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A Brave and Bold Move

January 19, 2017
Kyle Peterson
The next level of brave and bold philanthropy: insights from Walton Family Foundation executive director Kyle Peterson

My wife and I met as Peace Corps volunteers in Sierra Leone in 1987. Three decades later, we were living on the East Coast, both enjoying fulfilling work in social sector careers. Last year, an unexpected opportunity arose to serve as the Walton Family Foundation’s executive director – the third in the foundation’s nearly 30-year history and the first to come from outside the family network.

As we considered the move, friends said “Arkansas? You’re so brave…so bold.” Compared to our prior travels, Bentonville, Arkansas, a thriving community, hardly seemed a bold move.

Four months in, those friends are now asking: What’s this foundation like?

I’ve worked in the social sector for 30 years, and I can tell you this is a different kind of foundation. The words “brave and bold” echo in my thoughts, but they now have new meaning as I learn about the family, staff, grantees and partners that make change happen.

Let me explain.

Tackling big challenges, patiently

This is a foundation that doesn’t go after quick philanthropic wins. Rather, the family has collectively chosen to take on some of the biggest challenges facing our society. They’ve committed the resources and the multi-generational staying power necessary to make a real, lasting difference in improving our entire K-12 education system, across sectors and states and for all children, and to achieve durable, meaningful change when it comes to protecting our rivers and oceans. I saw this recently during a trip to the bayous of New Orleans with Walton family members and staff. We toured the loss of wetlands, a problem so vast that it’s mindboggling to envision restoration. Yet, the foundation is working with partners, such as the Restore the Mississippi River Delta Coalition, to harness the power of the Mississippi River to build land and bring about restoration at a massive scale. All of these challenges are big and require long-term, sustained action. This is system-level change.

Three generations fuel a dynamic engine for good

I took this job because of my meeting with Walton family members who asked me if I could think big enough. Over these last few months, I’m struck by the entire family’s approach to philanthropy. Family members’ passions and personalities bring a rare vitality to our grantmaking. Our education work grew from John Walton’s original insight that the school is the key unit of change. Our ocean and river portfolio grew from individual interests of family members who grew up loving the outdoors. Today, those interests are a sophisticated set of water-based strategies, and the foundation is now one of the largest environmental funders.

Alice Walton’s love for the arts inspired Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Talk about brave and bold. In just five years, the museum has doubled attendance expectations to more than 600,000 a year and drawn highly diverse visitors from across the globe. Arts and culture funding is now a prominent part of our Home Region portfolio. Tom Walton and Steuart Walton have boldly teamed up to make Northwest Arkansas a world-class destination for mountain biking, sparking other economic development grantmaking and partner investments in the area. Generation to generation, family members challenge the status quo for good and affect the whole of our philanthropy.

Taking on inequity, from big cities to rural towns

I’ve been learning about our grantees who set the bar with their bold and brave actions. In November, I visited a Boston school that exemplifies our gutsy education work. Carrie Walton Penner and I were taken by the tenacity of a young mother/student at the Phoenix School that serves young mothers, immigrants and English-language learners, court-involved students and students who have dropped out of the system. Against the odds, she was back in school, while her young daughter attended this unique charter school’s child care center.

A month later, I saw that same level of courage in Helena, Arkansas, located along the Mississippi River, population: less than 15,000. It’s one of the poorest and most neglected areas in the country. I met enterprising leaders such as John Edwards, an economic development hero devoted to job creation. Taking a chance, John galvanized a coalition including the Arkansas Midland Railroad and other companies, the Delta Regional Authority, the county, Port Authority, the state and the foundation, to invest in a railroad spur sparking new manufacturing jobs along the Mississippi River. The foundation has a long history of empowering the disadvantaged, in both urban and rural settings. This is especially important given the national conversation on equity. I’ve learned that this is something the Walton family has been thinking about for more than 20 years.

The next level of brave and bold philanthropy

I’ve also learned that, like any organization, the foundation is not perfect but is eager to confront those imperfections. The family hired me to build on the past and take the foundation to the next level. Here are a few things that we’ll tackle in the next year or so.

Sharing more. Some foundations have been criticized for a lack of clarity and openness. We might fit this description, if only because the family is humble about its philanthropy. As we move forward, we will tell our stories more proactively. You’ll see more of the family and staff in the months to come. We will work to communicate more about the results of our work. We are excited to be part of the Center for Effective Philanthropy’s grantee perception survey this year and plan to share what we learn in the future. We’ll also work toward real-time access to our grantmaking with a searchable grants database. We’re proud of the organizations we support, and we want to share the vital work they undertake.

One foundation. Our grantmaking addresses very different challenges. This has led to silos. We will seek improvement by creating more cross-pollination across the program areas and embed lessons from the grantmaking initiatives of individual family members. We have an opportunity to learn from each other inside and outside the organization, push our thinking, identify common challenges and collaborate on new approaches.

New collaborations. We have a long history of participating in funder working groups, grantee-to-grantee interactions and public-private partnerships. But we need to be more proactive here if we are truly after system-level change. So, we will broaden our engagement with a wide range of partners, from arts organizations in Northwest Arkansas, farmers in Iowa, ranchers in Colorado and workers in the fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico to tackle big challenges.

These are just a few next steps for this unique family foundation. Look for more in the months and years ahead.

The move to Arkansas did represent something brave and bold. But not in the way our friends saw it. Sam Walton once promised to approach philanthropy with “the same lack of reverence” he brought to retail. He believed in “shaking up assumptions” and motivating “ordinary people to do extraordinary things.”

With that as inspiration, I can’t think of a more meaningful place to be than at this foundation at this time.

There’s more to come on this adventure. I’m a big fan of feedback, so share your views with us.

See you in the field.

Comments (7)
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Grey Lake Black
I am so pleased to read your post, the kind words that so many have voiced to echo the good the Walton Family makes this post even easier: What can you say to a family who has given so much to so many. Thank You! A thank you to Alice Walton who has generously shared her love of Art and taught her appreciation to many others young and old. Our family cannot visit a part of your world enough. Thank you for sharing. If any member of the Walton Family wants take up a worth while project, leading a program to clean up the Arkansas River would be wonderful. One person did not pollute it, one community did not pollute it. It was by many pointing fingers to each other. If one person writes a check to make it sparkle-it would soon return to it's polluted state. We need a great campaign that even small children can remember. The minute anyone dares to pollute the river the people who gave and cared would be vested in stopping the source.
Heather Slinkard
The Walton Foundation is amazing! I love inspiring healthy living around the world and of course starting with our local people. One way that our family enjoys healthy living is by growing our own fruit and vegetables inside year around on a Aeroponic Tower Garden. I would love to see the students that receive snackpacks on Friday to be able to take fresh produce home too to give them better nutrition. They could do that with Tower Gardens in each school. The Tower Gardens use 90% less water than traditional gardening and everything grows faster and is always fresh with no pesticides, insecticides or herbicides. If the Walton Foundation would like to partner with me in this quest to inspire healthy living I would welcome that. Keep up all the great work!
David Michael Phillips
Having the privilege of working for this family showed me a group of people who did what the said and said what they meant. I truly believe that if they thought they could be as effective doing good deeds without fanfare, that is the course they would take. With Mr. Sam and Mrs. Helen as examples who prayed as the Bible tells us, in private, the family knows that true acts of charity are given without expectations of anything in return but regulations on charitable foundations mandate disclosures. Hopefully when the true nature of this foundation becomes widely known, perhaps others will mimic them. The world will be a better place if they do . Good luck to the new director in the years ahead. You could not ask for nicer people to be associated with. Mr. Sam saw and treated his employees as associates and if the foundation can capture that magic, the efforts and the world will benefit.
Troy Juzeler
There are things that the WFF has done that I respect and admire. There is one thing that they have going on in Bentonville that I neither respect nor admire, and that is their pledge to fund special gates on a new Lake Bella Vista dam to create a kayaking "whitewater" facility. Your article quotes Sam Walton as wishing to motivate “ordinary people to do extraordinary things.” We happen to have some of that going on in Bentonville right now as The Friends of Little Sugar Creek work to ensure that the misbegotten dam on Lake Bella Vista will not be rebuilt, and that this wonderful outdoor feature may be restored to its natural free-flowing state. The work of the WFF has not been transparent on this matter. The FOLSC had to find out about it through freedom of information requests to the mayor's office. It seems that the plans for the whitewater facility have also not been discussed with our City Council, also divulged via FOIA requests. The outward appearance is of secretive collusion with the mayor behind the backs of the citizens that the creek belongs to. I understand that the younger Waltons are outdoor enthusiasts. Their dedication and hard work to bring the Greenway and lots of mountain biking trails to the area is a testament to that. Still, I can't help but feel that they've somehow placed themselves on the wrong side of the issue with the dam. Just as bicycle trails are enjoying a surge in popularity among those who love the outdoors, so too is the removal of unnecessary dams becoming a "thing" across the nation. It's being pursued by environmental groups, cities and government agencies such as the Department of the Interior and the National Parks Service. The basic summation of the argument for removal is that these dams waste valuable public funds (in perpetuity) and degrade local environments. The kayak park ends up looking like a pet project that would serve very few in the community at a steep cost to taxpayers. As the $3.6 million will come from taxpayer-funded agencies of one sort or another under the guise of disaster relief, I feel that you also run the risk of appearing to misappropriate funds when you convert that dam (which wouldn't be rebuilt without the disaster relief funds) into a recreational tourist facility. If, as you state in the blog, your goal is clarity and openness, this one project may prove to be the Achille's Heel that prevents you from getting there.
Doug River Man Allen
Amazing work!!! Thank you for giving back! I've developed a website for the Kings River in Arkansas. Site was developed for all things related to this fine river that rivals the beauty of the Buffalo River. Water quality and bank restoration are areas that need attention to preserve this river for future generations. I would love to work with the foundation to further protect this river if there is an interest. At the very least I would be honored to take you floating down this magical river and let you see the natural beauty for yourself.
John Arthur Skaggs
As a long time citizen of Bentonville, I agree with this comment. The WFF does a great deal of good in our community. The rebuilding of the Lake Bella Vista dam, in my opinion, is improper. To oppose any project favored by the WFF may appear ungrateful, but the issues are that the dam and lake are obsolete impairing a good waterway, and use of taxpayer funds without full and accurate public information is improper. I urge full and competent disclosure of all legal issues and facts be disclosed to the city council.
Walton Family Foundation
Thank you for your feedback. We understand this is an important issue, and we are confident community and public officials will work together to find a resolution for the path forward.
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