June 26, 2017

Green Giant: Where’s Walton Been Sending its Environmental Funding?

News Source: Inside Philanthropy

Author(s): Tate Williams

Conservation is not the Walton Family Foundation’s biggest grantmaking priority, not by a long shot. That would be education—Walton's program gave away $191 million last year and has been the nation's top funder of charter schools across the country.

Even so, with an environment program less than half that size, the Walton Family Foundation is still one of the largest green funders in the country, with a focus on rivers and marine issues. A recent report on ocean conservation philanthropy listed WFF among the top five foundations supporting the cause, together giving more than half of all such philanthropy. That’s not to mention its sizable giving toward conservation of the Mississippi and Colorado rivers.

The foundation—endowed by the wealthiest family in the country—posted its numbers for 2016 funding not long ago, which offers a good opportunity to catch up on what the environment program’s been up to.

For starters, of the foundation’s overall giving of $454 million in 2016, about $83 million went to its environment program. That’s about $3 million more than the previous year, but actually down quite a bit from 2014. From 2009 to 2014, Walton’s environment giving nearly doubled, peaking at $101.3 million, after which it seemingly leveled out over the past couple of years in the $80 million range.

It is worth noting that the foundation’s Special Projects portfolio has grown significantly in recent years, hitting $131.7 million last year and becoming the foundation’s second-largest portfolio. This program is made up of funds directed by members of the Walton family, making up an interesting grab bag of grants that are often still within the ballpark of the foundation's programs. For example, there’s a million-dollar-plus grant to Conservation International in there, close to a million to EDF, and some interesting bike-related grants, as well.

But getting back to the main channels of giving, Walton’s still got four priority areas of environmental focus—the Colorado and Mississippi rivers, oceans, and coastal conservation, that last one looking mainly at the Gulf of Mexico. There’s also a small pot for innovation and research. Oceans make up the largest single focus, landing $35.6 million last year. The main theme that runs through Walton’s environmental giving is the pursuit of environmental solutions that have economic benefits. The foundation often gives big to market-based approaches like improving the seafood industry.

As far as top grantees, there’s a similar dynamic as in previous years, in which some of the largest environmental nonprofits in the country (the “big greens”) had the biggest paydays. The largest environmental grantee by far in 2016 was the Environmental Defense Fund, receiving $13 million in grants, and Conservation International took second, with $6.4 million.

This makes a certain amount of sense for WFF, as both groups tend to be on the moderate side of the environmental movement (depending on your definition of moderate, I suppose), embracing partnerships with large corporations. In fact, all parties have caught some heat for the fact that EDF and CI both have corporate partnerships with Walmart, while accepting large amounts of funding from the Walton Family Foundation. While Walmart and WFF are independent entities, both are closely connected to the Walton family (see EDF’s response here).

Other major 2016 grantees include the Nature Conservancy, the Ocean Conservancy, the National Wildlife Federation, and the National Audubon Society. Fifteen grantees top the $1 million mark, but there's a total of about 160 grantees, with the median funding amount at $175,000. So  there are some very big grantees at the top of the heap, but overall, a large pool of organizations.

As far as programs go, Walton reports that ocean grants have been placing a big focus on reducing overfishing in its target geographies—the U.S., Mexico, Peru, Chile, and Indonesia. That included an alliance formed with scientists and seafood companies to take on illegal fishing, one of the biggest problems facing ocean ecosystems. On the freshwater front, Walton has been working with farms to improve water management and otherwise curb over-allocation of resources. The foundation was involved in securing a federal-state agreement to aid the shrinking Salton Sea. And WFF continues to work in the Gulf of Mexico to shape where funds from the settlement of the 2010 oil spill litigation are headed.

In 2016, the foundation set a five-year 2020 strategic plan for its main programs, reaffirming its commitment to those four main initiatives. And on the fisheries front, just this month, WFF laid out a five-year, $36.6 million commitment to continue its sustainable seafood work, funding on the demand and supply sides.

Finally, of the country's leading environmental funders, WFF continues to be one of the holdouts that has yet to prioritize climate change as a program or subprogram. This is notable in light of a recent report commissioned by the Packard Foundation that strongly emphasizes the threat climate change poses to ocean health. Walton’s clearly committed to the green levers it's chosen to pull, but climate change will remain an elephant in the room for such a deep-pocketed and influential environmental funder.