The following is a conversation between Kyle Peterson, Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation, and Denver Frederick, Host of The Business of Giving on AM 970 The Answer in New York City.
Denver: It was 30 years ago that Sam Walton, the founder of Walmart, and his wife Helen, started the Walton Family Foundation. It has gone on to be one of the most highly regarded and thoughtful family foundations in the country, with three major areas of focus, and a never-ending commitment to learn and get better. And it is a pleasure to have here with us tonight, Kyle Peterson, the Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation.
Good evening, Kyle, and welcome to The Business of Giving!
Kyle: Good evening to you. It’s so wonderful to be here.
Denver: The vision of family foundations is, of course, set by its founders. Tell us about Sam and Helen Walton, the kind of people that they were, and their thinking as they established the Walton Family Foundation.
Kyle: It’s a great question because before taking this job, I had 14 years with a group called FSG, and we used to spend lots of time with foundations. That’s what I did. I hung around foundations. What’s different about this foundation is that it’s truly a family-led foundation, and it all starts with Sam and Helen. I’ve had the good fortune and, frankly, fun in getting to hear some of the stories about Sam and Helen.
Sam was this amazing iconoclast. He really was. There’s a museum that’s dedicated to Walmart and the whole trajectory of his career that’s only a block away from my office. So I’ve gone in there, and you can actually see him receiving the Medal of Freedom from President Bush, and he teared up; it’s hard to watch that and not tear up. But he set in motion with Helen, his wife, this idea of a family-led philanthropy. And the stories I heard were really… They would– the kids– John and Alice and Rob and Jim would sit around on the floor, and they would talk about the good that they were going to do. And I think this kind of flowed through two ideas: One from Sam, one from Helen.
From Sam, it really was: anybody can do anything if given the right encouragement and opportunity. There is no limit, and he talked about that certainly in his business.
Denver: He sure did.
Kyle: He also talked about that in his philanthropy. That idea of access and opportunity is fundamental to the foundation, something that really drew me in. Helen brought in this idea of: it’s not what you gather in life, it’s what you scatter. And the kids talk about that all the time, and it’s something that some of the people who’ve been tenured for a long time bring that up. And she has had an amazing influence… certainly throughout the area of Arkansas, but beyond. But those two set in motion what is today a tremendous family-led foundation.
Denver: Yeah. It is interesting you say that because I know so many people in your spot who have to work really hard to get family members engaged in the work of the foundation. It sounds like that’s not a problem for you.
Kyle: It is not. And you’re right. A lot of my peers, that’s their number one struggle. It’s to get a family member even to come to a committee meeting or to a board meeting. I was just on the phone coming in here, and there were four family members who are on the phone, and this is part of our education committee. And the governance is really interesting.
We do have a board, and there are five members of the board, but we have three committees for our three program areas that you describe. One for education, one for the environment, and one for our home region. You’ve got three or four family members who are involved in those committees, and they are intensively involved, asking deep questions. We have six of those meetings a year for each of the committees. We have site visits, and they come and they ask questions. And it’s a very interesting dynamic that, frankly, I have seen in other foundation that they don’t have this push. You gotta push at a board if you’re at another XYZ Foundation but you don’t have the push… I think the energy in particular, a new generation. Right? That’s what’s going on with this family. We talked about Sam and Helen and then their children. But now you have the grandchildren.
Denver: Right. We got the third generation.
Kyle: The third generation who is very, very involved. There are close to 20 Walton family members who are involved in philanthropic efforts, either directly connected to the foundation or with their own work. Every single day, that’s what they do.
Denver: Well, let’s talk about those three program areas starting with education and the foundation has made significant investments in K-12 education, something in the order of $1.3 billion over the last 25 years. Much of that has been directed towards chartered schools. In fact, you have helped support about 25% of the 6,700 charter schools in this country. What prompted this focus on education, and then specifically on charter schools?
Kyle: Well, it goes back to John Walton who was the son of Sam and Helen. Unfortunately, John died a number of years ago.
Denver: In 2005.
Kyle: In 2005, in an airplane accident. John was like Sam, apparently a real iconoclast. But he believed deeply that the key to somebody’s future, particularly a child, was education. And that really probably came also from his mother who focused a lot on education. And he is the one who, I think, set this in motion of looking at a different way, some new innovative ways to provide more autonomy to schools and to teachers and to make sure that we are able to do something… not 20 years from now or 10 years from now… but today to change the outcomes of kids, particularly disadvantaged kids in urban areas. So, it was John Walton who kicked this off.
Denver: Do you believe that charter schools, by and large, and I know they’re all different, have realized their original promise?
Kyle: It’s an interesting question. I think they have. In fact, there’s a recent study that just came out a couple of months ago, a CREDO study from Stanford University, which folks can go to the website and check that out. And you can see the dramatic outcomes that charter schools have had. It’s not perfect, and we certainly need to have strong accountability, and it’s about quality charter schools. But by and large, when you do look at the data, it is probably the most powerful intervention if you want to say what exactly is going on, but probably the most powerful intervention or activity that I’ve seen, that I’ve read about that you can do in terms of whether it’s a big school or small school or changing teachers. It really is very powerful, and it’s demonstrated. But there are probably charter schools that should be closed, like anything. But I do think in places like D.C. that I’ve gone to… and New Orleans, and a couple of other cities, you can see now where – you kind of hit a tipping point where a majority of kids are close to or actually going to charter schools, and the attainment rates and just the education situation overall is improving pretty dramatically.
Denver: Speaking of those cities where you make educational grants across the country, one of them is New York City. Tell us about what you’re doing here.
Kyle: Here in New York City, we have active work across our different inner ways of intervening in education. Everything from supporting charter schools, to promoting leaders, making sure that there are strong teachers and principals in the school system, to helping out with a lot of what we’re calling the enabling environment. And this is something that we’ve been learning about more and more… actually happened before I even arrived during a strategic review that happened two or three years ago. You can make a difference within the four walls of a school, but you have to think about a kid, in particular, a kid who might be in a disadvantaged situation… may have issues getting to the school, so that’s transportation. Or the parent may just not have information like: what is a quality school? So, we get involved in making sure that information is accessible to parents, making sure that enrolment systems are fair, and we also want to support parents’ voices.
Ultimately, a lot of these changes will stick not at the political level or even at the teacher level, but when parents are actively involved, and they are the ones who are watching: what is a good school? They can talk about that. So, we get involved in supporting the parent voice.
Denver: That’s very good. You have to look at these things from a holistic point of view and I think sometimes we put too much pressure on our schools thinking that a miracle is going to happen inside those four walls, and it’s a little bit more complicated than that.
Kyle: Yes, indeed.
Denver: Perhaps, not as well-known as your work in education is what the foundation is doing around the environment. But it is significant. Last year, you spent some $183 million on environmental projects. What was the impetus and the inspiration for the environment to be one of your focus areas?
Kyle: It’s like education, that’s why I think it’s a beautiful thing. It comes from the values and experience of the family. And the family… I’ve heard stories, and I’ve actually gone paddling on rivers with family members and hearing about their experiences when they were kids. So, Sam and Helen used to take their kids out in the summer and go on various rivers. They’d go around the country and visit state parks. So, I think they fell in love with fresh water and the experience of being outdoors. So that’s really where the essence of this is.
So, from an environmental standpoint, our program — we’re one of the largest funders in the environmental area — really focuses around two areas: one of fresh water and that is specifically the Mississippi River and that’s around the quality of the water, and we can talk about that; and the Colorado River and that’s more around quantity… make sure that we have enough water here in the Colorado River 20 years from now. But not just fresh water. We also look at oceans and in particular, we look at sustainable seafood. And we can talk about that, here in the United States but around the world as well.
Overfishing has been a huge problem, and there are a number of funders who are involved in this in addition to ourselves: Packard, Hewlett, Pisces, The Gordon Moore Foundation.
Denver: Yeah. I know you’re in Chile, Peru, and Indonesia, and places like that. What is the state of fisheries across the world, and how big a problem is overfishing?
Kyle: Overfishing has been a huge problem, and there are a number of funders who are involved in this in addition to ourselves: Packard, Hewlett, Pisces, The Gordon Moore Foundation. It depends on what you’re talking about… which country. Here in the United States, things have gotten better. There are instruments and tools and an idea called “catch shares” which actually looks at a fishery and actually would apportion a certain amount of fish in terms of what you are able to fish to a number of fishermen who were there, and that idea has paid off really well, particularly in the Gulf of Mexico that we’ve been supporting for a long time.
Indonesia we see improvement as well. But it really depends. There are fisheries around the world that have been exploited, and we’re trying to help that with a number of different things, in addition, to catch shares, making sure that in some cases that there is surveillance to make sure that policies that are being put in place by governments are actually adhered to.
Denver: I think they estimated about 30% of global fishing catch is coming from illegal sources.
Kyle: That’s exactly right. Yeah. This is a huge problem and something that we are getting involved in, in almost all the places that you’ve talked about that’s illegal and under-regulated fishing. We want to have it stopped, and we want to make sure the governments are involved.
Denver: Another area of serious concern is this… and boy… this was something that really caught my eye. In Louisiana, every hour, a football field of land disappears into the Gulf of Mexico. What is happening? Why is it so serious? And what are you doing to help address it?
Kyle: It’s a remarkable story. I could go on and on about this.
And over the last six to seven years, what we’ve been able to do is help to bring together a coalition. We played a small part, but I think an important part, in bringing together a coalition of business and government and certainly folks who were on the ground, nonprofit organizations and importantly, the people who are impacted. These are the folks who are involved as producers hauling fish in.
Denver: Please do. It’s incredible.
Kyle: Well, it is incredible. And this is another example of how the family became aware of this. Actually, they were in Galveston during 2010 when the BP oil tragedy happened, and they were actually looking at some fisheries there. They recognized at the time how dramatic of a problem this would be, and we just completely disrupted the whole Gulf area. So, they decided to get involved and really kind of bring in this idea of catalytic philanthropy. And over the last six to seven years, what we’ve been able to do is help to bring together a coalition. We played a small part, but I think an important part, in bringing together a coalition of business and government and certainly folks who were on the ground, nonprofit organizations and importantly, the people who are impacted. These are the folks who are involved as producers hauling fish in. We have brought people together to look at the issue around coastal restoration. And what can we do to actually use some of the settlement funds that have come from that BP oil spill to actually change fundamentally the situation in the wetlands?
I actually had a chance just a couple of months after I started to do a flyover with the family, and it was about two hours. So it was a slow fly over the entire wetlands area, and it was fascinating because you can see pictures of it, but actually to see that entire system and to be sitting with people on a plane who had lived in these areas and to hear them say, “When I was a kid–“
Denver: Yeah, shaking their head.
Kyle: “–I used to play football down there, and now it’s just open ocean.” And so what we’re trying to do is catalyze this coalition to actually make sure that a good portion of these funds — close to $10 billion — are actually used for diversions… which is an amazing thing.
Denver: What are diversions?
Kyle: Diversions. Basically, you’ve got the Mississippi River. It turns out the Mississippi River is probably the greatest land creator on the planet.
Denver: Who knew?
Kyle: Yeah. Who knew? But essentially, through the last 100 years, the Mississippi River was diverted through levies and the Army Corps of Engineers for a good reason… but the implication of that is that it hasn’t really been able to flow in its natural way. So that sand and sediment that this mighty Mississippi produces… bringing it all the way up from Minnesota and Wisconsin, et cetera, it doesn’t go to the places it used to and replenish those wetland areas. What you can do is actually, you can cut a channel in the Mississippi River and actually recreate land. You can actually have that sediment build up. You can direct that. And that’s what we’re trying to get a good $10 billion of the funding to do. It’s to create these massive diversions to rebuild land and to repopulate those wetlands. And it’s interesting. It sounds like science fiction.
Denver: It sure does.
Kyle: In many ways. But when you actually fly over, and you’ve seen some of the pilot channels that they’ve cut, you can actually see whole football fields of new land that have been created in the last two or three years. So, these coalitions have basically made sure that these funds are used in that right way. And you’ll begin to see in the next five to six years some of these massive diversion projects, and we feel very, very fortunate to be part of those.
Denver: That is absolutely fascinating. Of course, the biggest challenge you have is with the Federal Permitting timeline. Tell us about that.
Kyle: It’s probably not the sexiest thing to talk about these things because they do affect a lot of people. They affect people who are oyster fisherman, et cetera, and there’s a lot of people and things that are affected. So, these things do take time. So, we’re trying to reduce the bureaucracy, a bit of the red tape, and working with some of the governments that are along the coast there, the state governments, to reduce that time. And so we’re hoping what usually would take seven or ten years, to really reduce that down to three or five years.
Denver. Good. The final focus area is what you term as a home region… which would be around where you and Walmart are headquartered, which is Bentonville, Arkansas. But let me begin, Kyle, by asking you… and you’re an East Coast guy who’s just moved out there in the last year or so. What’s Bentonville like? And what has surprised you the most about it?
Kyle: We’ve loved it. And in fact, we visited Boston. That’s where I lived for 15 years. I’m not a Boston guy but we lived there 15 years. And we said, “Geez, we don’t miss it.” We really, really enjoy living in Northwest Arkansas. We’ve got family ties in Texas, so this is not the first time we’ve been in the region, but it’s a unique area. It’s not like Texas. It’s not like the Midwest. It’s kind of a combination amongst the Midwest, the South and the West. And we’re in this little corner; we’re on the border of Missouri and Oklahoma. We’re in the Ozark Mountains so it’s very, very pretty. People couldn’t be nicer. We have been welcomed into the community. But it’s interesting. Because Walmart is there, and you’ve got a couple of other big anchor companies like JB Hunt, which is a big trucking company, and Tyson, you have–it’s very diverse. You’ve got people from all over the world who are coming in to work at these major companies. So, the size of the community kind of belies a bit of really what’s there. So you have this interesting diversity. You’ve got beauty of the Ozark Mountains, and I think what’s really cool, you’ve got this dynamism. It was actually just in US News and World Report, it made number 5 of Best Places to Live. And I was looking at this- actually Boston is number 8.
Denver: So you’ve traded up.
Kyle: Yeah, I’ve traded up. I have traded up. But it is. It’s dynamic. A lot of this has to do with investments that are being made, but things happen quickly. Even in the year that we’ve been there, we’ve seen tons of new restaurants going in. We’re excited about what the foundation is doing, that we can talk about starting with the kind of key investment that was made which was Crystal Bridges Museum which everybody should go see. It is a treasure in the Ozarks. It’s a beautiful museum that’s dedicated to American art and making sure that everybody can access it.
Denver: Now, what family member was the champion of that?
Kyle: That’s Alice Walton, who is incredible, and I’ve had a great chance of talking with her. This Crystal Bridges Museum sits in a kind of forested ravine along a stream, and this island that her dad and mother owned, and she talks about going down to the stream and sitting there and drawing watercolors. And that really is what gave her the inspiration. She didn’t have a chance when she was young to go to any museum such as they weren’t accessible to her. And that was the fundamental point, and I think that’s why she wanted to create this and give back to this community with something that was beautiful and expressive of American art. And what she does, she pays for kids to come. She pays for the busses to come, and there’s no charge at all for the museum. Free admission. And if you actually look at the statistics for the number of people who actually come to this museum compared to the population, it blows everything that exists in the country out of the water. But it’s a gorgeous spot. But that’s really the starting point. And now what you have there are other interesting cultural novelties and new restaurants. It’s got this really interesting energy to it.
Denver: And it keeps on evolving because if we look towards contemporary art, now there’s a new venue being planned called the Momentary.
Kyle: That’s right. This is about maybe two or three miles away from Crystal Bridges, and this is something that’s really the idea of Sam and Helen’s two grandchildren… and that’s Tom and Steuart Walton. Alice is very involved in this as well. But this is a really cool 1920s or 1930s old Kraft macaroni and cheese factory that was abandoned that’s being turned into this hip, new sort of performing arts center that Tom and Steuart are calling a living room for the community. There will be a rooftop bar. There will be places.. Make Your Spaces for folks to come in. There’ll be galleries, but it will be very lively. If you’re an artist, you’ll be able to actually go in and use it. But who would have thought that a Kraft cheese factory would be converted into a really interesting museum that will be popular for millennials? This is coming probably 2019. And it’s right next to another foundation project that’s called Bright Water, and it’s a culinary school, and it opened a couple of months ago, and it also was a converted Tyson processing plant. You go in there and it feels like you could be in New York City in terms of the equipment that’s there. It will be educating culinary leaders all throughout the region. And they’ve got a greenhouse and gardens. You’re seeing this interesting cluster of food and art happening. It’s just a really cool spot to live in.
Denver: You’re going to be drafted to work for the Chamber of Commerce. I’m telling you. I know one reason you’re so happy there is that you’re a biker, and you have some of the best bike trails in the nation, don’t you?
Kyle: This is true, and people don’t know that. You think you go to Colorado or Maine, Vermont to go biking, but in this neck of the Ozarks, we have some of the best single-track mountain biking I’ve ever seen. The thing that’s different about it… compared to where I used to live in Boston, Boston, there’s certainly mountain biking there, but you’d have to put your bike on your car and go drive an hour. So, that is a little obstacle to go do it!
Denver: It’s a production, that’s what it is.
Kyle: It is what it is. Here, just about anywhere in the town of Bentonville, you can find access to the trail. Either it’s a paved trail, or you’ll find one of the mountain biking trails, and we put in dozens and dozens of miles. And more and more is coming, but that also is catalytic because it’s created this vibe that has attracted restaurateurs to come in… microbreweries, and it’s attracting just a younger group of people which is fantastic.
Denver: That’s what cities need.
Kyle: Exactly, and it kind of reminds me. My wife and I, we lived in Austin in the early 90s. We went to school at the University of Texas, and this is before Austin was even on the map. Nobody knew what Austin was about. But it feels like Austin, kind of in 1990, 1991.
Denver: That’s a good feeling.
Kyle: It’s very outdoorsy, and I think the mountain biking is certainly attracting a great crowd.
Denver: You know, evaluation and learning are a core part of what you do. You’re always seeking actionable information that will lead to greater impact. Is there an instance, Kyle, from any one of these program areas, where the feedback you got led you to rethink or change direction on what you were doing to solve a problem?
Kyle: It’s a great question because this is one of the areas that’s near and dear to my heart. To answer that, yes. It happened before I arrived, but we have a very, very strong evaluation group. In fact, I think the foundation is known for that.
Denver: Yes it is.
Kyle: We had done evaluation working in the delta area. So, Northwest Arkansas, we also work in the delta which is east. It’s about four or five hours if you were to drive from Bentonville straight to the Mississippi River, and it’st a completely different part of the country. We invest there because that’s an area that goes way back for Sam and Helen in terms of when they had some of their first stores, and the family has a strong commitment there. But we had been investing apparently for years and years. It’s a horrifically poor area, and we hadn’t seen the changes that we wanted. So, this led to a pretty dramatic shift in the strategy of what we call the delta area that really focused much more, double-down in education, looked at workforce development as an area, and a couple of other parts as well. But we really changed the strategy. This was about three years ago in the delta, and we’re continuing to do that again. I’ve just been part of some interesting strategy sessions based on data we’ve received, and we’ll probably be making some course corrections as well.
Denver: Continuous improvement. Never happy with the status quo, are you? Let me ask you about the corporate culture of the Walton Family Foundation. I know you said that one of your objectives as Executive Director was to break down silos whose formation is not unusual in an organization that deals with such disparate and unique challenges. What steps are you taking in order to achieve that?
Kyle: It’s a great question. I do think this is kind of natural, particularly for an organization that’s been around for 30 years. But I look back at what I did at FSG (Foundation Strategy Group). We had offices around the country and around the world, and how do you actually bring people together? So, there are some things that I think are probably a little straightforward. One of the things is just internal communication, and I’ve increased that dramatically. Not with a whole bunch of stuff like in a Dilbert world, but a couple of things that bring people together to kind of shine the spotlight across all the activities. Now, we’re spending more time sharing amongst the programs. That’s really, really important. Part of this has to do with the work that we’ve done with evaluation, and evaluation has gone through a bit of a revamp. What was focused on strategy now is strategy learning and evaluation and making sure that if we have a good way of working in one particular program, we’re sharing that more dramatically and more frequently with another program, and just making sure people spend time together. Some of these things are not that difficult.
Denver: No magic answer there. It’s just really common sense sometimes.
Kyle: You don’t need 20 things. I think you just need three or four powerful ones.
Denver: To make them work, that’s right. Let’s pick up a little bit on you. Having come from FSG, you were a Managing Director there. They are one of the most highly regarded institutions in this field of consulting, and you also did a stint in the Peace Corps, and you were at Monitor and PSI (Population Services International). How have they all influenced and informed your current work at the Walton Family Foundation?
Kyle: I have to say, thank God I had all those experiences who knows what it takes to actually lead an organization like this that is so dynamic and cares so much about impact. But a couple of things I think have been real gifts to where I am today: The Peace Corps experience I think channeled me, channeled every bone in my body, to wanting to wake up every day and do good. That’s what jazzes me. It’s not out of any saintly thing. It just is what excites me.
I’m excited about making a change, and if you’re not motivated by that, you’re not going to do very well.
Denver: You were pretty young. You were 19, 20 years old right?
Kyle: Yeah. But that’s what excites me. What excites my wife, too. We met at Peace Corps. So, that’s one. The fundamental part of what I do. I’m excited about making a change, and if you’re not motivated by that, you’re not going to do very well. I think my experience in Africa after the Peace Corps, and I was there for about 12 years beyond that and doing work in global health during the epidemic of HIV. That was in the mid-90s and late 90s in places like Rwanda and Zimbabwe, and particularly, Zimbabwe which was the epicenter of the HIV crisis at that time, which seemed like intractable. Through a lot of work, we weren’t the only ones. We played a small role in helping to roll back HIV–zero prevalence in the time in Zimbabwe– where at that time, in 1997 or so, amongst 15 to 19-year olds, a good 30, 35% of the population was HIV-positive. Through our work, we were able to roll that back.
So, I think that gave me a bit of a view that you can make big change. This was at the national level. That has never left me. It wasn’t something I read about. It wasn’t a case study. It’s something that I was involved in that has given me some guardrails or handholds to know about how to create change that’s big. Aand certainly, my work at FSG. We touched a lot of subject areas, and I worked with tons of organizations. You get a bit of pattern recognition when you get to do that. So, I think all those experiences have really helped me to be where I am today.
Denver: Let me close with this, Kyle. Sam Walton once promised to approach philanthropy with the same lack of reverence that he approached retail. He believed in shaking up assumptions, and I think a lot of observers would agree with him, that the field of philanthropy is ready to be disrupted. What do you hope to be able to do to honor the maverick spirit of the legendary Sam Walton, the founder?
Kyle: It’s a huge, huge thing that I think about every day. I think if I can make sure that we focus on impact, on who we’re trying to serve, most importantlyAnd don’t get in our own way! That can happen a lot in the social sector through all sorts of processes and bureaucratic clutter.
Denver: We can overthink things.
Kyle: And if we can keep our eyes on the people and places that we’re trying to serve and learn fast; what he did was he always asked the customer how to get better. So, I’m a big one in asking folks who are trying to help… partners: how can we get better? Because then you learn faster to get to the impact.
Denver: Lean on a lot of experts, but those beneficiaries, they know an awful lot. Kyle Peterson, the Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation, I want to thank you so much for being here this evening. If listeners want to learn more about the initiatives you talked about this evening and a few others that we didn’t get to, your website is?
Kyle: It’s the waltonfamilyfoundation.org.
Denver: There you go. Thanks, Kyle. It was a real pleasure to have you on the program.
Kyle: Thank you so much. I really appreciate it.
The Business of Giving can be heard every Sunday evening between 6:00 p.m. and 7:00 p.m. Eastern on AM 970 The Answer in New York and on iHeartRadio. You can follow us @bizofgive on Twitter, @bizofgive on Instagram and at http://www.facebook.com/BusinessOfGiving