foundation,” Cain said. “We want to help inform the sector so everyone is on the same page about what’s happening with respect to ending chronic homelessness in Los Angeles County.”

There are a variety of ways to go about learning, but even these few examples show what can come from engaging in learning in a purposeful manner to share the information we’re collecting. As we all continue on this journey towards shared learning, we will continue to ask ourselves: what do we want to learn together — and why? What are the core values and principles we should keep in mind to ensure the success of shared learning? What are the key steps to making shared learning work?

Editor’s note: For more on the Hilton Foundation’s focus on shared learning, see the session “Fostering a Learning Culture in Family Philanthropy,” featuring Hilton program associate and next gen family member Justin McAuliffe on Wednesday, October 14th at the 2015 National Forum on Family Philanthropy in Seattle.