The Hewlett Foundation Way

william and flora hewlett
A photo of William and Flora Hewlett, who established the Hewlett Foundation in 1966.

Editor’s note: This is the fifth of six reflections by Ruth Levine, Director of the Global Development and Population Program, before her eight-year term ends. The first post was “Closing the Gap Between Social Movements and Policy Change.” The second was “Strength in Numbers: Taking a Field-Level View.” The third and fourth were “All Happy Grantees are Alike: They Focus on Ideas, Interactions, and Important Details” and “How Can We Drive Change When We’re Menlo Parked?

My relationship with the Hewlett Foundation began 18 years ago, when the foundation’s Population Program gave the Center for Global Development its first grant. The program officer, Tamara Fox, asked great questions to me and other staff about both successes and disappointments, invited reflections about what the foundation could do to help the fledgling CGD be a stronger organization, and (importantly!) recommended a grant that provided several years of flexible funding. The program associate we were working with, Kim Brehm, was unfailingly patient as she helped us get all our paperwork squared away, and walked us through the mysterious-to-us proposal development process. I thanked my lucky stars that we happened to be working with such excellent counterparts.

The grant provided the resources for research and policy engagement that eventually grew into the Center’s Global Health Policy Program; it also gave CGD the funding to experiment with a participatory model of policy research that brought together academics, practitioners, and members of the policy community to develop specific policy options to solve collective action problems. It was not the largest grant we received, but it was among the most high-impact.

During the nine years I worked at CGD, we received several grants from the Hewlett Foundation, and I had the chance to work with other program officers (Linda Frey, Kevin Bohrer, Helena Choi, Lynn Murphy, and Dana Schmidt), program associates (Denise Robichau, Nathalie Scholl, and Lilly Giraldo), and program directors (Sara Seims and Smita Singh). To a person, Hewlett program staff were smart, humble, open, and kind. Each interaction felt like an opportunity for collaboration and co-creation; they knew when to probe with tough questions, and when to just back off and let us get our work done. And I kept thinking, “Wow, our luck is holding up. Hewlett keeps sending their best folks to us.”

Flash forward to 2011, after I’d been offered the job as program director of the Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program by then-president Paul Brest: On the flight from Baltimore to San Francisco, I decided it might be a good idea to do a little homework. I had with me a copy of the book “Bill and Dave”, and spent the six-hour flight reading it. By somewhere over Nebraska, I’d learned about how the partnership between Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard changed the world through their leadership of the company that germinated the seeds of the modern tech industry. Their world-changing work was not limited to their engineering marvels, although those inventions were pretty marvelous. (Fun fact: their early resistance-tuned audio oscillator made it possible for Disney’s “Fantasia” to be a breakthrough movie musical.) Their secret sauce was in their approach to management—the “HP way.”  Through the recounting in the book, I got a little glimpse of what can happen when leaders create space and support for brilliant ideas to come to life. By the time we landed at SFO, I was thinking how proud I was to be working at a foundation that had a bit of a connection to those original achievements.

Soon after I arrived in Menlo Park, I realized that the people with whom we’d worked were part of a larger and remarkable team. The vice president at the time, Susan Bell, made it clear, in fact, that grantmaking and all that goes into it was—and is—a team sport. Our investments group, led at that time by Laurie Hoagland and now by Ana Marshall, manages the ups and downs of the endowment so we have the money to fulfill our commitments to grantees. Our finance team, led for many years by Susan Ketcham and now by Suresh Bhat, takes care of the numbers on the other side of the ledger, making sure we track what we spend on administrative expenses and grants; importantly, they’re the ones who cut the checks. Our Effective Philanthropy Group, with Fay Twersky at the helm, creates light-touch frameworks, guidelines, and resources for strategy development, monitoring, evaluation, and organizational effectiveness. Our grants management team, led by Sara Davis, and legal colleagues, under the guidance of Liz Peters, work side-by-side with program staff to ensure compliance with the laws. Vidya Krishnamurthy and our communications colleagues help us think through how the right messages and the right media can help us achieve our program goals, support grantees’ own work, and uphold our commitment to transparency. Our facilities team managed by Joan Garretson, human resources now under the leadership of Judy Parkman (and formerly led by Jean McCall), and information technology department led by Patrick Collins cover the all-important basics for a 100-plus-person organization with a can-do attitude and a near-obsessive attention to detail. From that first day, I found that each person was dedicated to a common mission—and, even better, I found an esprit de corps.

By the time I’d met my colleagues and seen the teamwork during the early weeks at the Hewlett Foundation, I was beginning to suspect that my experience as a grantee was due to far more than luck. Then, at my first board meeting, in July 2011, it all came together. In every discussion, it was clear that the board, then chaired by Bill Hewlett’s son Walter, took the original legacy from the Hewlett-Packard partnership very seriously. In every aspect of the board’s work, I could see the “HP way” I’d read about:

  • Trust and respect for individuals
  • High achievement and excellent performance
  • Uncompromising integrity
  • Teamwork
  • Flexibility and innovation

Sitting in a board room, looking out through the pine trees to the Diablo Range and listening to a discussion among board members that was filled with curiosity and humor, I saw that the foundation’s leadership expects the staff to live a set of values—values instilled by the founders and now interpreted in our Guiding Principles. Our work together and with grantees derives from those values, and from an understanding that organizations thrive when decisions and accountability are placed with those who have the most relevant knowledge. This is personified by the foundation’s current board chair, Steve Neal, and president, Larry Kramer, who resist the temptation to micromanage, and at the same time, provide unlimited wisdom and support. All of this is through intention and not chance: By carrying on a set of values and practices that were established long ago, employees can be our best selves and grantees can thrive.

The articulation of and adherence to the Hewlett Foundation’s values is why transitions are smooth. New staff are selected precisely because they have a basic inclination toward the way we work here. Once situated, they are supported to work with colleagues, with other funders, and most of all, with grantees in ways that simultaneously prioritize shared goals and shared humanity. I have no doubt that my successor, Dana Hovig, will find as wonderful home here as I have for the past eight years—and will bring the experience, ideas, and temperament to make it even better.

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