Walton's Unlikely Sustainability Grantee

Suburban Phoenix might be the last place that comes to mind when you think of urban sustainability. But the Tempe-based Arizona State University is building a substantial record on the subject, due in no small part to millions in funding from the Walton Family Foundation, specifically Walmart Chairman Rob Walton.  

The Rob and Melani Walton Fund of the Walton Family Foundation is giving $5.5 million annually over five years to ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, for a total of $27.5 million first committed back in 2012. While the suburban Phoenix campus may be an unexpected champ, ASU is actually one of the more proactive universities when it comes to sustainability, generating a large part of its electricity from solar arrays and wind turbines, and placing high in national green campus rankings. It's still a pretty atypical grant for Walton, especially for its size.

While the foundation is one of the largest environmental funders around, it does not typically fund energy and climate work, a big focus of the Institute. The grant doesn't fit within either of the foundation’s two main initiatives of marine and river conservation. Of their annual $93 million in environmental grants, they spend far more on watersheds and fisheries than solar panels. At least among its large grantees, the Global Institute of Sustainability is the closest the Walton Family Foundation gets to what you could call climate and energy funding.

One of the institute's main goals is to make ASU's campuses carbon neutral, and it does a lot of research on solar and other renewable energy. It's the center of the school's campus sustainability efforts, but it also represents a team of scholars conducting education and research on the subject. It was founded in 2004 by Julie Ann Wrigley, who was married to William Wrigley of the family chewing gum empire, before he passed in 1999.  

While Julie Ann Wrigley herself has invested $25 million in the institute, Walton's commitment is the largest donation to the center, and the fourth-largest for ASU overall. 

The reason for the ASU grant seems to have everything to do with Rob Walton, chairman of Walmart and a board member at the foundation, and his wife Melani, who live in Paradise Valley outside of Phoenix. Rob Walton is co-chair of ASU’s institute along with Wrigley. Melani Walton is also involved in the Arizona environmental community, active with the local chapter of the Nature Conservancy. The grant came from their own fund within WFF.

So while the funding is under the umbrella of the Walton Family Foundation, it’s clearly something of a personal project of Rob and Melani Walton, who at least appear to be more into the sustainable cities thing than the rest of the family.

It does raise the question: Why is Rob Walton so committed to the ASU program? Is it the water conservation aspects? Regional affinity? Or is this a hint of future, more widespread urban energy and sustainability funding we might see from WFF?

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