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Eleanor Hewlett Gimon remembers the day she finally got an answer out of her father Bill Hewlett about what he did for a living. “He said, ‘I make measuring equipment. And I was so happy to go back and tell the third-graders that my father made rulers!”
She had no reason to suspect otherwise. Her father, unassuming and genial, was home for dinner each night at six. He loved to quiz her and her siblings about what they knew and didn’t know. He handed out math problems at the dinner table along with the peas and carrots. If somebody didn’t know the meaning of a word, he challenged them to go look it up in the dictionary and report its meaning back to the rest of the family.
“My dad was a real family man. He was like the Pied Piper. All the children followed him wherever he went,” Eleanor recalls.
There sure didn’t seem to be money to burn in the Hewlett home. Eleanor, the eldest of five, taught herself to sew to augment her wardrobe beyond the one outfit she received each fall and spring. Unbeknownst to young Eleanor, though, her father, through his company, Hewlett-Packard, was amassing vast riches — first thousands then millions then billions of dollars. And seemingly as quickly as he earned it, Bill Hewlett gave it away. Today, the legacy of Bill Hewlett and his wife Flora lies not only in their five children, twelve grandchildren and one great-grandchild, but also in the fact that these people and their spouses equally, intelligently and passionately continue to give away the family riches.
“My parents always had the idea that any wealth they accumulated would be given away,” Eleanor says. She is in the sitting room of her Belle Haven home in Greenwich. It’s midmorning, and she has just come from a visit with her three daughters who live in New York City. Over the past few years, Eleanor and her children — Nathalie, Marianne, Juliette and Eric, all graduates of Greenwich High School — have found new direction in their lives as a result of the Flora Family Foundation.
Formed in 1998, the foundation has an unusual composition: All of Bill and Flora Hewlett’s children and grandchildren — as well as their spouses — have a say in determining how to give away the foundation’s endowment. The FFF is predicated on the belief that each descendant of the Hewletts “has an obligation to go beyond the narrow confines of his or her personal interests and be mindful of the broader concerns of humanity,” according to its bylaws.
“With most family foundations, you’ve got a donor who wants to start giving back; he creates a family foundation and becomes chairman of the board. Typically the donor, the ‘father’ if you will, directs the program and directs the strategy, and everyone else has a secondary role,” says FFF president Steve Toben, who is not a member of the Hewlett family. “There is a clear hierarchy.”
Not with the Hewletts, however. “My observation is that this family does not have issues of power operating in any way, shape or form,” Toben says. “The proof is in the governing structure that we have. Power is a nonissue because you don’t have any more power than the last spouse who married into the family. You serve on the board for only two years. You’ve got the same amount of money (to give away) that the last spouse in the door got.”
Eleanor’s brother Walter created the FFF. He had been involved in the Hewlett Foundation (which his father created and funded), and he knew there were many worthwhile causes that didn’t meet Hewlett Foundation mandates. It was not unusual for Bill Hewlett to fund these initiatives out of his own pocket. When Bill’s health began to fail, Walter wondered what would happen to these efforts. He also wondered how the tradition of philanthropy could be carried on by his father’s grandchildren.
Walter recruited Stanford University professor Herant Katchadourian, who is a board member of the Hewlett Foundation, to help set up a new organization. The charismatic Katchadourian, part cheerleader and part showman, convinced, cajoled and corralled every single Hewlett descendant into joining the FFF. The first year, Katchadourian had to do a lot of arm-twisting to get all family members to fund a project, foundation records report. But not anymore. In 2004 the board awarded 143 grants totaling $4.8 million from all family members and their spouses.
There’s a not-so-funny joke that goes around in family foundation circles. It goes like this: “What is the Golden Rule? The person with the gold rules!” This doesn’t find an audience with the Hewlett grandchildren, who award more money to others each year than they earn themselves. Many family members go beyond writing checks to visiting sites, arranging meetings and bringing in experts to help move a project along. Each grant the FFF awards must be sponsored by a family member, who writes a sponsor statement to accompany the request; grant proposals are by invitation only.
“It’s always such fun to see what people support. When I read these, I get so excited!” says Eleanor. She is relaxing on a green velvet couch, which nearly conceals her grandson’s tricycle and the toys stacked behind it. Eleanor thumbs through a binder, perusing pages and pages of support letters, chuckling and smiling as if she were looking through a photo album. The wedding band of her late husband, Dr. Jean-Paul Gimon, dangles on a simple gold chain around her neck. Eleanor and Jean-Paul were married for nearly forty years before his death in 2005. Eleanor reads a letter from her son Eric, a physicist in California who is interested in alternative sources of fuel and supports such an endeavor in Kansas. A note from her nephew, a budding astronaut, supports the Lakota Fund and a monument to Crazy Horse. The memo from her sister-in-law and fourteen-year-old niece endorses “platform schools” in India, which the pair visited at the niece’s insistence. Class is conducted on train platforms for the children of beggars who work the trains. There’s correspondence from Eleanor’s daughter Marianne, who traveled to brothels in Bombay to research women’s projects.
The key to the foundation’s success, all agree, is that each family member funds efforts she or he cares deeply about. Often family members team up to cofund each other’s projects. Says Nathalie, “We really get to know what people’s interests are. It’s also wonderful for the people who marry into the family. It’s helped everyone get to know one another.”
FFF members are encouraged to give overseas, which is unusual for American foundations, where only 3 percent of all private philanthropy is directed abroad. The FFF ranks eighty-seventh in international giving out of more than 65,000 U.S. foundations, Toben says. In addition to funding individual projects, the FFF grants one million dollars each year to programs that address poverty in the world. Family trips are organized around researching such efforts. “We find an organization that’s working and respected and we work through them,” Eleanor reports. “It’s really a wonderful story. I don’t think there’s any way you can get young people to truly understand these problems unless you go there.”
Marianne Gimon has lived and taught in China and Mexico, and Juliette Gimon has done the same in Ecuador. It is not unusual for all three daughters to be on different continents working on behalf of social change, cultural programs or health initiatives. Eleanor herself has traveled quite a bit since the FFF’s inception. “It’s very stimulating,” she admits. Her daughters believe the foundation has given their mother a real sense of the difference she can make in the world.