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.