An Epic Ride
It started with a bike ride.
In the spring of last year, I flew to Bentonville for my final interview with the Walton family. I was invited along on a bike ride with Jim, Lynne and Steuart Walton. They asked if my wife and I were up for a ride along one of Northwest Arkansas’s world-class trails.
Thanks to that interview and my family’s excitement about joining me on this adventure, I’ve now reached one year in the saddle at the Walton Family Foundation. I can’t possibly do justice in this short post to all the things I’ve learned this year. I’ll just say that it’s been an amazing ride.
Shortly into my tenure, I shared my observations about the foundation and provided a glimpse into my priorities for the future. At that time, I observed that this is a very different foundation—the family and staff tackle big challenges patiently, with “all in” engagement by the entire family to create social and environmental change.
All of those observations still ring true. With a bit more time, and more climbs and turns, I see more on the trail and a bit more around the corner about this foundation.
Urgency for Impact
I’ve worked with dozens of foundations during my career, and I’ve never seen philanthropy move at such a determined pace. On a recent trip along the Colorado River with the Walton family, we were constantly on the go from sunrise to sunset. When we debriefed with family members after the trip, they told us the pace was perfect.
To keep our grant processes moving quickly without bottlenecks, staff meet every week to review grants. Then, program committees meet six times per year to approve these grants. This all grows from a sense of urgency. The family and staff know what is at stake for students in the Arkansas Delta, the fate of the Colorado River, or the vanishing wetlands in the Mississippi River Delta.
The urgency to make change on behalf of the people and places in our three programmatic areas drives an unusual clutter-free take on internal systems to get things done. This is welcome in this day of ever-more process and it is inspiring. Many of the foundations I’ve worked with over the years have great aspirations but bog down in months of deliberation and layers of approvals. The foundation and our board, under the leadership of board chair Carrie Walton Penner, don’t want bureaucracy to get in the way of impact.
Progress on Priorities
At the beginning of the year, my leadership team and I committed to a few priorities to take the foundation to the next level. How are things going?
First, we promised to be more clear and open about our work.
In the spirit of helping advance knowledge in our chosen fields, we’re publishing on our website much more of the research we commission. We’re being more transparent about our strategies, such as our effort in New York City to increase the number of mixed-income public charter schools. We launched this blog this year and we’re continually increasing the pace of our posts, because we’ve found this channel to be great for sharing what we’re learning in the field. Next year, we will be rolling out a searchable database of all our grants as well as our first proactive effort to share our mission, vision and values with all our stakeholders. I’m also proud of the way in which the foundation is using its voice, such as our strong support for Dreamers and other causes where there is a clear and urgent connection with our program imperatives.
That said, we’re still much better at sharing the easy stuff (e.g., announcing new grants, sharing what’s working) than the hard stuff (e.g., what’s not working, our progress toward our goals). We promise to add more focus on the latter in the coming year.
Second, I signaled in my first blog post that we would help break down program siloes and encourage more “one foundation” thinking and action. I’m encouraged by what I’m seeing from my colleagues. For example, Christine Schneider, on our education team, and Kristin Tracz, on our environment team, had the great idea of joining forces to develop a common measurement toolkit for grants that support building productive public discourse. They engaged grantees and other experts in creating the toolkit and then they shared the finished product with their peers across the foundation. We have learned a lot about this dynamic topic and we have more to learn. Still, in the coming months we will share the tool publicly to help other foundations as they engage in similar work.
Third, we promised that the foundation would become more collaborative in pursuit of the kind of system-level change we aspire to support. We’ve made more progress on this than I could have imagined. For example, I’ve had a chance to watch my colleague, Ted Kowalski, deftly work with a wide array of public, private and nonprofit leaders to broker an historic agreement between the U.S. and Mexico that will improve agriculture, drinking water and ecosystems on both sides of the border.
We are committed to helping our foundation track toward our big goals, not just individual grants.
Over the coming year, I’ll continue to report back to you on these priorities. And there are several more I’ve asked my colleagues to hold me accountable for in the coming year.
We are committed to helping our foundation track our progress toward our big goals, not just individual grants. I want to be sure that we’re asking the hard questions so we can get better at getting better. The family’s commitment to assessing our progress and shortcomings with a clear mind and critical eye has inspired our efforts over the last year to build out a sophisticated approach to strategy, learning, and evaluation.
We are also committed to strengthening our relationships with our grantees. When I was running programs in Rwanda and Zimbabwe and sitting on the grantee side of the table, my best funders by far were the ones who took the time to get to know me and build strong relationships. That approach is in the Walton DNA, but at the staff level we are sometimes stretched too thin to do it as well as we would like.
At the beginning of the year, I mentioned that we would be working with the Center for Effective Philanthropy (CEP) to survey our grantees on their experiences with us. We are now processing the extensive data we received from this survey. (A big thank you CEP and to all the grantees who took the time to fill it out!). We will share much more about what we learned in an upcoming blog post focused exclusively on these data.
Harder Than It Looked
Given the ambitions and urgency of the foundation, I suspect my second year in the saddle will be just as exciting as this year. Frankly, it’s been harder but infinitely more satisfying to lead a great philanthropic organization than doling out advice as a consultant!
I’m loving every day of this fast-paced ride, this ride of my life. I love this steep learning curve. I love working with this deeply philanthropic family and extraordinarily talented staff. And this son of Iowa loves being back in the Heartland. I feel blessed to be right here, right now. It’s exactly where I’m supposed to be.