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Q&A with Executive Director Kyle Peterson

November 9, 2016
Insights on the nonprofit sector and his new role

Kyle Peterson joined the Walton Family Foundation as executive director in September 2016 and is the third person in the foundation's history to hold the position. This post is the first in a series, In the Field with Kyle, to get Kyle's perspective on philanthropy and insights on the foundation. We spoke with Kyle about his vision for the foundation and what inspired him to join the nonprofit sector.

Describe a defining moment that led you to the nonprofit sector.

In 1987, I was a Peace Corps volunteer in Sierra Leone, West Africa. Imagine being 21 years old, standing in front of 500 rural farmers, teaching them how to grow palm oil trees. I had mowed lawns back home but didn’t know a thing about agriculture and could barely speak the language. That mattered little, as the young men came to understand that tiny seedlings could keep their family fed for 20 years into the future.

Everything changed for me in the Peace Corps. Despite getting paid less than $80 a month, eating little but rice every day and contracting malaria (twice), I was forever changed by this experience and contact with farmers who were hungry for new ways to improve their lives. I met my wife, Maury (a fellow volunteer), and my best friends and began a 30-year adventure where I learned a simple formula: helping share new ideas equals supreme delight.

What drew you to the Walton Family Foundation?

What distinguishes the Walton Family Foundation from other, large grant makers and attracted me is a very engaged family with common values. You see a real openness to new approaches – from using voice, partnerships and thought leadership.

I was also taken by the fact that the foundation doesn’t shy away from the real tough stuff, such as K-12 education or ensuring that the Colorado River will have enough water to meet the needs of people in 20 years. The foundation has steely focus and holds a long-term view on the problems we’re trying to solve. I’m compelled by our rigor, marked by an emphasis on evaluation. Decisions are fact-based and backed up by science, research and strong data. Lastly, I’ve spoken to a number of our grantees, and we have a great reputation for being respectful of our partners on the ground. All of these charms are rooted in our people, who come from different backgrounds, are ambitious yet practical, and have exuberant passion for doing good.

Share a glimpse of your vision for the foundation and a bit of your leadership style.

It’s still early and my vision is not 20/20 yet, but I certainly have ideas. Of course, I want to build on the great work of former executive director Buddy Philpot and the leadership team.

As I listen to family, staff, grantees and partners, I see a few emerging themes. From an external standpoint, I’d love greater understanding about who we are and how we do our work among funders and larger civil society. Internally, we can continue to attract diverse talent who want to solve big problems and experiment with frontier ideas. We can also do more across our programs, calling out common challenges and opportunities.

My leadership style? If you were to ask folks who have worked with me over the years, they’d probably say that I lead with optimism and helping people be the best they can be. I am a big learner and see the supreme value in asking tough questions and taking the time for serious reflection. I also have a strong sense of urgency; I’ve spent time on the ground and felt the absence of opportunity or stasis in environmental progress, so you are bound to see my foot tapping.

Have you experienced any big surprises since joining the foundation?

Not many, though I probably didn’t have a real sense of the vastness of the goals the foundation is taking on. Recently, I had a chance to take a flight tour of the Mississippi River Delta and witnessed the degradation of the wetlands. Coastal restoration is one of the initiatives of the Environment Program. It took close to two hours to take in the magnitude of wetland loss – places where land had been years ago and now there’s only water. But I also looked out the window of the plane and saw hope – places where the Mississippi River is allowed to do what it has always done: build new land. The trip woke me up both to the vastness of the problem and the simple elegance of using the river itself as the solution. The philanthropic ambition to take on and propose solutions at this scale sort of makes your mind spin. And coastal restoration in Louisiana is just one of the large-scale problems the foundation has the tenaciousness, resources and vision to take on.

You’ve moved your family from Boston to Northwest Arkansas. Tell us about the transition.

My wife, our son and I moved from Boston to Bentonville in August. We’ve lived all over the world, and this has been the easiest move yet. We’ve been welcomed so warmly by the Walton family and our neighbors, including a family of deer that live near our house.

My son is a sixth grader, and he loves it here. He’s a baseball nut and fell in love with the Naturals stadium. Boston’s Fenway doesn’t have a whiffle ball field!

Bentonville reminds me of a smaller version of Austin, where my wife and I went to graduate school. We feel a tremendous amount of energy in Bentonville and are excited to be part of the building of the future. In addition to our new hometown, we’ve also taken the weekends to explore Eureka Springs, Fayetteville, Rogers, Springdale and Bella Vista.

We’re big hikers and bikers, and I love being able to ride my bike to work and access mountain biking trails on the weekend. And, after many years in snow up north, we are excited to be living in the south where the climate is milder and we’re closer to our family.

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