A Conversation With Carrie Walton Penner and Kyle Peterson
For nearly three decades, the Walton Family Foundation has worked to solve some of society’s biggest challenges and create opportunity for people and communities in need. We spoke with Board Chair Carrie Walton Penner and Executive Director Kyle Peterson about the foundation’s growth, the role of family and the importance of staying true to the philanthropic vision of Sam and Helen Walton.
Carrie, you took on a new leadership role last year at a time of significant growth within the foundation. What are the biggest changes you have seen?
Carrie: Three generations in, our family’s engagement is stronger and more strategic than ever. We have restructured how the foundation is governed to act more urgently and effectively. Up to February 2016, we had open engagement by all family members. We had a board made up of 18 individuals, all family members. Now we have five family members on the board – my aunt Alice; my brother Ben; my father Rob; my cousin Steuart; and myself. Other family members serve the foundation through membership on committees.
The change has helped us focus our work. At the same time, it has allowed a full range of family members to be engaged in their specific areas of interest. We needed to figure out a way to be more efficient and effective while maintaining that strong family involvement.
Can you talk about why family engagement is so important?
Carrie: My grandparents wanted to have a family foundation that engaged generations of family members. They wanted the foundation to bring us together, to work together, to be active in giving back to our local community, our national community and internationally. Looking to the future, they also wanted to make sure the foundation was open enough to adapt as time goes on and as family members brought new interests to our philanthropic work.
Board Chair Carrie Walton Penner
Kyle, what is your biggest impression since joining the foundation as executive director?
Kyle: I feel like I had the luxury of having time to learn, ask questions and observe for a good two to three months when I joined the foundation. I had the opportunity to meet with individual family members, dig into the history and hear family stories. One of the things I concluded from chatting with family and staff is the foundation is on very solid footing. We have experienced tremendous growth. When that happens, systems can sometimes come undone. I haven’t found that here. We have an organization that is extremely functional. Now we are eager to build on that and seize new opportunities.
There is a pivot occurring with this foundation. It has been around for nearly 30 years, but it feels very entrepreneurial. Some foundations that have been around for decades can feel sleepy. The pace is slow, and maybe it has lost its urgency. That is not the case with this foundation. We have a very active family. There is a broad range of family members bringing new ideas, which is super healthy. The foundation has both a strong legacy and an entrepreneurial spirit – it is a good combination.
The foundation is tackling significant issues – from K-12 education to the environment and improving quality of life in regions like the Mississippi and Arkansas Delta. Could you talk about the magnitude of those challenges?
Carrie: When we began thinking about working on national K-12 education, we looked at it in the context of identifying the big social problems that needed to be addressed: How do you improve education for the kids most in need, the children who are being underserved? That’s also the approach we take with the environmental issues we work on, such as freshwater and fisheries. What are the big issues that need to be addressed? Because we are a family philanthropy, we can approach these issues in a very creative way that can complement work being done by those that have already been thinking about it, like a government or a school district. We want to be innovative. Sometimes we can think a little bit more out of the box than a larger institution.
Kyle: Just building on top of that, the idea of the moment in philanthropy is around ‘reaching scale.’ That is a dramatic change from the way foundations used to think, even 10 years ago. Foundations used to think more in terms of just finding great organizations to invest in. That was the job. The new idea is to look at big issues at the systems level and at scale. It is a fantastic development, but it is also very hard to do.
This family is doing that. When you are working on creating high-quality schools in cities like New Orleans or Indianapolis, or protecting the Louisiana wetlands, or restoring the health of the Colorado River, the fact is that solving those challenges requires a sustained commitment to lasting change. This foundation feels very comfortable taking on those big issues. The family isn’t after quick philanthropic wins. They are in it for the long haul.
"If we are truly focused on change at a systems level, whether it’s the Colorado River, the Mississippi River or an entire city, then collaboration is critical." – Kyle Peterson
Carrie, three generations of the Walton family have shaped this foundation. That’s unique in the world of philanthropy. What has stayed the same? What is different?
Carrie: We had family meetings the entire time I was growing up. It was very open and welcoming. As a child, I would come in, participate in the meeting and fall asleep on the rug in my grandparents’ living room. When I was in high school and college, I got more involved. My grandparents, my aunts and uncles, my dad – they welcomed any questions we had because this was something that we were doing together. We had significant conversations about giving back. To me, it has always felt like a journey we have all been on together.
Today, we are far bigger and more formal. Our meetings are now in a conference room instead of the living room. There is a professional staff supporting the work. But we still try to be open and welcoming to anyone who wants to be involved. We want everyone to feel welcome to ask whatever comes to mind. We learn through that process as well.
Kyle: In my time here, I’ve been impressed by the family’s deep commitment to learning by getting into the field for visits to the communities where the foundation works. Those visits are a great way to bring in ideas and understand firsthand the challenges people are facing.
Carrie: It has always been a critical piece of who we are, and what we do and how we stay grounded in the real purpose of the work. It is about the people. My uncle John used to spend time in public schools. He saw the difference in the quality of education that students from low-income communities were getting, compared to those students from higher-income communities. That is how our interest in K-12 education started.
Executive Director Kyle Peterson
You mentioned education. How do those "on-the-ground" visits by family and board members help shape the foundation’s environment work?
Carrie: Those conversations in the field are vital at every level of the organization. Many of us remember a family visit to Galveston in April 2010. We were on a shrimping boat, learning about some new ways to catch shrimp and reduce the amount of bycatch. It was there we learned about the Deepwater Horizon oil spill maybe 100 miles from where we were. We realized at that moment the incredible impact this event would have on the livelihood of those fishermen, and potentially on their children’s livelihood.
Because we were there on the ground when that occurred, we were able to see the impact. We were able to use the relationships – with partners in fisheries across the region – to begin working on mitigating some of the damage, as well as bring focus to long-term wetlands restoration throughout the region. Having that connection is important for our staff members, but also for board members and family members. It helps us stay grounded in what the true impacts of our work look like – for children, for farmers, for fishermen and for communities.
Do you see solutions developed at the community level as having more durability?
Carrie: Even though we are thinking about issues at a national level or an international level, everything is ultimately local. We can learn from big thinkers who are identifying solutions around the world. But every community is different, and every solution looks different depending on where you live. It has always been important to me that we don’t come into a community thinking we have all the answers, and we know how to fix a problem. We share knowledge about how other people around the country, or around the world, are addressing similar issues. But the decision-making needs to come from people at the local level. Those are their decisions. They will be embedded in those communities in a more lasting way than if we come in and say, "This is our idea, and you should do this because we have seen it work somewhere else."
Kyle: I would echo that. I have worked in the social sector for 30 years. When a solution or idea is imposed, it doesn’t stick. Most often, the solution resides with people in the community. You have to listen to that and provide the capacity building to make sure that folks can lead the change.
“Even though we are thinking about issues at a national level or an international level, everything is ultimately local.” – Carrie Walton Penner
As you look to the year ahead and beyond, what’s next for the foundation?
Kyle: We are going to build on what is working well. We have three amazing programs with ambitious five-year strategies. I also want to be more intentional about sharing information about the work we do and what is behind it. As I talk to grantees and our partners, they are curious. They want to hear about the work we are doing, but also how we are doing it.
Another focus is going to be on embracing the concept of the Walton Family Foundation as "one foundation." Our individual programs have evolved in strong ways. There is an opportunity to spotlight the best practices from one program and share them so that another program can benefit. Finally, I want to focus on increasing collaboration. If we are truly focused on change at a systems level – whether it’s the Colorado River, the Mississippi River or an entire city – then collaboration is critical. It requires working with other funders and other partners.
Carrie: One thing I know is that we will continue to think and do big things. Philanthropy is so vital to creating change in the world because we can take risks and innovate in ways that the public and private sectors can’t. Our foundation is more effective in tackling large-scale challenges than ever. We have a great team of professionals in place. We have dedicated grantees. We have a really strong feedback loop within the family to make sure we get the best ideas on how to give back and to ensure ongoing and lasting engagement. In fact, the fourth generation is starting to get involved. The whole family is proud of that, and I think that is exactly what my grandparents envisioned.