Ever since Sam and Helen Walton founded the Walton Family Foundation in 1987, the foundation has worked in diverse communities to help create greater access to opportunity. Our 2025 Strategy explicitly prioritizes diversity, equity and inclusion as one of three shared goals we consider central to advancing our mission. As we continue this vital work, I sat down with Board Chair Annie Proietti to talk about the past, present and future of DEI at the foundation.
Tanya: How do you think about diversity, equity and inclusion – and why is it so important to the foundation’s philanthropy?
Annie: I believe DEI is a catalyst for innovation, creativity and problem solving because it embraces and celebrates our differences. Then it puts them to work by using our unique insights and experiences to solve big challenges. That’s why we deeply embed DEI into all the foundation’s work. It is a lens that everyone has when we are making decisions about how we operate, both internally as an organization and in how we work with our partners and grantees.
Tanya: I think about the work in the same way. It’s so important to take a holistic approach to diversity, equity and inclusion. Done well, DEI is a change process that, as you say, becomes embedded in an organization. It’s not a list of things that you tick off in your programs and activities. I like to talk about three things that highlight the work we’re doing. We align our giving with DEI practices to ensure fair and equitable access to funding. We embed strategic learning about DEI in our work and share that knowledge. And we amplify not just our work on DEI, but also the work our partners are doing.
Tanya: Can you talk about how DEI is rooted in the foundation’s core values?
Annie: It was important for us to explicitly prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion as one of the three unifying goals that shape our approach to philanthropy. It’s an extension of work that has been going on for a long time. It really started with my grandparents. When I think about the origin of the foundation, the heart of the work is really about access to opportunity for all, especially those that are marginalized or those that have been underrepresented in communities across the United States. My grandparents believed ordinary people could do extraordinary things if they were given the opportunities and the chance to be heard and to be listened to. We’ve had a longstanding tradition since the very beginning of working in diverse communities. And while we didn’t use the words diversity, equity and inclusion in the early 90s, that was very much the origin and the purpose of our family foundation, of coming together and starting that work. That core belief of creating access to opportunity is truly at the heart of our work.
Annie: Tanya, you’ve been in your role for two years. What does DEI look like at the foundation now?
Tanya: If you look at the work being done in our three program areas – Environment, K-12 Education and Home Region – you’ll see the DEI work. You see us talking to different people and communities, working to build trust, listening and learning. You see us working differently. To achieve lasting change, we know solutions must be driven by the voices and needs of people in the communities where we work. We know too many people are excluded from decisions that directly impact their lives. By bringing a DEI lens to our work, we can help change that. In the grants we make, we are acting on a conviction that you get sustainable solutions when people with different ideas and backgrounds are all at the table. We are thinking about how to use our position to bring new voices to the table. Through the lens of equity, we can have more impact.
Annie: We recently did a survey of our grantees on DEI. Can you talk about why we did the survey and what we learned?
Tanya: We wanted to better understand our partners and the makeup of their organizations. We conducted a survey on their demographic makeup and how it corresponds with the communities they serve. We found that many of the leadership and governance roles in organizations we support do reflect racial and gender diversity. However, few senior positions are held by women and leaders who identify as People of Color. We know this is a challenge we see nationally, and it is an area that needs attention and focus. That’s a national trend, it’s not just our grantees. We learned the work continues and is evolving. It’s never really done.
While we were encouraged by what we learned, we know there is more we can do to ensure that every voice is represented. As a result, we are increasing our use of inclusive and open grantmaking processes to focus on diverse community innovators. We want to identify new partners through open and innovative sub-granting programs, prizes and competitions that attract organizations and leaders rooted in local communities. We’re examining our relationships to find gaps and understand how we can improve diversity and representation in decision-making. We are also committed to supporting the recruitment of a diversity of candidates for leadership roles in partner organizations seeking help.
Every single person at the table has a diverse perspective, and that should be encouraged.
Tanya: Thinking about the future of DEI at the foundation, what are you looking forward to the most?
Annie: I am excited about each program having a DEI plan with clear goals. I think that will continue to help embed the work deeply within the foundation. For me, the heart of the DEI work is about encouraging different ideas and feedback. Our foundation is rooted in multiple generations of family working together. No voice is louder than the next, and different opinions are valued. I love that about our family, and I believe that’s a big part of how we work together as a family-led foundation. Every single person at the table has a diverse perspective, and that should be encouraged.
We apply this legacy to our work and, by doing so, we hope to redefine how philanthropy collaborates with grantees and communities. We look, listen, learn and lead to ensure ideas become solutions and achieve true impact.
Editor's Note: Tanya M. Odom, served as Equity & Inclusion Program Director at the foundation from 2021-2023.