How the Walmart Foundation Supports Higher Education

For a long time, the Walmart Foundation was a remarkably pedestrian funder, doling out vast numbers of tiny grants to the myriad communities where the retail giant has stores, perhaps with the goal of cultivating local goodwill as it put mom-and-pop shops out of business. 

That endless stream of small checks keeps going out the foundation's door, but it's writing bigger checks, too, and the Walmart Foundation is becoming an interesting funder to watch, especially when it comes to career readiness. 

While the Walton Family Foundation's support for K-12 education is no secret (especially now that the foundation is buying time on NPR to tout this work), the Walmart Foundation is also in the education game, albeit further along in the life cycle.

In February, the foundation made three $1.75 million grants to help historically black colleges as well as to support career readiness programs for African-Americans: the United Negro College Fund, the NAACP, and the National Urban League. 

While that gift could be as seen as part of a more sophisticated strategy to co-opt its critics, it's also consistent with a growing pattern of giving by the foundation that stresses job preparation and economic self-sufficiency. 

Last month, the Walmart Foundation awarded $4.19 million for three years to the American Association of Community Colleges. The grant will support AACC's Job Ready, Willing, and Able initiative, which supports job training, industry-recognized credentials, and job access.

Seventeen community colleges across the country will benefit from the grant. Under the initiative, four mentor colleges supported by AACC, the National Association of Worforce Boards, AACC affiliate councils, and industry groups, will provide guidance to 13 mentee colleges.

All 17 schools supported by the grant will focus their efforts on job growth in the communities they serve. The four mentor colleges are in Nebraska, Oregon, Virginia, and the funder's home state of Arkansas. Mentee colleges supported by the grant are in California, Colorado, Iowa, New York, Tennessee, West Virginia, Kentucky, Ohio, Texas, Indiana, Florida, Utah, and Pennsylvania. 

Community colleges are on the forefront of efforts to strengthen the job skills and life chances of low-income Americans, as well as bolster local economies with better skilled workers, and this is a red hot area of funding right now. With its new grant, the Walmart Foundation is suddenly one of the bigger players in this area. 

If you look at who's been running the foundation in recent years, it actually should be no surprise that the place is getting more interesting. Until last fall, the foundation was led by Sylvia Mathews Burwell, who was a top leader at the Gates Foundation before going to Walmart and then left to become head of the White Office of Management and Budget and, more recently, took over as head of Health and Human Services. 

Burwell's replacement at the foundation was Kathleen McLaughlin, who came to the foundation from McKinsey, where she led its Social Innovation practice, working with top NGO and government agencies worldwide. 

This kind of high-powered outsider leadership is not exactly the norm at corporate foundations, which are often staffed by long-time insiders from the company. 

Critics may see a certain genius in how Walmart has hired the cream of the elite to bolster its tarnished reputation through more savvy philanthropy. Regardless, the foundation has become a more important player, and organizations in the career readiness and community college space should be watching this funder like a hawk.