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Taking “On the Ground” Collaboration to New Heights

August 2, 2017
Kyle Peterson
Our view on collaboration is rooted in the history and values handed down through generations

As I approach a year in leading the foundation, I continue to hear amazing Walton family stories that both ground and lift up my notions of strong philanthropy.

Whenever Sam Walton was considering opening a store, he would fly his plane to scout potential locations. After seeing the big picture, he’d land his plane and spend time on the ground getting to know a place and its people up close.

A larger vision but taking meticulous care of the details to make it a reality. This is also how the foundation tackles some of the large-scale challenges we are taking on.

Sam Walton often flew a plane to visit stores and to scout locations for new ones.

Earlier this year, I had the chance to fly over coastal Louisiana to see how shrinking wetlands and rising sea levels are threatening the environment and economy. That aerial view of a region at risk reinforced for me the scale of the problem – and the urgency of our conservation work.

But from the time I spent on the ground visiting the bayous of Louisiana, it became apparent that if we are to restore the wetlands to health, it will require the collective effort of local stakeholders – from shrimpers to farmers to mayors – working hand in hand.

Our belief in what’s possible drives an ongoing and increasing focus on durable, high-action collaboration. Across the board, we are working for systems-level change in each of our programs. A single actor cannot change a system. That requires collaboration across sectors, geographies and ideologies.

An aerial view of coastal Louisiana

Many others share our view on collaboration, and each has a unique style. Ours is rooted in a history and values handed down through generations of the Walton family, and I’m bringing my own experiences to bear as well. As we broaden and deepen our collaborations, three principles will illustrate our approach.

1. Get your hands dirty

Not too long ago, I stood in a Midwestern corn field with Rob Walton, a foundation board member and committed conservationist. We were holding handfuls of dirt from two separate fields, each field under a different soil management technique. We could see and feel the quality of the soil that was sending fewer nutrients into the Mississippi River and producing a viable crop for its owner.

Whether perception or reality, philanthropy today is often seen as disconnected from challenges real people face, especially those located in the middle of America. We want to hear from the people closest to a problem because they are often closest to the answer.

Rob Walton visits with grantees and farmers in Indiana.

For example, we’re proud to help support the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, a coalition of leading agricultural and food companies, retailers and environmental groups working to implement conservation practices on farms, while also ensuring a thriving agricultural industry.

While cheering the dozens of organizations in the Midwest Row Crop Collaborative, we get personal and listen to farmers like Seth Watkins in Iowa. Seth works with foundation partners such as Practical Farmers of Iowa to help other farmers develop and implement sustainable – and profitable – agricultural practices that improve soil health and reduce nutrient runoff that pollutes the Mississippi.

For us, it’s not a matter of making a grant and leaving the collaboration to others. We believe it’s our role to be hands-on.

2. Stick with it for the long haul

Creating lasting change requires patience and sustained involvement. More than a decade ago, the foundation supported Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative, an Indonesia-based effort that brought together more than 30 partners in a community-based conservation program. The Bird’s Head Seascape in Indonesia represents some of the richest biodiversity on the planet. And Indonesia is the world’s second-largest fishing nation. Nine million jobs depend on healthy fisheries. Over the course of 12 years, overfishing by outside poachers is down by 90% while sustainable fisheries, food security and tourism are on the rise.

Based on my experience, large coalitions are not easy to maintain over several years – and even decades – but we believe our steady involvement and support make efforts like the Bird’s Head Seascape Initiative possible

3. Find a Common Ground

Lasting change requires buy-in from multiple stakeholders representing unique interests. Each of us on our own may make incremental progress, but changes in policy or the economy can undo that progress. This is why we believe conservation solutions that make economic sense stand the test of time.

To advance our five-year strategy to preserve the health of the Mississippi and Colorado rivers, we are determined to help bridge political, ideological and geographical divides – and to unite competing interests. We have encouraged collaboration between rural and urban grantees. People who depend on daily fish catch and conservationists. Ranchers and water managers.

This year, we increased our investments in innovative coalitions that support the health of two of America’s greatest and most imperiled waterways: the Colorado and Mississippi Rivers. Both efforts bring together global conservation groups, such as the National Audubon Society, working alongside local and regional stakeholders including the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and Western Resource Advocates.

Along both river basins, collaboration is creating real impact. Recently, the foundation helped spur an agreement among several stakeholders, including the City of Phoenix, the Gila River Indian Community, the federal government and the State of Arizona. This agreement will conserve more than 13 billion gallons of water to help stabilize water levels in Lake Mead.

We know a good idea can come from anywhere and are open to innovation from individuals and groups, big and small, across all sectors and geographies. Over the last decade, we have seen a movement take hold of people who care less about ideology and more about working together to translate ideas into solutions.

In the months ahead, we will keep our eyes on the big picture on systems-level social change. You will also see us on the ground reaching out to new and different partners. I am excited about what’s on the horizon.

See you in the field.

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