Since the mid-2000s, the Walton Family Foundation has been one of the largest funders in American conservation, primarily in marine and rivers issues. The grantee list is quite long, but just a few of the foundation’s favorite environmental groups are pulling down a massive chunk of its annual green funding.
The foundation of the family that built and still controls the Walmart empire is one of the country’s largest philanthropies, which is not too surprising, given the Waltons are one of the richest families in the world.
But what is a bit surprising is how much of a player in conservation Walton has become, rising along the same trajectory as Walmart's growing emphasis on sustainability. Many environmentalists have pointed out the dissonance here, and Walmart's CEO recently acknowledged that Walmart's carbon emissions are actually higher now than they were in 2005, given the chain's expansion. But the Walton Family Foundation’s impact on conservation is undeniable, especially when it comes to a few of its favorite green groups.
Combined, the Waltons’ two heavily favored environmental groups—Environmental Defense Fund and Conservation International—took home almost 40% of the foundation’s $93 million in environmental giving last year. Extend that count to its top five grantees you get 53% of its green grants from 2013.
Here’s some more detail on Walton’s favorites:
- Conservation International, a massive global group doing significant work on marine and river protection, has received $155 million in funding from Walton since 2003. That's as much as $22.6 million in one year. To put that in perspective, Conservation International has an annual budget of around $150 million. They’re an appropriate fit for Walton, since both emphasize solutions that help both the environment and economies, seeking partnerships with governments as well as corporations.
- Environmental Defense Fund has received $81 million from Walton since 2003, and as much as $16 million in one year. Again, for perspective, the group has an annual budget of about $120 million. EDF is another titan, active since 1967 and also not shy about private sector collaboration.
- The Nature Conservancy, a popular one among deep-pocketed philanthropists, has seen a meager $36.6 million since 2003 (that’s including local chapters), receiving about $5.4 million last year.
- Another sort of oddball project Walton has backed heavily in recent years is Arizona State University's Global Institute of Sustainability, which received a pledge of $27.5 million from the Rob and Melani Walton Fund, which is affiliated with the Walton Family Foundation. This is notable, aside from the size of the support, because it doesn’t fit into Walton’s main initiatives, and is one of the few programs they fund that could be seen as climate- or energy-related (although not explicitly). They generally don't support climate programs.
The windfall these groups have seen from the Walton Family Foundation has not gone unnoticed, and has even drawn scorn from the environmental community. For example, CI and EDF both have corporate partnerships with Walmart, and while WFF is not company sponsored, they share leadership, namely the family itself. They’ve also both been criticized for being too corporate-friendly. But their standpoint (and WFF’s) is that the best solutions are those that are helpful to and in cooperation with big business.
Perhaps even more important from a philanthropy standpoint, however, is what it means for a major nonprofit when such a large portion of its budget comes from one funder or wealthy family. Or on a wider scale, what it means for the movement when such big players find themselves in this position.