Key takeaways from Hewlett’s 2024 grantee town halls

Illustration of two people with conversation bubbles

As part of our commitment to openness and transparency, we hold annual town halls for current grantees to ask senior staff questions about our strategies and possible future directions. They are one of many ongoing efforts we make to better understand and be more responsive to the needs of grantees and communities.

This year, more than 1,000 grantees joined us by Zoom across two town halls, asking insightful questions on a range of topics — from how we’re responding to the anti-equity backlash to the impact of artificial intelligence on democracy to how we’re maintaining flexible funding. Here’s a recap of our interim president’s opening remarks and some of the key themes that were top of mind for our grantees this year.

Balancing continuity and change

In her opening remarks, Interim President Liz Peters highlighted the foundation’s commitment to providing continuity and support for grantees as we manage our own leadership transition. The search for a successor to Larry Kramer, managed by the foundation’s board, is actively underway. “We know new leadership will bring a measure of change, but we expect, as does our board, a measure of continuity as well,” Peters said. “We strive to be a learning organization, one that is capable of adaptation and improvement. At the same time, we remain committed to our long-term values and practices.” Peters, who is not a candidate in the search, highlighted longstanding practices including providing multi-year flexible funding, building relationships rooted in trust, openness, and mutual respect, and supporting ongoing program areas for decades.

Our commitment to equity and justice

Grantees asked how the foundation and our programs will continue to support equity and justice despite growing efforts to roll back progress. “We are, and we will remain committed to funding organizations that ensure all people, regardless of who they are and where they come from, have an opportunity to thrive,” Peters emphasized. “We know progress can face pushback, which is why in 2020 we structured our $150 million racial justice strategy as a decade-long strategy. It’s also why we invest in creating dialogue across differences, so more people understand that advancing racial justice is key to a society where all people, communities, and the planet flourish.”

Chief of Culture, Race, and Equity Charmaine Mercer explained that our racial justice strategy takes a holistic approach, making grants to strengthen the racial justice field, to multi-issue organizations, and in partnership with our programs, as well as supporting every Hewlett team in assessing and addressing diversity, equity, inclusion, and justice in our work. This has given teams an “opportunity to think more creatively about how they might advance justice,” Mercer said. Program Directors shared examples from different vantage points — from our Effective Philanthropy Group updating guidance for Hewlett program staff on how to include equity considerations in the strategy development process to our Gender Equity and Governance (GEG) Program shifting resources and decision-making power to those closest to problems and their solutions.

“In the last three years, we’ve gone from 25% of our program money being focused on local leader-led organizations [in East and West Africa and Mexico] to 42%,” said GEG Program Director Mallika Dutt. “And in our work to support reproductive equity in the United States, we’ve increased support for local and state organizations.” She added that, at the same time, the program is still committed to regional and global work: “Global transformation isn’t simply about supporting local leaders, it’s about transforming the power and voice of local leaders in creating global norms and participating in global public policy, as well as supporting global organizations.”

Environment Program Director Jonathan Pershing shared how support from our Western Conservation strategy has helped bring communities together to develop equitable solutions that benefit people and nature by the Klamath River on the California-Oregon border. There, local Tribes, sportspeople, private landowners, farmers, and conservationists worked together on the largest dam removal in U.S. history, restoring salmon fisheries and revitalizing the river. The “depth and diversity of community capacity is at the center,” said Pershing.

Strengthening democracy in turbulent times

A key topic on grantees’ minds was how Hewlett is navigating the 2024 U.S. election. A nonpartisan private charitable organization, the foundation takes no part in electioneering or advocating for specific candidates. But protecting democracy itself has been a key institutional focus since 2012. This year, our U.S. Democracy Program will continue “to defend, strengthen, and improve our democracy and do that in a nonpartisan way so that we’re building out as big and as durable a coalition as we can,” said Program Director Ali Noorani. He described how the foundation’s grantmaking, whether it’s advancing trustworthy elections or strengthening national governing institutions, will support organizations across the political spectrum working to cultivate a shared political community and build trust in the institutions that are the backbone of a durable, inclusive democracy.

Dutt added, in the GEG Program, “We’re paying very close attention to the millions of people around the world who are going into the election process because there are very serious threats to equity, to democratic institutions, to many of the things that we deeply care about.” She highlighted the work grantee partners are leading in Mexico and the African continent to ensure governments are responsive to people’s needs and aspirations and improve policymaking through the effective use of evidence.

Grantees also asked about the impact of artificial intelligence and journalism on democracy. “We see the threats associated with AI as a vehicle for disinformation, but we also see the opportunity to use AI to restore faith in democracy by improving government services,” Noorani said. The program is funding research, content generation, and AI training for grantees in 2024 to inform post-election strategies. “We’re trying to figure out as much as we can so that in 2025, we can have a really clear answer of how AI is informing, guiding, and driving our strategies,” he said.

On the role of journalism, Chief Communications Officer Vidya Krishnamurthy explained that we’re investing in informed and engaged communities across all our issue areas because we know robust media and information ecosystems are critical to making progress — whether it’s safeguarding democracy, reducing pervasive inequities, or tackling climate change. “All of the work that we do, which is focused on making sure people have an opportunity to thrive, and communities can come together across differences to solve their problems, assumes that people are getting the information they need, they have a chance to be heard, they have a chance to understand the solutions, and have a voice in forming those resilient and enduring solutions,” she said.

Tackling climate change and advancing community-led conservation

Grantees were also interested in hearing updates on our Environment Program’s work to address the dual biodiversity and climate crises. When asked about trade-offs between our clean energy and conservation strategies, Pershing talked about the urgent need to make progress on climate mitigation solutions while ensuring it isn’t done at the expense of communities or vulnerable ecosystems. “This tension is one that we’re going to really try to work on and is part of our strategy going forward,” he said.

On the program’s climate strategy, “We are trying to approach it from a couple of places,” Pershing said. “At one end, a great deal of our focus has been on how to change public policy.” He described how this involves engaging decision-makers and civil society — local communities, businesses, labor groups, faith organizations, and others affected by the policy decisions — to advance solutions that reduce emissions while strengthening community well-being. “The second dimension is supporting universities or think tanks so they can produce the research and analytics needed to make smart choices about our future clean energy economy,” he said.

Embracing trust and being adaptive — especially after the pandemic

A number of questions from grantees across issue areas came up about our approach to philanthropy and how we’re supporting grantees in our shared work to imagine a better future, including making changes in the wake of the pandemic.

This includes ensuring grantees have the resources they need to invest in themselves. For over two decades, our Organizational Effectiveness program has provided grantees with additional support for organizational strengthening needs. In response to the increasing challenges nonprofits face, our Effective Philanthropy team recently refreshed its strategy to focus on strengthening grantees’ resilience and adaptability, explained Program Director Jehan Velji. The team is also piloting new approaches, like capacity coaches, financial coaching, and wellness grants. Velji encouraged grantees to talk with their program officers to learn more about the program.

Answering a question about philanthropist MacKenzie Scott’s approach of providing large, unrestricted grants with minimal reporting requirements, Velji called it a welcome development. She noted that Hewlett has long been a proponent of multi-year flexible funding and general operating support. Last year, more than two-thirds of the foundation’s total grantmaking was awarded as flexible funds. Velji said the foundation would conduct another grantee survey later this year and continue to gather feedback on ways to improve grant practices.

In response to a question about meaningfully supporting post-pandemic learning, Education Program Director Kent McGuire argued that we need to think beyond tutoring to help students rebound from pandemic opportunity loss. He highlighted four approaches: focus on acceleration instead of remediation; leverage new partnerships with community organizations formed during COVID; support student’s social and emotional health through arts and culture education; and renew civic purpose in public schools so kids have the tools to address society’s most pressing problems, including those exacerbated by the pandemic.

Our Performing Arts Program, which has been a part of Hewlett’s grantmaking since its earliest days, is focused on being a steadfast partner as the sector recovers from the pandemic while embracing new approaches to grantmaking that shift power to communities. Program Director Emiko Ono shared results from a recent evaluation, showing how the pandemic exacerbated issues that had challenged the performing arts sector. “There’s a lot of social awareness around the disparities that have been with us for a long time, and groups are doing a lot to try to bob and weave with the new challenges but also reposition themselves to be of even better service going forward.” These findings will help the program consider how to step into its work more boldly going forward, Ono said. She described investments in organizations that are providing infrastructure for artists and communities. “These are different than the performing arts centers that we’ve funded in the past. They may be online platforms, they may be community arts centers and other ways that people are coming together and really leaning on their networks.” She described these arts and culture infrastructure grants as investing in “ways that people organize themselves so that they can lock arms and be stronger together.”


Thank you to everyone who participated. Please feel free to reach out with any questions or ideas. We look forward to continuing to learn with and from you and working together to build a world where people and the planet thrive.

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