Paul Brest took the reins at the Hewlett Foundation in early 2000, after spending three decades on the law school faculty at Stanford. Throughout his life, he has emphasized a combination of theory and practice. At Stanford, this meant urging colleagues to start a “theory workshop” and recruiting philosophers, historians, and social scientists to the faculty, while simultaneously stressing the need for students to learn practical lawyering skills. At Hewlett, it has meant debating the proper nature of philanthropy with peers and campaigning for donors to prefer general operating support over narrowly targeted funding. (Hewlett gives about half its dollars to general operating support.)
A graduate of Swarthmore and Harvard Law School, Brest worked for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund in Jackson, Mississipi, litigating civil rights cases in the late 1960s before clerking for the U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Harlan.. He joined the Stanford faculty in 1969, where he focused on constitutional law and decisionmaking, and was named dean in 1987. While dean, Brest set fundraising records for the law school with a $115 million campaign. Even now, he teaches a law school course in problem solving, decision making, and professional judgment on the side and a constitutional law textbook of his is still in print. He also plays the viola in a quartet with Walter Hewlett, son of the foundation’s founders, William and Flora Hewlett.
William Hewlett was the co-founder of the scientific instrument company Hewlett-Packard. With William’s death in 2001, the foundation began to see its assets rise considerably; it now ranks in the top ten nationwide and in 2003 gave away a record $254 million, up from about $120 million in 2001. Brest has insisted that “foundations should be society’s risk-takers. That means not just giving to the well-established universities, museums, and symphonies.” At the same time, the Jacksonville, Florida native has praised the foundation’s “low-key, nonbureaucratic approach.” Both Brest and William Hewlett have been known for their own low-key styles, demonstrating the sort of peaceful conflict resolution that the foundation has long made one of its institutional concentrations. But as Brest shows in this recent interview, he doesn’t shy away from conflict when offering a frank critique of his new field of philanthropy.
PHILANTHROPY: What issues in philanthropy most trouble you?
MR. BREST: What most troubles me are all the dollars that are just spinning wheels, where either the funder or the grantee lacks clarity about their objectives. It reminds me of the old saw, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.” An awful lot of philanthropy is in the “any road” mode.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve often spoken about the inherent temptation to be satisfied with one’s good intentions.
MR. BREST: Yes, and not to focus strategically on the desired effects and whether one is achieving them. More and more, I think that the most important role evaluation can play for foundations is to sharpen our sense of what we’re trying to accomplish, because by thinking about what you’re trying to assess, you’re forced to think about what you’re trying to do.
PHILANTHROPY: What about the difficulty of evaluating things that are not easily or precisely measurable?
MR. BREST: Even to describe what it is you’re trying to measure forces a degree of clarity which I think is wanting in many funders and in many of the grantees that we fund. You should begin by trying to define quantitative measures in order to press yourself to think as hard as possible, and then sometimes you will realize that you just can’t do it. It’s O.K. if you end up saying, “I’ve done my best; we really can’t get quantitative outcomes here. Now let’s look for the next best thing.” But it seems flabby not to try.
PHILANTHROPY: What in your foundation’s work would you point to with special pride?
MR. BREST: One thing would be the major role the Hewlett Foundation played in creating the field of conflict resolution, a field which we are now going to exit. We have a sense that after roughly 20 years, we’ve had a significant impact both domestically and to some extent internationally, and the field can go on without us. The Foundation can also be proud of its tradition of providing general operating support to performing arts organizations in the Bay Area—especially at a time when other sources of funding have diminished.
And then there are works in progress. For example, one project showing good results but by no means done is our work with other foundations to improve instruction in the San Diego school district.
PHILANTHROPY: Why San Diego?
MR. BREST: Because it had leaders with a good plan to which they were deeply committed and which now seems to be succeeding.
PHILANTHROPY: In law, you were a major scholar, and administrator. Then you became head of the Hewlett Foundation and soon became a leading figure in the discipline of philanthropy. Would the opposite career path have been possible? Could you have spent a dozen years as a foundation president, then become a law school dean and been as quickly taken seriously in that discipline? Is there a difference in the depth of the two disciplines?
MR. BREST: Let me not put it in terms of depth but in terms of practice. There’s a difference between doing scholarship and doing the kind of applied, on-the-ground work required in any practical field. One way to think about it is to ask, “Would running a foundation prepare one for a life of scholarship?” No. But then just being a scholar doesn’t prepare one for running a large foundation. I’m flattered you think I know something about philanthropy, but what really prepared me for my current job was 12 years of administration at Stanford.
A lot of what goes into running a foundation is practice rather than theory, and what most intrigues me in philanthropy is searching for a bit of theoretical depth to the practice—considering the issues that face us from the point of view of an academic who’s been thinking about public policy for 30 years. Still, the administrative part of the job shouldn’t be understated. You and I know very smart scholars who make you wonder how they manage to tie their shoelaces in the morning.
PHILANTHROPY: There are beginning to be doctoral programs in philanthropic studies, and some observers ask whether enough scholarship and theory exist in the field to justify such projects?
MR. BREST: A doctoral program? I must say I would be skeptical at this point. There is a tremendous need for a mixture of theoretical academic work and empirical work in this area, but I’m not sure there is an intellectual discipline of philanthropy. Much work is being done on evaluation in schools of public policy, education schools, and statistics departments, and I could imagine a public policy program drawing together the root disciplines that contribute to philanthropy. But I’m not sure what a graduate of a doctoral program in philanthropy would do. It’s certainly not a program that would prepare you to go out and run a foundation. To be successful in the foundation world, one should have had some other experiences first.
PHILANTHROPY: Many of your writings deal with questions of diversity, affirmative action, and the need for unity. Is there enough intellectual diversity in philanthropy and academe today?
MR. BREST: I’ve thought more about this question in academia—are there important arguments that are either not being made or lack enough voices to be heard? It’s always hard to know what’s missing. My sense is that in terms of the conventional liberal/conservative spectrum, there is plenty of diversity in academia, at least in the fields I know. The students and faculty at the law schools I know best tend to be liberal. But in the last 15 or 20 years, we’ve seen a significant increase in conservative voices, and the Federalist Society both reflects that and has significantly contributed to it.
In the world of philanthropy, I just don’t know. It was very helpful for me to go to the last Philanthropy Roundtable annual meeting. There was much that I liked, and one thing that was eye-opening for me was to meet so many people from small foundations. Most of my dealings since coming to Hewlett have been with other large foundations with whom we work. My sense from The Roundtable meeting is that there’s a wonderful diversity among the smaller foundations. There may not be much in the way of racial diversity, but if I think about these small foundations and other ones I know, they have diversity in many, many dimensions.
PHILANTHROPY: The number of American foundations is exploding and isn’t likely to slow down. Some people are disturbed this will mean a loss of professionalism in philanthropy.
MR. BREST: I don’t think this is a field with any significant professional standards; so I wouldn’t talk about a decline in the field. It is only a bit of an exaggeration to say it’s a field held together by a section of the tax code, although there are various efforts, which I strongly support, to develop guidelines about what good grantmaking entails.
Again, it’s not like a field of scholarship with fairly well-defined boundaries. Nor does it have a scholarly field’s vigorous peer review. If other scholars don’t like what you write, they write critical articles in return, and while if you have tenure only your ego may be hurt, ego matters. Every field of scholarship has a huge amount of this kind of close-knit interchange. But what makes it so hard to professionalize grantmaking is that anyone with enough money to start a foundation—and you don’t need much—can engage in his or her own style of grantmaking, regardless of what anyone else thinks. I’m not saying that’s bad, just that ours is a field very different from, say, medicine or law, and I’m not sure that what professionalism exists would in any way decline by the addition of more foundations, because the level of professionalism in the field as a whole is negligible.
PHILANTHROPY: You’ve written about the need to share learning in the field and to learn from failure. What would you point to for people who want to learn from Hewlett’s experiences and failures?
MR. BREST: We’ve just revamped our website, and though we’re still in the early phases of putting existing materials on the site, one of our goals is to share publicly what knowledge we have, whether of successes or failures, or simply about the fields in which we work. For example, we started to develop a program dealing with disadvantaged youth; we ended up, because of the stock market’s decline, not implementing the program, but we put up a considerable amount of research done in pursuit of that idea.
As for learning from successes and failures, let me tell you about something we did just last week, when we prepared the docket for our January board meeting: We had the first-ever contest within the foundation for the worst or most disappointing grant from which we’ve learnt the most. I think it’s important for us to learn how to speak the language of failure. Foundations are awfully good at patting themselves on the back; most organizations are. But we must learn to talk about failure, especially as an important opportunity to learn. So the contest wasn’t just for the worst grant; it was for the worst grant from which we learned the most, and as we learn how to talk about failures internally, I would hope we can also talk about them publicly.
One thing we learned from our contest is that almost always when the grant failed, we and the grantee shared responsibility. It wasn’t necessarily the grantee’s fault. To the extent that we and other foundations want to become more candid with the outside world about failure, we have to figure out how to discuss it in a way that doesn’t unfairly injure grantees. I think, over time, we’ll figure it out.
PHILANTHROPY: In your writing, you stress the importance of having a theory of change to guide one’s grantmaking in a field, and you note that a field often has competing theories of change. What is the theory of change in Hewlett’s well-known environmental work?
MR. BREST: Let me give you a recent example that I would put in the category of risky investments, in the sense that the likelihood of the desired outcome was far short of 100 percent. The Packard Foundation and we have supported the Energy Foundation’s work with the Chinese government to develop automobile efficiency standards. You may have read in the papers recently that China tentatively adopted some standards; that’s because of the Energy Foundation’s work. There are at least two separate theories of change involved. One is a scientific theory of change—that man-made carbon dioxide emissions are not good for the environment because they cause global warming. Moreover, air pollution is bad for people’s health.
The more complicated theory of change is, “What strategy could induce Chinese regulators to develop efficiency standards for cars?” Based on its extensive knowledge of the government, the Energy Foundation formulated a theory that involved many steps. All of these have been completed, but the risk remains that automobile manufacturers will pressure the Chinese government to lower their standards.
PHILANTHROPY: Hewlett has a history of supporting community-based conservation in the West, and the theory there seems to be that partnerships with private land owners are well suited to conserve open spaces. Other people would claim that better theories of change require having the government either own the land or stringently regulate its use.
MR. BREST: There are two different theories at work here: One is that consensual efforts at conservation—not necessarily to the exclusion of regulation—can often lead to long-term buy-in that regulation doesn’t always produce. The other theory involves a participatory ideal that says it is good in itself to have decisions emanate from the interested parties. I’m not against all regulation, but participation can be good at strengthening communities.
PHILANTHROPY: Education is another major program area for Hewlett, one where theories of change would seem to be both important and conflicting. What theory of change guides you here?
MR. BREST: There’s not a single theory of change by any means, and I suspect that most theories of change in our programs parallel rather than conflict with others. For example, if you take elementary and secondary education, one theory of change we believe in for public schools is that good results will come from a data-driven process in which superintendents, principals, and teachers receive timely, regular feedback on how students are doing. Another theory would stress the need to ensure that teachers have enough time to prepare for their work. These sort of basic good management practices are critical to any enterprise, yet have been sorely lacking in education.
PHILANTHROPY: Some education donors would argue that a theory of change needs to go beyond the conventional, existing school system. Just as you urge bringing more business-like practices to philanthropy, they urge more business-like competition in K-12 education.
MR. BREST: Even most advocates of school vouchers have not given up on traditional public schools entirely; so I don’t see our theory of change in conflict. I suppose you could say that the decision to invest in public schools rather than vouchers itself reflects some judgment about the best use of our funds. But I don’t see a conflict, I see an alternative investment strategy.
PHILANTHROPY: Hewlett has also participated in the Annenberg Challenge for the Bay area with two five-year grants for tens of millions of dollars.
MR. BREST: Yes, shortly after I came to the Foundation, we renewed our grant to the Bay Area School Reform Cooperative. That reform effort’s original theory of change did not involve district-wide reform, which struck me as a dubious strategy. The renewal, on the other hand, did involve district-wide reforms.
I would add that the grant has been difficult to evaluate. The Fordham Foundation evaluated some of the districts Annenberg tried to help, but not the Bay Area. We have been trying to do some evaluation, but it’s been hard because evaluation wasn’t built in at the beginning of the grant. My sense is that we’re coming up with a kind of shrug of the shoulders—who knows? Mike Smith, our current education program director, is working hard with smart evaluators trying to retrofit evaluation to the grant, but it’s not easy.
The main point I’d make is that a decision to invest in one school reform rather than another just means you think there’s some potential value there. It doesn’t conflict with other strategies; it’s just where you put your bet. A rough analogy in health care would be whether to invest in AIDS prevention or in medicine that cures the disease.
Let me say something about higher education. One of my all-time favorite grants is our substantial and continuing grant to MIT, together with the Mellon Foundation, for MIT’s OpenCourseWare. They now have several hundred courses up on the Web, and the material is being used in all sorts of ways, including by universities in developing countries that don’t have these sorts of materials. The feedback to MIT has been very strong and positive.
PHILANTHROPY: Speaking of the Third World, can we move to Hewlett’s theories of change for its population control program?
MR. BREST: Our program has never been called “population control” but “population”; that’s not a trivial difference. The primary goal has been to provide family planning information and devices for people who want it. The program is based largely on what is called “unmet need”; that is, people who want to do family planning, primarily in developing countries, but do not have the resources.
PHILANTHROPY: Hewlett’s literature on the program suggests the theory of change is that reducing or eliminating population growth globally, especially in countries with high rates of increase, will improve everyone’s quality of life.
MR. BREST: No, I don’t think that’s right. It’s a much more nuanced theory. The fundamental theory of change is that unwanted children and unwanted population growth is bad for families and for society.
PHILANTHROPY: On Hewlett’s website, the goals mentioned include lowering fertility rates toward what’s “needed for population stabilization,” with “priority” to be given to countries “contributing the most to population growth.”
MR. BREST: That’s right. You have to make choices, and the best place to put your money is where the problem is the worst.
PHILANTHROPY: Doesn’t your theory of change presume that drastically reducing population growth will reduce poverty and improve the quality of life?
MR. BREST: I would say that’s a theory of change; it’s not the only theory of change but an all-things-being-equal theory of change. For example, in a number of parts of the world, population growth is so far beneath replacement levels that one can foresee serious social and economic problems. It’s not as if the solution to all the world’s ills is fewer people. Japan, for instance, is facing problems with an aging population that lacks younger people coming into the workforce and, and the difficulty is exacerbated by its opposition to immigration. So our program has never presumed that overpopulation is the only problem. It depends very much on what region you’re in.
A core part of the program emphasizes women’s reproductive health and reproductive rights as ends in themselves, as well as helping to lower population in areas where it is too high. It’s a very individual rights-oriented strategy.
PHILANTHROPY: What are some of the biggest risk-takings at Hewlett during your tenure?
MR. BREST: There are at least two kinds of risk-taking. One which every foundation takes is the risk that one’s hoped-for outcome of the grant doesn’t happen. You expect, say, to improve the achievement of kids in the San Diego schools, and after you’ve done the evaluation, it turns out that the outcomes don’t look different. That’s the major risk, the equivalent of the business risk of an investment failing.
The other kind of risk is when you risk the foundation’s good name by doing something politically risky that could hurt your reputation. I expect there are times when our reputation may be hurt, but we don’t see ourselves as a politically active foundation as such. That’s not the major kind of risk we face.
As for the first kind of risk, my guess is that huge numbers of foundation grants are risky in that sense, but they’re not thought of that way because, to go back to where we started, funders are often not clear enough about what they’re trying to accomplish to know whether they succeeded or not.