Article by Tenille Metti, Former Assistant Communications Manager

Interview with Edmund J. Cain, who oversees all domestic and international grant programming at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, including overall responsibility for the Foundation’s strategic planning.

Q: How have your past career experiences influenced your approach to grantmaking?

A: It’s been a fairly logical and seamless transition from one stage of my career to another, from one aspect to another. Early on in my career, I worked at the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP), which was the “grantmaker” for the UN system. I was charged with identifying partners—like the UN Industrial Development Organization, the Food and Agriculture Organization, and the World Health Organization—to actually implement the projects. So, in effect, I was a grantmaker of sorts at the beginning of my career: UNDP’s role evolved over time to that of a multilateral service provider or grantee in the areas of environment, anti-poverty strategies, disaster response, and good governance.

When I moved to The Carter Center later in my career, my role continued to be that of a hybrid of both funder and grantee. Now that I’m in this position as a full-time funder at a major philanthropic foundation, my past experience has given me an appreciation of what a funder wants to see from their investment and how difficult it is for a grantee to mobilize resources. It has made me more sensitive to the relationship between funder and grantee.

Q: What did the Foundation look like when you first joined in 2008 and what does it look like now?

A: When I arrived at the Foundation, there were 15 people and now there are 50. The main reason for that growth is a change in our grantmaking approach.

In 2008—a year-and-a-half after I arrived—our board of directors decided that the Foundation should be more strategic in its grantmaking. Prior to that, the Foundation had made major, multi-year grants to a select few organizations. In 2008, we took many of the successful investments to another level. Being a strategic grantmaker means doing a thorough analysis of a particular sector or subsector, determining what kinds of problems are not being addressed, deciding whether there’s a niche for us to make a real difference, and then monitoring and evaluating the impact of our investment. Virtually all of our grantmaking now undergoes this kind of rigorous analysis before we start investing.

Our directors recognized that being a strategic grantmaker means having a more professional staff. We need a sufficient number of staff to engage with grantees, peer funders, thought leaders in the field, and maybe become thought leaders ourselves.

Q: How do you see the grantmaking process evolving ten years from now?

A: I think the principles and strategies that we have adopted will still be in place. As we proceed, we will track our progress and our mistakes, and adjust accordingly. We will track our program areas, our staff levels, and our evaluation mechanisms.

What will change is the size of our corpus. When that happens, we’ll be closer to the level of the top dozen largest foundations in the country. The same strategic principles and practices will still apply and, while there may be some adjustments to the areas we invest in, I think you’ll see a highly professional staff, doing more of what we’re doing today.

Q: How do you think Conrad Hilton would feel about the Foundation now?

A: From the day I arrived here, I have regularly asked myself, “What would Conrad have done in this situation?” Conrad Hilton left some guidance in his Last Will and Testament, but it was not overly prescriptive. We’re really blessed that he was most fundamentally concerned with the plight of his fellow man. His vision, as set out in his Will and Testament combined with the example he set as a businessman and humanitarian, guides and influences everything we do. In other words, our initiatives are the type of things we think Conrad would have supported to help the disadvantaged and the vulnerable. His writings and his personal charitable giving during his lifetime have guided us as well, as they suggest that he had a particular interest in areas like children and the Catholic Sisters.

I think he would be very pleased to know that we continue to support those initiatives. He’d also be pleased that our programs include both U.S. and international programs. In his philosophy, we should not have any boundaries in terms of religion, ethnicity, or country of origin. I think he always saw this as a global foundation with a global reach, and we certainly are that. So I think we can sleep at night knowing we’re faithful custodians of his vision.

Q: What was your most memorable experience at the Foundation?

A: Every day honestly offers a memorable experience, but some of my best memories are field visits with grantees and the communities that we ultimately hope to serve.

During a visit to a project we funded in the Himalayas, I once had to trek several hours to get to a remote village in a valley where there had previously been no access to safe, clean water. We had teamed up with the Tata Trust to deliver safe water to the area. When I reached this remote village at the edge of the world, there was a beautifully decorated banner that said: “Thank you Hilton Foundation.”

In actual fact, the real thanks belongs to our partners who are working on the ground. But, it’s that kind of personal experience, like seeing the face of someone who has access to safe water for the first time, that makes this a very rewarding line of work. It’s nice to know there are people in the most far-flung areas of the world working tirelessly to improve their communities and their children’s futures. And I know this was a far flung place since our grantee partners had to put me on a donkey for the return trip out of the valley!

Q: Do you have any advice for grantseekers?

A: If you think there’s any potential link between your work and that of the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation, please look at our website first and read about our work, Once you’ve familiarized yourself with that information, double-check that your work is a good fit with ours, and look for specific opportunities. Please keep in mind that we don’t accept unsolicited proposals. We keep an eye out for potential partners at meetings or convenings; in comments on our blog, Horizons; or by reading professional papers, articles, or simple word of mouth. This kind of exposure can conceivably lead to further collaboration.

It’s not about sending a proposal and hoping for the best; it’s about participating in the discussion and seeing where that may lead. We’re producing “In Practice” papers that contribute to knowledge in—and lessons learned from—our program areas. Please take a look at these studies and take the time to respond. We’re always trying to strengthen the philanthropic field. Learning from our successes and failures is a very important part of that process, as is our ongoing dialogue with the philanthropic community.