Over the past three-quarters of a century, we’ve sent astronauts to walk on the moon. New nations have claimed their sovereignty. Economies have boomed and crashed. Civil rights leaders and activists have launched revolutions that have dramatically challenged and weakened oppressive power dynamics; though there’s still much work to do toward achieving true equity.

Amidst these and many other ongoing cycles, disruptions and changes, one thing that has remained constant over the past 75 years is the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation’s mission to improve the lives of people living in poverty and experiencing disadvantage. This Sunday, December 22, marks the 75th anniversary of the Hilton Foundation’s existence.

Conrad N. Hilton with his son, Barron Hilton, in the late 1960s.

The very first grant made by the Hilton Foundation was on January 9, 1945, in the amount of $100. It was awarded to the National Foundation of Infantile Paralysis, later renamed the March of Dimes, an organization founded in 1938 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and one that today remains a thriving nonprofit working to improve the health of mothers and babies.

Other organizations that were among the first to receive grants include the American Red Cross and the Sisters of Loretto in El Paso, Texas. In the early days of the Hilton Foundation, three key areas of focus were of utmost importance to Conrad Hilton: health, youth and faith, and he approached his support of these areas with an approach rooted first and foremost, in compassion.

These themes reflect the man that Conrad Hilton was; his strong convictions and the morals and values he passed on to his children. When Conrad died in 1979, he left 97% of his fortune to the Hilton Foundation. This gift allowed the Foundation to expand beyond smaller grants and begin to implement a major project approach to grantmaking, while maintaining steadfast loyalty to Conrad Hilton’s intent. Areas of focus began to take shape, including preventable blindness, safe drinking water and domestic violence awareness.

In 2007, Conrad’s son Barron Hilton joined the Giving Pledge and announced that, like his father before him, he intended to commit 97% of his wealth to the work of the Hilton Foundation. When Barron passed away just three months ago in September 2019, his gift increased the endowment from $2.9 billion to $6.3 billion and made him the Foundation’s most significant donor.

Barron was very active in the work of the Foundation, having joined the board of directors in 1950 and served as board chair from 2007 to 2012. He stepped down from the board in 2014, after 64 years of distinguished service. His generous gift ensures that the Foundation’s philanthropic work will continue to expand for many years to come.

Ruth, 20 months, plays with her father, Losan, outside their home in Malawi. Losan, his wife and Ruth participated in a parenting program supported by Catholic Relief Services. Photo courtesy of Catholic Relief Services.

Seventy-five years after our inception, health, youth and faith remain key areas of focus for the Foundation, but our approach to grantmaking today is very different from those first gifts in 1945. With initiatives that improve the lives of people experiencing disadvantage worldwide, we are now putting the Foundation’s resources to work in improving growth and development outcomes for young children affected by HIV and AIDS in East and Southern Africa, supporting transition age youth in foster care toward becoming self-sufficient and thriving adults, supporting Catholic sisters to become recognized as global leaders in sustainable human development, and much more.

With the infusion of new assets, in the years ahead we have the extraordinary task of determining how we will go about strengthening and expanding our priority areas for continued robust and effective grantmaking.

Established to exist in perpetuity, we celebrate our first 75 years and look forward to the next 75 years and beyond. As an organization, we care deeply about our founder’s intent and it is a guidepost for our work.

As we look to the future, we remain humbled and grateful for the generous gift Barron left to the Foundation and the legacy he and his father chose to leave to the world. We pledge to honor his memory and carry out the philanthropic work that we believe would make both Barron and his father, Conrad, very proud.