At the end of a dozen years as head of The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, President Paul Brest has issued a State of the Foundation report
that describes a thriving organization, focused on the progress and outcomes of the grants it makes and striving to make philanthropic practices more effective.
Brest, who assumed leadership of the Foundation in 2000, will be succeeded on September 1 by Larry Kramer, former dean of Stanford Law School.
In an essay accompanying the Foundation’s newly released 2011 Annual Report, Brest writes of a foundation that is a leader among its peers in developing practices to make twenty-first-century philanthropy more rational and effective, while remaining true to the vision of its founders, William and Flora Hewlett, who valued a modest, inclusive, and consultative approach to giving.
The Hewlett Foundation under Brest has seen its endowment grow from less than $3 billion to more than $7 billion, with a current annual grantmaking budget of more than $350 million and approximately 100 staff. The infusion of capital greatly increased the Foundation’s grantmaking and created needs for a full-time general counsel’s office, a communications department, a human resources department, a grants management department, and a professional internal investment team to enable the Foundation to serve its philanthropic objectives. Grants are made primarily through the Foundation’s five programs: Education, Environment, Global Development and Population, Performing Arts, and Philanthropy.
The Foundation has paid special attention to improving the practice of philanthropy, which entails far more than the decision about whom to give money. As Brest notes in his essay, it is crucial to determine whether a potential grantee has clear, measurable goals and the organizational ability to realize them. The Hewlett Foundation also makes grants to strengthen grantee organizations and offers other support to ensure that they can operate at a high capacity.
The essay also discusses the importance of taking large, well-considered risks to address significant social problems where the likelihood of success is low but the benefits may be very high. He cites as an example the Foundation’s $600 million investment in the creation of the ClimateWorks Foundation, an international nonprofit organization working to curb global warming.
Brest notes that there are two primary types of funding: general operating support, which provides unrestricted, typically long-term funding to organizations whose goals are well aligned with a Foundation’s; and project funding
, given to support specific goals or projects. The Hewlett Foundation, Brest writes, favors general operating support when possible, because it offers a nonprofit organization greater autonomy and security to plot its course.
Looking to the future, the departing president foresees the likelihood of continued fraying of the social safety net and, with it, continued calls from government and the public for foundations
to assume a greater role in providing direct services to the disadvantaged—a call that he thinks may be ill considered. In his essay he elaborates on the point, noting the foundations
can achieve the greatest impact by working “upstream,” say on policy issues, rather than paying for direct services.
Brest concludes his essay by looking back at his twelve years at the Hewlett Foundation:
"Being a university professor was a great privilege. Being president of a major U.S. foundation is not just a privilege, but almost unreal. When I was a dean [at Stanford Law School], a day didn’t go by without students, faculty, and alumni telling me about the many things I was doing wrong. Within weeks of coming to the Foundation, I achieved perfection—or would have thought so but for my wife, Iris, reminding me otherwise, and but for a framed Yiddish proverb sent to me by a seasoned colleague at another foundation: 'With money in your pocket, you are wise and you are handsome and you sing well, too.' As I prepare to return to Stanford—though happily not as a dean—we’ll see whether I continue to sing quite so well."