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Paul Brest Is All About Outcomes

If Paul Brest had his way, he would have majored in music. But his dream was dashed when his music professor told him he could “become a musicologist or do something [he] might be good at.” Brest chose the latter and went to law school, eventually serving as the Dean of Stanford Law School for 30 years.

But at night and on weekends, he pulled out the viola, playing chamber music with the likes of Walter Hewlett, Condoleezza Rice, and other members of the Hewlett Foundation Board. When they asked him to meet with them in 2000, an unsuspecting Brest agreed. And so began an exciting new era for Brest and Hewlett together.

Under Brest’s 12-year tenure as President, he ushered the Foundation through a period of growth—to 100 employees and a $7 billion endowment. Bringing sharp problem-solving and decision-making skills, Brest instilled an outcomes orientation across all programs, realizing especially impressive outcomes in the areas of conservation and climate change. Key to achieving outcomes is having the right people and conditions for work. Brest was unafraid to spend dollars on capacity building, organizational effectiveness, general operating support, and new ideas—areas where many other philanthropists and foundations often draw the line.

A big proponent of sharing mistakes, Brest introduced a Worst Grant Contest, which has become enormously popular at Hewlett. He’s also come to endorse staff term limits as a way to keep ideas fresh and relationships professional.

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The advice for somebody who is considering doing philanthropy, whether through a foundation or otherwise, is first, find goals that you're passionate about. You have to be passionate about making a difference in the world in some way. Once you've done that, don't lose the heart, but become relentlessly analytic and outcome-oriented to make sure that you actually make the difference that your passion says you should make.

I think philanthropy has an opportunity to take risks that almost no other part of our society can. I think - in dealing with social and environmental problems - that we can play a role in undertaking strategies that have a very high expected value. That is, if you multiply the benefit [and] the risk, it's a very large result. [There are] ones where the risk is pretty great, the likelihood of success is pretty low, but the value of success is huge; I think of our work in climate [change] as paradigmatic in that respect. And no institution has the ability to do that compared to philanthropy because we don't depend of funds from other people. There's no government regulation that punishes us for failure. So if philanthropy doesn't take risks, no other part of society will.

The Hewlett Foundation is somewhat of an outlier for large foundations in the amount of general operating support we provide. And the rationale is that if there's an alignment of our interests and the work of the grantee, and if we have confidence in their leadership, then a grant that is unrestricted and allows the organization the autonomy to use its resources as best it can, works in everybody's interest. I've never understood a foundation that refuses to pay overhead, although there are quite a few, because they're free-riding on foundations that are willing to provide general operating support.