Lightspring/shutterstock

Huge foundations that give millions to hundreds of organizations each year can’t be held accountable for everything those grantees do.

Or can they?

The Walton Family Foundation (WFF), built on the fortune generated by the Walmart retail chain and overseen by America’s wealthiest family, is worth more than $5.6 billion in assets. In 2019, WFF gave out $525.8 million in grants, including $207 million for K-12 education, one of its three top issue areas, along with the environment and its home region of Northwest Arkansas.

It’s a sizable institution with over 100 staffers listed on its website—and an evolving one. Once firmly rooted in the conservative values of founders Sam and Helen Walton—WFF has poured funds into right-leaning think tanks over the years—the foundation is now governed entirely by third-generation family members with varying perspectives. A look at their political donations and philanthropy shows that the family’s giving is looking a lot more purple these days.

So it’s understandable that the foundation would have grantees within its portfolio that hold conflicting ideologies. For example, 2020’s grants list includes both the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute. Even so, the Independent Women’s Forum is a standout case.

Since 2016, the Walton Family Foundation has backed the nonprofit, which champions several controversial conservative causes, whether it’s railing against racial awareness and equity work mischaracterized as “critical race theory,” or undermining public health recommendations by spreading inaccurate information about COVID-19 and masks. Many of IWF’s stances are standard conservative gospel, but they seem to cut directly against critical elements of WFF’s current strategy, specifically related to racial equity.

This made us wonder—considering Walton’s commitment in its new strategic plan to prioritize diversity, equity and inclusion across all its work—why would the foundation still be backing this group? WFF does have a rationale for doing so, but the case of IWF highlights the limits and costs of Walton’s desire to fund on both sides of some of the country’s most heated debates.

Common solutions, if not common ground

IP first noted WFF’s support for the Independent Women’s Forum earlier this year in an interview with one of the authors of “A Wolf at the Schoolhouse Door,” which examines the conservative push to abolish public schools. IWF is active in resurgent conservative efforts to expand school vouchers in many states across the country, but the group has also fed into the hysteria over critical race theory, which has been deployed as a bogeyman to stir opposition to diversity efforts and curricula that focus on racial injustice in American history.

I reached out to Walton to ask about their support for IWF, and an organization spokesperson declined an interview request, but did respond by email. The spokesperson said that Walton funds

“some of IWF’s education work specifically, and only related to two areas that align to our strategy:

  • All parents, not just those able to afford private schools or to homeschool, deserve the best school for their child and need the leverage to make their voices heard in public schools. Families—and particularly mothers—need better options.
  • School closures harm kids’ educational attainment and mental health, but they also impact families, and especially women, who have to step back from careers because of remote school.”

Walton also directed me to a recent Fortune op-ed by WFF Executive Director Caryl Stern. In the piece, which is now displayed at the top of WFF’s website, Stern argued that philanthropies should collaborate with groups seeking common solutions, versus only working with organizations with which they share common ground.

“Common ground puts a disproportionate focus on whether we work with partners who share our entire ideology and highest priorities. Decisions are made through the prism of us and them,” Stern writes.

“Common solutions, in contrast, focus on the collective goal of solving big, complex problems and creating lasting change. And in the course of finding those solutions, collaboration may entail working with or giving money to organizations that align with us on some endeavors but not at all on others.”

Stern makes a reasonable case, and given the amount of money Walton has to give away, it’s bound to partner with groups that pursue endeavors at odds with some foundation priorities. But working with IWF strikes me as a more fundamental conflict, since the group takes stands that directly contradict integral elements of Walton’s current strategy.

“A revolutionary ideology”

Like many philanthropies and nonprofits, WFF responded to the events of 2020 by increasing its commitment to racial justice. The organization’s most recent strategic plan includes “prioritizing diversity, equity and inclusion” as one of its three primary goals. WFF is also working to boost the diversity of its staff and hired a new equity and inclusion director. This is a welcome trend at Walton and throughout the sector, which has historically been a very white space.

But increased awareness of racial injustice across the U.S. has in turn unleashed a backlash, and IWF has helped fuel that backlash. It is a vocal opponent of so-called critical race theory, describing it as “a revolutionary ideology incompatible with the American system.” CRT is, in fact, a 40-year-old academic theory typically taught in law seminars, but conservatives have recast it as an imminent threat to the nation, using the term as a proxy to demonize everything from teaching about slavery in schools to diversity and inclusion workshops in government and corporate settings.

In its critique, IWF argues, “Irrespective of what you call it (CRT, ‘anti-racism,’ wokeness, identity politics, ‘diversity, equity and inclusion,’ etc.), the underlying premises of CRT—that America is systemically racist and that American institutions perpetuate ‘white privilege’—have become ubiquitous in our public discourse and our institutions, from education to government agencies to private corporations.” Again, “diversity, equity and inclusion” are explicit WFF priorities, featured prominently in their latest strategic plan.

IWF writers dispute the existence of white privilege and systemic racism, and distort the meaning of the term anti-racism into something sinister and oppressive: “Contrary to popular belief, ‘anti-racism’ does not refer to efforts to combat racism. Anti-racism is, in fact, a radical ideology that rejects conventional efforts to fight prejudice and promote the equal treatment of all Americans irrespective of race.”

One IWF blog post even specifically decries philanthropy’s recently stepped-up commitment to racial equity: “From the biggest foundations to the smallest nonprofits, an agenda of racial equity and identity politics is pervasive,” the writer lamented.

In another post titled “Does philanthropy need to be more woke?” the author writes, “After making its mark on private industry, the woke dogma is now taking root in the charitable sector. Social-justice philanthropy is no longer considered a choice but an imperative for donors.”

There’s nothing wrong with a grantee taking jabs at the philanthropic sector. But you have to wonder why Walton would be funding a grantee that is so scornful of racial equity and diversity work that WFF has explicitly placed at the very top of its organizational agenda—indeed, throughout that agenda, as a “unifying objective” across all program areas.

Fears and smears

The Independent Women’s Forum grew out of a group called “Women for Judge Thomas,” which was created in 1992 to defend Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas against allegations of sexual harassment. IWF isn’t required to disclose its funders, but the Center For Media and Democracy published a partial list of donors that have contributed to it over the years, including a who’s who of conservative philanthropies like the Adolph Coors Foundation, the Lynde and Harry Bradley Foundation, the Charles Koch Foundation and DAF host DonorsTrust.

IWF rarely veers from a strictly conservative playlist. The organization has taken positions against school school mask mandates, inclusion of transgender people in women’s sports, childcare supports included in President Joe Biden’s agenda, expansion of voting rights, the Affordable Care Act, and traditional feminism, among others.

IWF takes shots at a long list of targets—including the Green New Deal, the Equal Rights Amendment, and “Progressive Privilege”—but is quick to express grievance when questioned on its own positions. A recent Washington Post report, for example, described a letter on school mask requirements that IWF sent to paying members of the Independent Women’s Network, an IWF project, providing language parents could use to challenge their schools’ policies requiring students to wear masks. The Post report pointed out that the letter contradicts recommendations by both the Centers for Disease Control and the American Academy of Pediatrics, and includes several inaccuracies.

In response, an IWF representative appeared on Fox News and called the piece a “smear article” and an attempt to silence parents. In a radio interview, Carrie Lukas, IWP’s president, accused the Post of having a political agenda, and in a blog post, called the article a “hit piece.”

Neat little lanes 

Masks, healthcare policy and the ERA aren’t topics on which the Walton Family Foundation has taken a stand; nor are they obligated to, of course.

But on the issue of racial equity, WFF appears to have profound differences with IWF. Even so, Walton continues to fund the group in gifts of steadily increasing amounts—from $25,000 in 2016 to $100,000 in 2019 and 2020. According to the foundation’s email to us, this support is based on only two points of agreement with IWF. Beyond that emailed statement, we can only turn to Stern’s article to understand why.

“It would be easier on all of us if the lines were clear—if the funders, grantees, governments and businesses that collaborate shared an overarching ideology and agenda. For this, against that. That would preclude the need to ever have to explain or defend why you work with an organization on one issue but would never want to be linked with them on another,” Stern wrote.

“Except our work isn’t easy. It’s messy. Agendas overlap. Decisions demand nuance. Society is so divided it’s now hard to have a conversation on facts—let alone a debate on ideas. If the problems don’t fall into neat little lanes, we should not expect the collaborations to, either.”

This is a fair point, and such diverse coalition-building is an important principle in creating any kind of social change. Lots of foundations will similarly “spread their bets” or view themselves as honest brokers for varying opinions.

But this explanation doesn’t capture the level of contradiction between IWF’s positions and Walton’s goals and strategies, at least if you take the foundation’s guiding documents at face value. It’s also difficult to imagine how funding a group like IWF, which expresses little patience for viewpoints opposing its own—serves to promote this spirit of nuance and collaboration that Stern values so much.

If nothing else, it sends conflicting messages about Walton’s values. How, for example, can a foundation tell its team that diversity, equity and inclusion are priorities after giving hundreds of thousands of dollars to an organization vocally opposing diversity, equity and inclusion efforts? What does that say to team members or grantees working toward racial equity, or for that matter, those who experience racism in their daily lives?

You have to wonder if, as the Walton Family Foundation evolves, there are some vestiges of an earlier iteration of WFF still hanging on. Or maybe it’s not clear within the walls of the institution exactly where the organization is headed. At least in the case of IWF, the partners that are ostensibly collaborating aren’t just in different lanes; they appear to be heading in opposite directions.

Share