What's It Like for Environmental Groups Working with the Walton Family Foundation?

The Walton Family Foundation’s reform-minded education program didn’t stack up too well in a recent analysis by Philamplify. But by contrast, its environmental program sounds quite inclusive and flexible; as a result, it has won some impressive successes. (Spoiler: They’re not totally off the hook.) 

We’re pretty fascinated by the ever-expanding giving of the family behind Walmart, which now tops $100 million annually. So when Philamplify, a watch initiative by the National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy, released its report on WFF this month, we were eager to hear what it found. 

Related: 

For a quick sense of how Philamplify works, the initiative did an assessment of Walton based on public information and finances, some internal policy, and anonymous surveys completed by 557 current and recent grantees. The author also interviewed issue stakeholders, peers, and former and current staff. (Note that this post looks at the funder’s work on marine and freshwater conservation, which makes up about half of the report’s analysis.)

The results were similar to our own recent rundown of Walton’s 2014 giving—painting a picture of lots of great, diverse grantees working at the community level in rivers and oceans protection, plus criticism of its corporate ties and overlap with Walmart.

But mainly, it found that Walton’s environmental giving is quite successful within its own niche, taking a more inclusive and flexible approach than you might expect and achieving results. The program stood in contrast to WFF’s education funding, which Philamplify found was overly fixated on charters and choice, at the expense of achieving equity and far-reaching change. 

Taking a moment to look at the experience of green groups working with Walton is worthwhile, since the foundation now funds a huge number of such groupswe're talking dozens of granteesand its funding has expanded over time. 

One interesting thing is that Philamplify looks at how foundations succeed in the context of achieving social justice. Since Walton doesn’t view things through that lens, this is a tricky exercise. Here are some of Philamplify's findings on Walton’s environment giving.

The Good:

  • Philamplify found that a key reason the environment program works is that it prioritizes broad engagement across the wide variety of actors involved in conservation. While it has a clear niche that emphasizes using incentives to change behavior and policy, interviewees found them more flexible and inclusive than you might expect. 
  • Grantees described Walton as conservative, in that it doesn’t back opposition advocacy you see in leftier groups like Greenpeace. But at the same time, it doesn’t negate such environmental work. Walton grantees can be the carrot, other groups can be the stick. 
  • One fascinating finding is that, because economics are so important to Walton, it ends up working closely with unlikely players, including marginalized groups and community members. For example, in the Gulf Coast, it’s worked with Asian-American fishermen, and even people exiting the prison system. This runs against a common criticism of the environmental movement—that it’s too elite or narrowly focused. 

The Bad:

  • That said, Walton’s leadership is not very diverse, nor does it focus much on diversity. Not just racially, either, as the all-family board is entirely comprised of super-rich people.
  • Its industry-friendly approach and corporate ties mean it can miss opportunities for stronger regulations, or at least gives that appearance. Philamplify notes criticism that, while Walmart did important work in the Gulf Coast following the BP spill, the movement missed an opportunity to push for more environmental protections.
  • There is undeniable overlap between Walmart and the Walton Family Foundation that is difficult to parse. The report highlights this problem overall, noting that success can be undermined by concerns about Walmart’s corporate interests. 
  • As we’ve also pointed out, this is problematic in WFF’s huge support of “big greens” like EDF and Conservation International. The report cites Naomi Klein’s recent description of the “catastrophic failure” of the environmental movement to take on industry emissions, because “large parts of the movement aren’t actually fighting those intereststhey have merged with them.”

Related - Check Out the Big Money Going to Walton's Favorite Environmental Groups

The Philamplify report offers some answers to big questions about the Walton Family Foundation, and generally in environmental work today. Can an industry-friendly approach achieve lasting conservation victories? Its analysis indicates that, especially in community-based efforts, this strategy can play a winning hand, so long as leaders are truly listening to the communities they are serving. 

But other questions remain. Given the sheer size of this foundation, does its approach cut against the ability of the larger environmental movement to hold industry’s feet to the fire? Walton is so big that you can easily see how its strategies might end up skewing the overall field by marginalizing edgier strategies. 

Which brings us to the elephant in the room. Klein’s criticism underscores our running complaint with Walton’s green funding—its lack of engagement with climate change. The report describes how Walton picked overfishing and habitat destruction because it best fits their niche. But more conservation funders are coming around to the fact that climate change—and associated consequences like drought, ocean acidification, flooding, and erosion—threatens all other victories. As Walton has climbed to the top, or near the top at least, of the heap of environmental funders, will it ever face this larger problem head on? And is its strategy compatible with fighting climate change?

Related: What Did NCRP Find When It Put This Big Foundation Under a Microscope?