Photo: Sundry Photography/shutterstock
Photo: Sundry Photography/shutterstock

Last June, millions of Americans took to the streets to show their solidarity with the movement for racial justice. Their actions reverberated in corporate boardrooms, cubicles and sales floors across the country. The resulting philanthropic response ranged from vague lip service to big bets on driving sustainable change.

Walmart, the giant Arkansas-based discount retailer with more than 1.5 million full-time employees in the U.S. alone, immediately sounded off on the need for change. That same month, Walmart.org pledged to contribute $100 million over five years to address racial disparities.

The commitment founded the Walmart.org Center for Racial Equity and gave it the mandate to address the drivers of systemic racism in our society and accelerate change. It adopted tactics including funding advocacy, conducting research, convening stakeholders and developing innovative practices and tools. And it committed to building nonprofit capacity to address systemic inequities in four focus areas: financial, healthcare, education and criminal justice.

Recently, the center announced a $14.3 million distribution of grants to 16 nonprofits. Here’s more on its first moves.

Walmart.org

What exactly is Walmart.org? The company calls it the “combined efforts of Walmart and the Walmart Foundation,” a structure that allows it to “lean in” where its “business has unique strengths.” Of course, that can also lead to confusion on what qualifies as charitable—but not in this case. Walmart.org entered February distributing $14.3 million to 16 nonprofits in a transparent process that clearly defined investments coming from the Walmart Foundation. Nearly 80% of the total went out the door as grants, centered mostly on education and healthcare, with a few that cut across categories.

Education

In the area of education, the Walmart Foundation contributed $1 million to the Student Freedom Initiative (SFI) to underwrite the operating and start-up costs involved in helping STEM majors at HBCU colleges find alternative financing to reduce student debt.

The King Center, short for the Martin Luther King Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, received $100,000 to support two of its programs: one that teaches the principles of nonviolence, and a leadership academy geared to helping 13- to 19-year-olds prepare for success in school and at work.

Healthcare

A $5 million gift from the Walmart Foundation will allow the American Heart Association’s Bernard J. Tyson Impact Fund to underwrite 40 loans and grants to local organizations and entrepreneurs in Atlanta and Chicago that are working to increase access to affordable, healthy food in communities of color.

The foundation will also have a role in the critical drive to increase COVID-19 inoculations in communities of color, committing a total of $2.75 million toward the vaccine education, awareness and outreach efforts of eight organizations, including UnidosUS, the National Council of Asian Pacific Islander Physicians and the Conference of National Black Churches.

Cross-cutters

Walmart.org calls several of its commitments “cross-cutting.” For instance, a $1.5 million grant will support Echoing Green’s Racial Equity Philanthropic Fund across five key strategies for meeting the moment. They include increasing access to capital for diverse social entrepreneurs, taking steps to engage the corporate sector in the racial equality movement and launching 500 social enterprises focused on racial equality.

The foundation is also investing $1 million in ABFE, the Association of Black Foundation Executives, to help engage its national membership of philanthropists in communications, investments and practices that advance racial equity.

Kirstie Sims, a 20-year Walmart veteran who leads the new Center for Racial Equity, says that the partnerships are a mix of old and new. Walmart has worked with the American Heart Association in the past, for example, while the Student Freedom Initiative and Echoing Green are new relationships. Now that the first distribution has been made, Sims expects that she and her full-time team of three will “enter a regular, ongoing grant cadence.”

Walmart is joining a chorus of other firms that have answered the call for increased racial justice commitments. Corporate racial equity investments have now climbed above $4 billion, and are still growing. Candid puts overall giving at nearly $12 billion.

Nevertheless, ensuring sustainability is not without its challenges. Sims said Walmart.org will be employing both impact reports and grassroots data analytics to measure success. “Our goal is to make thoughtful and strategic investment so that the seeds sown today will bear fruit for years to come.”

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