For nearly three decades, the Walton Family Foundation has worked to solve some of society’s biggest challenges and create opportunity for people and communities in need. We spoke with Board Chair Carrie Walton Penner and Executive Director Kyle Peterson about the foundation’s growth, the role of family and the importance of staying true to the philanthropic vision of Sam and Helen Walton.
Carrie, you took on a new leadership role last year at a time of significant growth within the foundation. What are the biggest changes you have seen?
Carrie: Three generations in, our family’s engagement is stronger and more strategic than ever. We have restructured how the foundation is governed to act more urgently and effectively. Now we have five family members on the board – my aunt Alice, my brother Ben, my father Rob, my cousin Steuart and myself. Other family members serve the foundation through membership on committees.
Kyle, what is your biggest impression since joining the foundation as executive director?
Kyle: The foundation is on very solid footing. We have an organization that is extremely functional. Now we are eager to build on that and seize new opportunities.
There is a pivot occurring with this foundation. It has been around for nearly thirty years, but it feels very entrepreneurial. There is a broad range of family members bringing new ideas, which is super healthy.
The foundation is tackling significant issues – from K-12 education to the environment and improving quality of life in regions like the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. Could you talk about the magnitude of those challenges?
Carrie: When we began thinking about working on national K-12 education, we looked at it in the context of identifying the big social problems that needed to be addressed: How do you improve education for the kids most in need, the children who are being underserved? That’s also the approach we take with the environmental issues we work on, such as fresh water and fisheries.
Kyle: The idea of the moment in philanthropy is around ‘reaching scale.’ Foundations used to think more in terms of just finding great organizations to invest in. The new idea is to look at big issues at the systems level and at scale. It is a fantastic development, but it is also very hard to do. This family is doing that. This foundation feels very comfortable taking on those big issues.
Carrie, three generations of the Walton family have shaped this foundation. That’s unique in the world of philanthropy. What has stayed the same? What is different?
Carrie: We had family meetings the entire time I was growing up. As a child, I would come in, participate in the meeting and fall asleep on the rug in my grandparents’ living room. My grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my dad – they welcomed any questions because this was something that we were doing together. We had significant conversations about giving back. Today, we are far bigger and more formal. Our meetings are now in a conference room instead of the living room. But we still try to be open and welcoming to anyone who wants to be involved.
Kyle: I’ve been impressed by the family’s deep commitment to learning by getting into the field for visits to the communities where the foundation works. Those visits are a great way to understand firsthand the challenges people are facing.
Carrie: It has always been a critical piece of who we are, and how we stay grounded in the real purpose of the work. It is about the people. Many of us remember a family visit to Galveston in April 2010. We were on a shrimping boat, learning about some new ways to catch shrimp and reduce the amount of bycatch. We learned about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill maybe 100 miles from where we were. We realized the incredible impact this event would have on the livelihood of those fishermen.
Because we were there when that occurred, we were able to see the impact. We were able to use the relationships – with partners in fisheries across the region – to begin working on mitigating some of the damage, as well as bring focus to long-term wetlands restoration.
What’s next for the foundation?
Carrie: We will continue to think and do big things. Our foundation is more effective in tackling large-scale challenges than ever. We have a great team of professionals. We have a strong feedback loop within the family to make sure we get the best ideas on how to give back and to ensure lasting engagement. In fact, the fourth generation is starting to get involved. The whole family is proud of that, and I think that is exactly what my grandparents envisioned.
Read the full story at blog.waltonfamilyfoundation.org >