Takeaways from Walton’s Massive Environmental Giving Last Year

The Walton Family Foundation’s annual environment giving took a jump in 2014 to break nine figures, up to $101.3 million. This is part of a climb that has seen the funder's green giving nearly double since 2009. Here’s what this juggernaut was up to last year. 

According to 2014 financials from Walton, the foundation of the massively wealthy family behind Walmart, giving for environmental issues was up 9 percent from 2013, a difference of about $8 million. Not its biggest jump, but still notable. And while education reform is still the Walton family’s biggest issue by far, the foundation continues to jockey for position among the largest green funders in the country. 


According to the 2014 annual report, the Walton Family Foundation (separate from Walmart’s corporate giving) gave mostly to the same big marine and rivers issues, although there are still some interesting takeaways from last year, both new activity and ongoing trends.

Conservation International and the Environmental Defense Fund remain the foundation’s two biggest environmental grantees, by a longshot, and the former got a major boost in funding last year. Conservation International received $26 million from Walton in 2014, up from $20 million the year before. The increase in funding for CI was mostly in the unspecified “Other” category (not attached to a program), which went up from $10 million to $17.5 million. EDF’s haul from Walton was less substantial, and less dramatic, up just a bit to $15.4 million. Still a sizable chunk of funding. We’ve written before about what a huge part of the foundation's green giving these two account for (around 40 percent), and how tight these groups are with the Walton family.

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

But beyond the foundation’s two besties, there is a big drop off, and a very long tail of other grantees. The foundation made 226 grants in total in 2014 (slightly more than in 2013) to an impressive mix of groups, national and local. And 88 of those grants were under six figures. 

So while I may raise an eyebrow about those two biggest grantees, even if you take them completely out of the picture, you’re looking at a $60 million grantmaking program supporting a ton of groups doing incredibly important water conservation work. In fact, if you look at Walton's funding in some of its major priority areas, such as the Colorado River, what's striking is how completely the foundation saturates a funding area, making grants to numerous groups working a particular issue. That strategy stands in sharp contrast to some other environmental funders we track, like Bloomberg Philanthropies, which lavishly bankroll a small number of grantees. 

Related - Guess Who's Tackling Drought and Water Issues in a Big Way: The Walton Family

Climate change remains a notable missing element in Walton's stated funding priorities. The story here is that when the Walton family first turned to the environmental area, they felt that Walmartwhich the family still controls as majority stakeholderswas already addressing climate change issues through far-reaching efforts to reduce its carbon footprint, and it therefore made sense for the foundation to focus elsewhere. 

I get that, and there was also a point a few years back when the climate funding space seemed to be getting very crowded; you can see why a new environmental funder coming onto the scene might have chosen to focus elsewhere. 

But now, though, it's clear that philanthropy is not devoting nearly enough enough resources to climate change and, more to the point for WFF, it's clear that climate change is putting huge stresses on U.S. rivers in the West thanks to reduced snowpack in the mountains and intensifying heat. Climate change also greatly threatens marine ecosystems, the foundation's other key area of focus. More broadly, considering Walton is close to the largest environmental funder in the country, its lack of formal giving, recognition, or even a sub-sub-program for fighting climate change is hard to fathom and troubling. Yes, the foundation has distinct water conservation priorities, but by comparison, other large conservation funders like MacArthur have come around and built climate into their strategies. 


Anyway, enough said. Hopefully, the foundation is thinking about how to look upstream to climate change and widen its funding lens. Right now, let's move on with our analysis of Walton's funding.

Giving in 2014 was comparably split, as it was the year before, between the foundation’s two main issues—freshwater conservation (up 7 percent) and marine conservation (up 6 percent), with mostly location-based programs divvying up funds. Marine conservation was the largest program at $39 million, with freshwater (Colorado and Mississippi rivers) just below at $35 million.

One subprogram that got a little boost was funding in the Gulf of Mexico (separate from oil spill funding), which nearly doubled, with $2 million more in support. That program is relatively small, and last year was handed over almost entirely to the Ocean Conservancy, which received $4 million in support. A related program, Gulf of Mexico - Oil Spill, also got a bump in funding from 2013, up 60 percent to $4.4 million.

So there’s the quick rundown. And as always when talking about the Waltons, I think it’s important to point out just how truly massive the family’s wealth is—something like $150 billion. Just to put its giving in perspective, or at the very least to speculate about bigger giving ahead.

Walton remains a divisive foundation in some ways, but any way you cut it, the funder is a force of nature when it comes to conservation grantmaking, giving the big Silicon Valley green funders a run for their money. And giving seems to keep climbing.