Low water levels at Lake mead. The colorado river has suffered deepening drought conditions in recent years. U. Eisenlohr/shutterstock
Low water levels at Lake mead. The colorado river has suffered deepening drought conditions in recent years. U. Eisenlohr/shutterstock

The last time the Walton Family Foundation released a strategic plan, in 2016, the phrase “climate change” was used just twice in the 11-page environment section, with the first instance coming in a subsection on the eighth page.

The Arkansas-based grantmaker’s new plan, released earlier this year as a guide for roughly $2 billion in giving through 2025, puts new emphasis on the emergency of our time, framing climate change as a driving force behind its long-running work on water and tying it explicitly to several of the environmental program’s core goals.

The foundation is also adding new staff with some climate chops. Last week, the foundation announced a new deputy director for its environmental program, Pipa Elias, whose past experience includes eight years working on United Nations climate negotiations and leading policy work on the Nature Conservancy’s Natural Climate Solutions initiative.

The foundation maintains that the changes mark a shift in language, not approach. It’s about making their internal lens more externally visible. “I think we’ve always worked on climate,” said Moira McDonald, environmental program director, citing projects on improving soil health and overhauling reservoir management.

“The pivot now is we’re actually calling it out and talking about it in that way,” she said. “In the past year or two, we know that what we’re seeing is the effect of climate change.”

At the risk of putting too much emphasis on word counts, the change seems already to be underway in the foundation’s grantmaking, albeit on a small scale. Six of the foundation’s 291 environmental grants mentioned “climate” in 2019, the most recent year for which data is available, versus just two the year before, and none before that, according to a search of the foundation’s grants database.

While minor to date, the changes at Walton are meaningful within the relatively limited world of environmental philanthropy. Walton’s environmental giving only accounts for about 17% of its grantmaking, but the foundation is large enough (and the field small enough) that it is still one of the nation’s largest environmental grantmakers, particularly within conservation. In 2019, its environmental program accounted for $91 million of the $526 million the foundation gave away.

Community, partnerships and diversity, equity and inclusion

Under the new strategic plan, the environmental program will continue to focus on ocean conservation and the preservation of the Colorado and Mississippi rivers. But the foundation’s new strategic plan lays out three foundation-wide goals that apply to the program: champion community-driven change; prioritize diversity equity and inclusion (DEI); and collaborate with partners. The former two are very much in line with current philanthropic trends, and along with a new integrated approach to the areas of its portfolio, could drive shifts at the grantmaker.

On DEI, the foundation has started with some familiar internal steps. Walton recently hired a new senior-level equity and inclusion director, staff trainings are underway, and the foundation is determining what measures to take to increase staff diversity. “That’s an area that we know the environmental movement lags behind and we know the foundation lags behind,” McDonald said. “And we want to get better at it.”

A first step could be transparency. Walton is listed as a partner of Green 2.0, the nonprofit that tracks diversity at top environmental nonprofits and funders, but has never submitted demographic data to the organization.

In terms of grantmaking, McDonald said she anticipates the program will seek out new organizations, as well as work with existing grantees on how to embed such principles in new projects. She noted: “We’re not saying we’re bringing them something brand new.”

The new emphasis on community efforts will likely mean both more but smaller grants by Walton, and working with intermediary funds that can redistribute larger grants to small community groups, McDonald told me.

In the Midwest, the foundation is focused on expanding its work with farmers and the groups that support them. The foundation views agriculture as a potential threat to water—it accounts for large shares of both use and pollution—but believes improving practices can be a win-win solution.

In the West, one aim is to deepen engagement with tribes, particularly those affected by water shortages. “Our desire is to work directly with communities where we can,” she said.

Walton, like most major environmental grantmakers, has long given a large share of its funding to some of the biggest green nonprofits in the country. For instance, Walton gave the Nature Conservancy, the world’s largest environmental group, nearly $8 million in 2019 alone—about 9% of all its green grants—and has given it more than 165 grants since 1994, according to the foundation’s grants database. The National Audubon Society, Conservation International and the World Wildlife Fund have also been major recipients.

New attention to climate, but through water 

Only Waltons serve on the foundation’s board of directors. To kick off the strategic planning process, staff held conversations with the family. Uplifting climate emerged as a priority, but so did the environmental program’s core emphasis on water, one that has always been shaped by fond Walton family memories of vacations spent camping, hiking, fishing and canoeing.

“They really believe in focusing on water. It’s something that brings them together as a family,” McDonald said. “We were a water program, we’ve always been a water program, and we’re really comfortable with that because water really matters to people in concrete ways.”

The foundation has even funded polling to back up that belief. Some 84% of respondents agreed that preserving safe water is essential to addressing climate change, with Black, Indigenous and people of color expressing more concern about the state of the environment, among other findings.

One way these interests will come together explicitly is in a new funding focus on climate-resilient water management, such as how to store more water using either infrastructure or natural systems. “That’s something we’re just getting started with,” McDonald said.

The poll also illuminated the agreement—and fractures—that climate issues provoke. Nearly 9 in 10 respondents said companies should take more action on environmental issues. However, asked if humans can take action to reduce the impact of climate change, 88% of Democrats, 73% of Independents and 55% of Republicans agreed.

It may be that the Walton family’s own evolving political views are a factor in this shift. Family members have long been significant political donors—and historically have overwhelmingly favored Republicans, who have mostly denied the reality of climate change and blocked climate action. One study of contributions from 2000 to 2012 found 83% of the family’s contributions, including to Super PACs, supported Republican candidates.

But that trend may be shifting. Family members serving on the foundation board in 2016 gave 60% of their partisan contributions to Democratic candidates and groups, according to an excellent analysis by Leslie K. Finger and Sarah Reckhow, posted on HistPhil. More recent reporting shows some family members are continuing to lean left in their political giving, particularly the younger generation.

Support for groups with controversial energy, climate stances

A glance at past grantees—and controversies—suggests Walton’s new attention to climate could play out in different ways. The Walton family and foundation have come under criticism in the past for supporting groups that advocates say have been roadblocks to needed reforms. A 2014 report, “How the Walton Family is Threatening Our Clean Energy Future,” by the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, argued the foundation had supported nearly two dozen national and state think tanks that have opposed clean energy policies.

A Walton foundation spokesperson said the report, now seven years old, does not accurately reflect the current outlook of the foundation or the groups covered. The foundation both believes in diverse coalitions and represents a diverse family, he said.

Many of the organizations the report flagged are still grantees, although largely under the foundation’s K-12 program. Several are name-brand conservative or right-leaning organizations, like the American Enterprise Institute and the Manhattan Institute, which both received 2019 grants and whose climate-related work has come under fire from advocates. Whether those partnerships are maintained, or even grow, may serve as another indicator of Walton’s priorities and perspective.

Within the environmental program, one grantee highlighted by the report is the center-right think tank R Street, which has received six-figure gifts annually since 2013, recently for research on agricultural subsidies. The report critiqued the organization’s opposition to certain rooftop solar policies and support for nuclear power over renewable energy, the latter a familiar fault line in environmental debates.

Recently, R Street’s staff have taken stances one might expect from an institution dedicated to free markets, such as urging Democrats to trust corporate climate promises and avoid over-regulating. It has also pushed Republicans to release their own energy bill. And Walton is not the only big green funder to back the group. The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation supported its work on free-market clean energy between 2015 and 2018, and Open Society Foundations funded the think tank in 2016, albeit for justice reform work.

Climate is a focus of the plan, but how will funding play out?

As a younger generation of Waltons takes the reins, the shifts at the family’s foundation may be a hint of their influence and possibly signal further changes ahead. The stakes are significant. As America’s richest family and the near-majority shareholders of Walmart, one of the world’s largest retailers, the Waltons’ interests will be a notable force in the public sphere for some time to come.

Of course, the words and pledges of a strategic plan ultimately say far less about a foundation’s priorities than where the money goes. Thus, how this new plan plays out on the ground will be key. And it may serve as one guide to how traditionally conservative-minded environmental funders begin to engage more directly—and explicitly—on climate.