Teach a Woman to Fish: The Walmart Foundation and Women's Empowerment

Full disclosure: As a teenager, I was an employee of Safeway, a unionized chain of grocery stores that considered Walmart its greatest business rival. As such, I received frequent mailings and brochures from my union decrying Walmart's labor practices, particularly with respect to women's rights. 

Later, I wasn't surprised to hear that Walmart had faced various legal complaints by its female employees, including a major class action suit alleging sex discrimination. 

Given all that, I'll confess I've had a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that the Walmart Foundation is a major funder of women's empowerment efforts, both in the United States and overseas. 

Let's take a closer look. 

In 2011, Walmart launched its Global Women's Economic Empowerment Initiative. The initiative is quite broad, and involves several components, including increasing its sourcing from women-owned businesses and offering job training for women, notably those working on farms or in factories. In the U.S., the goal has been to help 200,000 low-income women "gain job skills, access to higher education and achieve economic security."

Most of Walmart's customers are women, as are many of its workers, so the company has an incentive to increase both the earning power and skills of women. That logic hasn't led Walmart the company to raise wages, but it does inform the strategies of its philanthropic arm.

Creating the building blocks of success and self-sufficiency for women is a key through-line in this funding, with money going to highly practical efforts to help women help themselves. (Teaching a woman to fish, as it were.) All of which is in keeping with Walmart's famously conservative stance on economic opportunity that shows no sympathy for broader critiques of the economic forces that have undermined the earning power of all low-skilled workers, including women.  

Walmart's women's empowerment work has involved several major collaborations. The foundation partnered with six women's foundations in 2012 to help launch the Partnership for Women's Prosperity, kicking in $3.3 million. Money has gone out for work around skills, career readiness, and education in over a dozen different communities. 

The Walmart Foundation has also partnered with Dress for Success to help prepare women for the work world, including giving $2.5 million last year to help the organization expand its Going Places Network, which focuses on disadvantaged women. 

In 2012, the foundation gave $7.7 million to Goodwill Industries to expand its Beyond Jobs program to help provide skills and opportunity for low-income women around the country. 

In addition to these big commitments, the foundation has made a wide variety of much more modest grants to smaller, community-based groups. 

All told, the Walmart Foundation says that it's made a total of $45 million in grants for women's empowerment efforts since it launched its initiative in 2011. 

It's not clear what the future holds for this area of funding. Right now, though, it stands as a major focus of the foundation's grantmaking, along with its funding of anti-hunger efforts, its support of veterans and military families, and its backing of higher education, which we write about often.