Walton Family Foundation: Grants for Marine and River Conservation

OVERVIEW: Endowed by the same family that founded Walmart and Sam’s Club, the Walton Family Foundation is a very well-financed force in water-conservation funding. The Colorado and Mississippi river basins, the Gulf of Mexico, and the rivers and shorelines of Indonesia and Ecuador are a few of the many locales where Walton money is at work.

IP TAKE: The Walton Family Foundation is undeniably a serious force in the arena of marine and river conservation, especially when the grantees’ conservation projects also benefit the economy.

PROFILE: The same Walton family behind the giant retail chains also founded the Walton Family Foundation. And it’s a giant in its own right, with $1.7 billion in assets and a charitable giving record that runs from $300 million to $500 million in most years. The foundation allocates its charitable giving in two directions: education and the environment. And the environmental giving, in turn, concentrates heavily on one issue area: Water ecosystems.

Walton’s environmental mission has two specific initiatives: Freshwater Conservation, which supports efforts to ensure the health of the Colorado and Mississippi river basins; and Marine Conservation, which funds economic incentives for sustainable resource management of ocean areas across the globe. The foundation makes approximately $100 million in annual grants for the environment.

While larger organizations receive a huge chunk of Walton's giving, don't take that to mean that small or local outfits are off the table. The foundation also channels several smaller grants to groups working in each geographic area of focus, so there’s room for small-box nonprofits as well. Other nonprofits, of all sizes from small to large, win Walton grants for water-ecosystem protection work nationwide or globally.

It's also important to note that the foundation is fond of market-based solutions, and prefers work that will benefit businesses and local economies. Walton espouses a philosophy of “conservationomics”: job creation and economic growth can and should go hand in hand; and by the same token, depleting ecosystems through pollution and overuse sooner or later destroys jobs and human livelihoods. In keeping with this philosophy, the foundation expresses a keen interest in environmental conservation efforts that include businesses in their efforts and that make “economic sense.”

For example, it has been collaborating with the Environmental Defense Fund on developing catch-share programs, which would give cooperatives of fishermen allowances to catch a designated total of fish and distribute the shares among the individual fishermen, thereby eliminating any one individual fisherman’s financial incentive to overfish. It has also given around $1.7 million in funding to the Marine Stewardship Council, a London nonprofit that assesses fishing practices worldwide and rewards the sustainable ones with eco-label certification.

In terms of work for protecting rivers and their ecosystems, there are a few strategies the funder prefers: restoring the healthy flows, improving water quality, and restoring biologically diverse riparian habitats by removing invasive species and restoring native plants. 


Climate-focused initiatives, meanwhile, are largely absent from Walton’s agenda. The foundation’s board members have said in interviews that they decided early on to put their money into river and ocean conservation instead. This seemed to them like an area that has been receiving relatively little attention internationally, and where the foundation could make more of an impact. Also, it notes that Walmart itself has been working proactively to minimize carbon emissions throughout its operations, and in doing so could arguably be achieving more progress on the climate front than a private foundation could.

If you are interested in Walton funding, you can submit a letter of inquiry detailing your organization, the specific project, and its relevance to the foundation’s funding areas. Note that Walton is only accepting solicited proposals, so hold off on submitting an application until your letter of inquiry gets a warm response.


  • Barry D. Gold, Director, Environment Program