The Walmart Foundation Is a Perfect Example of How Corporate Philanthropy is Changing

Recently, we argued that the once-sleepy world of corporate philanthropy is getting a lot more sophisticated as funders sharpen their priorities and "fuse traditional grantmaking with market-based approaches in ways that traditional foundations either can’t or won’t do." We also noted how corporate philanthropy was getting more tightly yoked to the quest for higher profits. 

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Changes at the Walmart Foundation in recent years are a perfect example of what's going on. Since Kathleen McLaughlin, a McKinsey veteran, took over leadership of the foundation in 2014, Walmart’s corporate funding has undergone a paradigm shift from widely dispersed local grants to bigger strategic programs that tap into the company's key assets as a business. The backdrop of all this activity, detailed in Walmart's 2016 Giving Report, is a long-term push to revamp the retail giant’s tarnished image in ways that will strengthen its bottom line in coming years. 

Once upon a time, the Walmart Foundation mainly existed to sprinkle small donations far and wide in the communities where it operated. It still makes a blizzard of these grants every year, and the foundation has the longest 990 of any charitable organization that we know of. But the real action is around a series of strategic initiatives with many moving parts, mixing grantmaking with other tools—and munificence mixing with self-interest. 

The foundation's work around employment is a great example. As we've reported, Walmart has big plans for advancing job mobility and economic opportunity by investing in work skills and career readiness. It's doing this through traditional grantmaking, but also through changes in its labor management practices to build better opportunity ladders.

This work advances multiple goals. The foundation is doing some strong grantmaking to front-line groups helping low-income workers get ahead, but it's also investing in human capital to bolster its labor needs, similar to big banks giving money to maintain a pipeline of tellers and branch staff, or how tech companies are investing in STEM education. Of course, Walmart's new efforts to promote mobility are aimed at countering one of the most common charges leveled at the company, which is that it only provides dead-end jobs. 

The Walmart Foundation's big effort on empowering women, which we've also written about, also serves multiple goals. Walmart has often been criticized and sued for its treatment of women employees, and its hard not to see its empowerment push as an effort to improve its reputation in this area. But women also play a critical role in global retail supply chains, an area of keen interest to the company. At the same time, there are plenty of other good reasons for the Walmart Foundation to join the many funders who get the importance of investing in women as a way to fuel economic growth and development. 

You can see a similar pattern in the Walmart Foundation's other initiatives—for example, in the foundation's push to reintegrate U.S. veterans in the economy. That's a goal shared by many funders, especially in the corporate world. But it's also one that Walmart is uniquely positioned to advance as America's largest private employer. Veterans can also be a great source of new workers for the retailer. 

Hunger is another issue where Walmart is advancing a charitable strategy that taps into its comparative advantage. It reports donating 611 million pounds of food to food banks in the U.S., and $61 million to organizations fighting hunger. Like veterans, hunger is an issue that many mainstream funders care about. But it's also a problem Walmart can address with some real muscle as a top grocery supplier with a presence in thousands of communities across the U.S. (Never mind that this is a company with a significant fraction of employees on food stamps, as we've pointed out.)

Can all of Walmart's philanthropic efforts make up for what many see as its deeply negative impact on local economies and on society writ large? Are these efforts authentic or merely an elaborate form of PR? And is Walmart doing enough for a company with yearly revenues exceeding $480 billion? 

We'll leave those questions for another time. Our point here is that if you want to understand how deeply corporate philanthropy has changed in recent years, studying the Walmart Foundation is a great place to start.