Throughout my two-decade career in communications and marketing, I have worked with diverse organizations in Europe, Asia and the U.S., leveraging strategic communications to drive impact in philanthropy, as well as the public and private sectors. This experience has provided me with a solid understanding of how to operate effectively in complex environments with a broad diversity of constituents.
The Conrad N. Hilton Foundation was established in 1944 by the founder of Hilton Hotels. During my tenure, the organization grew from a small charitable endeavor with a dozen staff members into an 80-person institution. Over a seven-year period, I managed an annual communications budget of $1 million and grew my team to a four-person structure supported by external partners and creative services. I helped elevate the organization’s brand from obscurity into one of the leading foundations in the country, with greater public visibility. Working with external agencies—first the Williams Group and then Threespot—we updated and modernized the Hilton brand to position the Foundation as an enduring, forward-looking force for good. In addition to initiating organization-wide discussions about our identity and values, we created modern logos and other brand assets incorporating Conrad Hilton’s signature—linking his legacy to the Foundation’s future.
Strategic Communications Planning
From 2010-2017, I served as head of communications at the Hilton Foundation, a family foundation with $2.5 billion in assets. Our annual giving averaged $115 million in twelve priority areas (including safe water; chronic homelessness; foster youth; and children affected by HIV and AIDS, among others) in California, the U.S. and the world.
I served as the point person for planning across departments, working with more than a dozen internal teams on different portfolios, each with specific issues and goals. These kinds of collaborations required a level of diplomacy and an understanding of audience perspectives, as well as a skill for proposing solutions that met multiple needs at the same time.
As a member of the executive leadership team, reporting to the President and CEO, I helped shape our organizational goals, while ensuring the alignment of our communications and marketing strategies with the broader objectives of the Foundation.
All strategic communications plans begin with the same building blocks: highlighting goals, identifying stakeholders, crafting messages, choosing channels, defining actions and selecting measurement tools. This approach has shaped my philosophy that communications and marketing are both a science and an art—informed by research and executed with passion.
Website designs and re-designs are among the most challenging projects for an organization, involving numerous stakeholders, each with their own aesthetic sensibilities. Yet, these are also some of the most rewarding experiences. Over the course of 12 years, I was the point person on two complete website overhauls and numerous re-designs.
As part of an integrated digital plan informed by data and analytics, we improved the Hilton Foundation website, which helped us reach ever-expanding audiences in our networks. We put the most critical information front-and-center and created cross-platform solutions to provide the most up-to-date grant data directly to the website. As a result, visitors now spend between 35%-64% more time on the Hilton Foundation’s site than on peer foundations’ sites.
Our continual cycle of improvement and innovation also helped us to increase engagement on social media platforms and via email campaigns. Through a process of audience segmentation, we honed in on our specific audiences and potential influencers, which allowed us to tailor content to achieve our goals. We grew our Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Instagram platforms through a combination of organic interaction and online promotions. In addition, we redesigned our email campaigns, resulting in a 35% increase in sign-ups after the new process was implemented.
One of my key responsibilities as the head of communications was to serve as spokesman and point person with the media. During my career, I have enjoyed good relationships with journalists and members of the new media. Working with my colleagues, I was able to share and shape stories that were both factual and on message.
One of our key communications priorities was to highlight the issues and organizations we funded. To that end, we initiated and participated in stories to shine a spotlight on the incredible work of our partners. The resulting media attention covered a lot of ground—as we focused on 12 program areas and the $2 million Hilton Humanitarian Prize—but there were recurring themes: Conrad Hilton’s focus on helping the poorest and most disadvantaged people in the world, the Hilton Family’s philanthropic legacy and commitment, and an emphasis on our partners rather than on the Hilton Foundation.
While we sought attention, we sought the right kind of attention—the kind that would advance our goals, not publicity for publicity’s sake. Here are some samples of the stories we placed and the coverage we generated:
“Indian eye care group wins top world aid prize” (Reuters, 2010)
“Syrian refugee crisis outstrips international aid” (The Seattle Times, 2015)
“Which Funders are Helping Foster Youth Age Out Successfully?” (Chronicle of Social Change, 2016)
“Things Are Going to Get More Interesting at the Conrad N. Hilton Foundation” (Inside Philanthropy, 2016)
“Combating Homelessness” (Washington Monthly, 2016)
“The Hilton Family’s Spiritual Entrepreneurship” (Barron’s, 2017)
“In an era of mass dislocation, we need new approaches to aid” (San Francisco Chronicle, 2017)
During my time at the Foundation, we launched media partnerships with grants totaling more than $3 million:
In 2015, we awarded iconic Southern California public radio station, KCRW, a grant of $1 million over three years to produce coverage of issues affecting disadvantaged and vulnerable populations in the Greater Los Angeles region. This funding resulted in series like “Below the 10” and “There goes the neighborhood.”
In 2015, we awarded $100,000 to support disaster and emergency preparedness technology at NPR West in Culver City, California, as part of NPR's four-year 'Upgrade and Rebuild' project designed to expand and upgrade NPR West's production capabilities.
In 2016, we gave PBS SoCal a three-year, $1.7 million grant to launch a multi-faceted initiative to help change the expectations and realities for foster youth in Southern California. The project, “Life After Fostercare” is ongoing.
In 2017, we funded The Guardian with a one-year grant of $250,000 to produce editorially independent journalism into early years development in countries most affected by global poverty. The series, “First Fight,” is ongoing.
During my tenure at the Hilton Foundation, I sometimes served as spokesperson. Here is a selection of my public speaking engagements:
Communications Network Conference 2013: Hitting Your Stride on Social Media
This session explored social media campaign approaches and lessons learned by different types of foundations. Participants discussed ROI of storytelling, cultivating and activating strong networks, as well as building staff engagement.
Grants Managers Network 2014: Managing Data for a Field of Good: How Grants Data Can Make It Great
The panel looked at why good data matters in solving the problems we care about and the importance of adopting communication strategies that allow us to build upon each other's knowledge and scale what works.
Communications Network Conference 2014: The Promise and Perils of Communicating in Times of Change
This discussion examined change within organizations—whether leadership or program transitions—and gave an overview of real examples in philanthropy, as well as the private sector. The panelists provided some guiding principles for communicating in times of change.
Communications Network Conference 2016: Brand as a Social Impact Driver
Three leading communications experts offered their unique insights into the making of a brand at distinct moments in the brand awareness process. The panel also explored what it takes to drive social change through organizational branding and influence.
Council on Foundations Conference 2017: Serving Communities by Sharing What We Know
This session took a close look at the kinds of knowledge assets that foundations can share and how senior staff can support knowledge-sharing practices at every level of the organization.
Southern California Grantmakers Family Philanthropy 2017: Navigating External Disruptions to Philanthropic Practice
This session explored case studies to better understand how foundations and nonprofits alike have navigated some of the most disruptive events of recent times—the digital communications revolution, the financial crisis of 2008, the Affordable Care Act, and Hurricanes Katrina and Rita.
The Communications Network
I am a proud member of the Communications Network, a professional affinity group of foundation and nonprofit leaders devoted to strategic influence for the greater good. In addition to attending and speaking at events since 2010, I am also a founder of the Los Angeles chapter of the Network, which aims to connect the leading social impact communicators in LA to share ideas, explore new partnerships and build a strong community of like-minded peers.
In 2017, we organized an evening at the Los Angeles Times with philanthropy and nonprofit communications professionals from across the Los Angeles region. We held a panel discussion with reporters, editors and columnists from the Los Angeles Times to learn firsthand how to more effectively communicate, share story ideas and ultimately build more meaningful relationships with members of the media.
Here are some snapshots from the past few years working behind the scenes: