By Alex Daniels. Reprinted with permission of The Chronicle of Philanthropy: philanthropy.com.
The Buffetts and Gateses started it, and then other names followed: Zuckerberg. Bloomberg. Rockefeller.
Over the past decade, many of the world’s richest people have made the Giving Pledge — a promise that they will give a majority of their wealth to charity.
But it’s a club that members of the richest family in America, the descendants of Wal-Mart Stores founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen, have decided not to join.
"I certainly salute them," says S. Robson (Rob) Walton, the eldest of the couple’s four children, when asked about the Giving Pledge members. "We have chosen not to do that and to go our own way with our philanthropy."
Still, while eschewing the pledge, the Waltons have steadily and gradually increased the amount they give through their primary philanthropy, the Walton Family Foundation. They’ve made some adjustments, streamlining the fund’s board and fine-tuning each of its three project areas: K-12 education, the environment, and economic-development projects in the family’s home state of Arkansas.
As Sam and Helen Walton’s grandchildren seek to make their philanthropic mark, the foundation will spend $2.2 billion in those areas over the next five years, or an average of $440 million a year. That’s an uptick in its annual grant making, which last year approached $375 million.
Forbes has pegged the Waltons as the world’s richest clan, with a combined net worth of about $149 billion in 2015. (A year of market declines for Walmart has brought the total down a bit, to $138.6 billion, according to the magazine’s latest estimates.) Having amassed that wealth from America’s most successful retail enterprise, the family, not surprisingly, has taken a market-driven approach to philanthropy. For example: The key to improving water quality, the thinking goes, is giving farmers a financial incentive not to pollute.
"Given that everyone in the family has business interests, it’s kind of a language we understand," says Steuart Walton, 34, Sam and Helen’s grandson and a member of the foundation’s board. "There’s certainly some carryover into our philanthropy, but its not dogmatic."
School Choice Reconsidered
The largest chunk of the foundation’s retooled and accelerated giving plan — $1 billion over the next five years — will go to education. While family members still evangelize about the benefits of "school choice" for struggling families, they’ve fought enough battles over the past two decades to determine that simply providing parents a slate of options among traditional public schools, charter schools, and private institutions isn’t enough to improve student achievement.
For school choice to succeed, the Waltons concluded, the foundation has to move beyond making start-up grants for charters and focus more on building a constituency of supporters in local school districts.
Providing families with a greater choice of schools "has sometimes had little impact, especially in districts where reform lacks adequate local ownership, community and wider civic involvement, and parent engagement," according to Bruno Manno, a senior adviser to the Walton foundation who was quoted in an October report by Grantmakers for Education.
The $1 billion commitment nearly matches the amount the Waltons have invested in education over the past two decades. The money will be used to train teachers, construct schools, and advocate for policies that encourage the development of charters.
Some critics have complained that the Waltons have donated a relatively small percentage of their enormous wealth to charity. Still, their giving is so substantial in terms of raw dollars that other critics contend it gives them too much influence over public policy. In response, the family has sought safe havens: school districts where there are plenty of skilled teachers and administrators excited about new educational models. In those places, the foundation has courted local officials open to charter schools operating alongside traditional neighborhood schools.
The new approach means the foundation will exit cities where charters have been a tough sell, including Phoenix, Chicago, and Albany, N.Y. Its roster of 13 target areas now includes New Orleans, Oakland, and San Antonio, where charters are seen as ripe for success.
In those districts, the foundation wants to implement top-to-bottom changes rather than simply setting up charters. It will pour money into follow-up grants to new schools, make investments in technology (like districtwide student enrollment systems), steer resources to students with special needs, and develop new criteria other than just test scores to measure success.
The more intense focus is, in part, a generational shift.
Rob Walton, 71, says he and his siblings — Jim, Alice, and late brother John — never viewed the foundation, which was created in 1987, as their bailiwick. Their family discussions often centered around the growth of Walmart.
By the time Sam and Helen’s grandchildren began attending the family meetings, Walmart was a huge success and the elder Waltons more often discussed their philanthropy. One of those grandchildren, Carrie Penner, recalls hearing as a child about her grandparents’ efforts to build a scholarship program for Central American students to study in the United States, and their support for single mothers in Walmart’s Northwest Arkansas backyard. She also remembers Lamar Alexander, then the U.S. education secretary and now a Republican senator from Tennessee, dropping by to visit the family in the early 1990s.
Beyond the education push, it remains a mystery to what extent, or toward what issues, the family will marshal whatever portion of its vast fortune is earmarked for philanthropy. The Waltons are not likely to post about their philanthropic intentions on Facebook, like Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan did in December.
Still, some members of the rising generation have shown a growing willingness to bring some of the conversations at Walton meetings out into the open.
"We’ve seen the benefits of having a low profile," says Steuart Walton. "There are times, however, where you can take a stand more publicly and that can advance some of your goals. As our generation is growing up, different members of the family have different thresholds for being put in that role."
Adds Ms. Penner, 45, his cousin and fellow foundation board member: "We stepped back and realized that if we’re not talking about what’s important to us and why it is important to us, we leave a vacuum. We leave it open for other people to talk about what we’re doing, and why."
The foundation’s education work has brought Ms. Penner back to Anacostia, home of some of Washington, D.C.’s poorest neighborhoods. Here, as a student at Georgetown University who tutored high school kids, she encountered firsthand what she saw as the failure of public schools. Her students, she says, weren’t valued as having any potential.
"I have no idea why they were going to school at all because, frankly, they weren’t being educated," she says.
During a visit this fall to Ingenuity Prep, a charter school in the same area of the city, Ms. Penner watched as students in a pre-kindergarten class participated in a group reading lesson. The students were seated on the floor in a tight grid. Several teacher’s aides hovered nearby, directing the kids’ focus to the teacher, and to classmates who volunteered answers to her questions.
A Walton grant helped start the school three years ago. Ingenuity Prep co-founder Aaron Cuny says students have shown progress in math and reading skills, thanks in part to a "blended learning" approach that combines online lessons and large- and small-group instruction.
Mr. Cuny has plans to expand Ingenuity Prep from its current pre-K through 1st grade curriculum all the way through high school. He hopes other schools adopt his model.
"We’re setting out to be a proof point," he says.
Different Strokes for Different Districts
Following a strategy like the Waltons’, Mr. Cuny chose to establish the school in Washington because policy makers there have greeted charter schools warmly.
Doubling down in cities where charters have shown promise has merits, according to another grantee, Daniel Weisberg, chief executive officer of TNTP, a nonprofit that supports the professional development of teachers.
School improvement is a "gigantic change exercise," Mr. Weisberg says. For that change to happen, he adds, the Waltons must tailor their work to meet the needs of each participating school district. That might mean increased teacher training and recruitment in some cities, buying or renovating buildings in others.
In every district where Walton works, Mr. Weisberg says, the foundation needs to maintain a presence for years, so parents, teachers, and administrators get used to new methods and are resistant to going back to the old way of doing things.
"If you don’t give it time, the change you produce is going to be fleeting," he says. "Going deep and making sure you’ve got a comprehensive strategy in a particular city, and sticking with it for several years, is smart. It’s based on some real-world experience."
The foundation seems intent on comparing those experiences with the views of other experts in the field, according to Sarah Reckhow, a political-science professor at Michigan State University and author of Follow the Money: How Foundation Dollars Change Public School Politics.
Ms. Reckhow says Walton Family Foundation program officers and advisers have become fixtures at academic conferences and seem to be more interested in deepening knowledge in the field than in pushing an agenda.
"It’s nice to see them engage like that and be open to research they aren’t funding, and to be asked hard questions," she says. "I haven’t seen that from the other large education funders."
But the foundation’s openness has limits.
The Waltons’ extreme wealth and focus on market-based incentives for social change have made them a frequent target of critics who say the approach, dubbed "philanthrocapitalism," is anti-democratic. The family won’t say how much it is spending on its recently created 501(c) 4 advocacy group, the Walton Education Coalition, and has stayed mum on what it plans to do with the majority of its fortune.
Brandon Johnson, an organizer with the Chicago Teachers Union, is blunt about the Waltons and fellow charter-school advocates like Eli Broad and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation: He believes they are quietly trying to destroy public education. Their efforts are particularly threatening to African-Americans, whose right to free public education was "birthed out of the pain" of slavery and the civil rights movement, Mr. Johnson asserts.
He also contends that the Walton foundation operates more as a tax shelter than a charitable organization. "The Walton family would rather spend $500 million to take our rights away than actually contribute to the economy and pay their share in taxes," he said at a debate on foundations’ education support held last fall by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy.
‘The Gorilla in the Room’
The Waltons also take enormous heat for giving relatively little in relation to their wealth. Last year, for example, they held more than 1.4 billion shares of Walmart stock in Walton Enterprises, a company formed to manage the family fortune. Annual dividend payments on those shares would total more than $2.77 billion in 2015, an amount greater than the foundation’s assets of $2.63 billion. In addition, each of the Walton children owns millions of shares of Walmart stock individually.
Last year the family said it would distribute about 6 percent of its Walmart shares — worth about $15.6 billion at the time of the announcement — to a newly formed entity, the Walton Family Holdings Trust. The trust was created to lower the clan’s stake in the retail company. At the time the family said the trust would help fund charitable gifts; they did not provide specifics.
Robin Rogers, a sociology professor at Queens College who is writing a book on billionaires and their giving, says more philanthropy may not be the most munificent use of Walton assets. She fears that the more the family gives, the more it will influence policy debates. She’d rather make it harder for the rich to avoid taxes through the establishment of trusts.
"The raw wealth of the family is the gorilla in the room," Ms. Rogers says. "I’m not heartbroken that they’re not [giving away] more of their money."
That fortune is now spread across three generations, with a fourth moving closer to adulthood.
"Being family-led is important to us," Steuart Walton says. "We enjoy working together and it kind of keeps us coming together. What it looks like for the next generation is going to be their decision."
Most family foundations perform a "balancing act" between serving the family and the fund’s broader mission, says Leslie Lenkowsky, a philanthropy expert at Indiana University and a Chronicle columnist. Often, he says, families ward off outside inquiry by insisting that their giving is a personal matter, best kept within the clan. "The ones who take it seriously understand they have a public responsibility as well," he says.
In late February, the Waltons decided to downsize their board from 22 to five members: Ms. Penner as chair, serving with her aunt Alice Walton, brother Ben Walton, father Rob, and cousin Steuart. The family said it would review board membership at regular but so far undetermined intervals. But they haven’t made any decisions about how much of their fortune to give away, whether they should invite outsiders to sit on the board, and what the growing chain of Walton descendants must do to have a say in the family philanthropy.
In the meantime, Ms. Penner says, the family believes individual members shouldn’t feel forced to give a certain amount of their time or money to the foundation’s work.
"As people find their passion and find that they have an opportunity to have a significant impact, that happens naturally," she says.
Steuart Walton’s passion for a mountain biking and the outdoors has led to gifts to the International Mountain Bicycling Association and efforts to plant 2,000 trees in a year. A pilot who runs a company that makes stunt airplanes, he’s also a board member of the Smithsonian’s National Air and Space Museum and has supported several aviation groups, including the Recreational Aviation Foundation and the Experimental Aircraft Association.
Sam and Helen’s daughter, Alice Walton, is an art lover. That passion helped spur the foundation to set aside $1.2 billion to build and curate the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in Walmart’s hometown of Bentonville.
Rob Walton has supported projects to improve the quality of life in the Phoenix area, where he lives, and he is a board member with Conservation International. He promises more big announcements of philanthropic activity in years to come.
"There will be lots of action as we go down the road and as this next generation develops more capacity," he says. "It will be an exciting time."