The following is a conversation between Caryl Stern, Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation, and Denver Frederick, the host of The Business of Giving.

Caryl Stern, Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation

Denver: It was some 33 years ago that Sam Walton, the founder of Wal-Mart, 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’s a pleasure to have with us Caryl Stern, the Executive Director of the Walton Family Foundation. 

Hi Caryl, and welcome back to The Business of Giving!

Caryl: Well, thanks! Nice to be back again. Great to see you. 

Denver: You had been the CEO of UNICEF USA for the last 12 years or so, been to about 45 countries around the world. So what in the world brought you to Bentonville, Arkansas, and the Walton Family Foundation?

Caryl: When I made the decision that I had been CEO long enough — and I think a good leader knows when it’s time to move on, and I was very, very blessed to work with a great board and a great team — and I wanted to go out while I still wanted to be there, but I really didn’t know what I wanted to do. 

And so, I made a list of things I needed in my next job, and most of it had to do with: It had to matter. It had to make the world a better place. It had to align with my values. I still had to be able to use my voice, and I had to be challenged with something I’d never done before. I wanted to keep learning.

So when this opportunity crossed my path, I thought, “Wow! This hits every one of those things except that I would have to leave my home in New York.” And I came out here and they interviewed, and I have to say I came out interested, but not thinking that I would probably do this.

I met the family. They were phenomenal. To a T, really interesting; diverse, diverse politics. Very, very smart, quick-thinking people.  I just found myself really stimulated by the conversations that we had. Fell in love with Bentonville — great place to live, great place to just unwind. People are friendly; small-town kind of feel to it. And the next thing I knew, I got a job offer, and I said, “Yes.” 

No matter what it is we’re doing, it is all about providing opportunity and access and encouragement because there is a belief that with those things, anyone can do anything.

Denver: There you go!  And I know it’s a great family in that sometimes with family foundations, they’re very distant and remote, but this is one where they’re really involved; they really care, and they’re really hands-on. Family foundations are also very distinctive. What would you say the characteristic is of the Walton Family Foundation? 

Caryl:  A. You’re right. It is a family foundation. There isn’t one leader in this foundation; all of the adults currently, which is they’re on the third generation, and everybody really is heavily engaged and involved. So that’s one.

But two, it operates on a set of values, and as I said, it’s part of what made me want to take the job. The values align with each of the three areas that the foundation funds, but it operates on a belief that solutions can be found anywhere, and that they really need to be based in part with the people for whom you’re solving problems. So very legitimately non-pejorative in their approach to everything that the foundation does. So that in and of itself is really exciting. 

Secondly, no matter what it is we’re doing, it is all about providing opportunity and access and encouragement because there is a belief that with those things, anyone can do anything. Sam Walton is a true American dream story.  

I think the other thing that really attracted me…my career has been very about leaving the world better than where I found it, and the foundation is committed to that. The foundation has always been committed to K-12 education and ensuring that every child has access to a quality education which will provide them opportunity for growth and direction, whether that’s college, career, whatever that “it” is. Those things to me really matter.

And then I think the closing deal on the foundation truly was also the foundation operates on a belief that within the environment sector, we borrow the earth from the children we leave behind, and here is that opportunity to ensure that this planet we leave behind is one that our children will be proud to inherit.

…this is not the moment to step outside your lane. Look at what you’re good at, figure out how you can approach whatever the disaster is through what you do well.  

Denver: I’m going to want to dig in a little bit more on those three focus areas, but first, I want to ask you about COVID-19 because that hit just about the same time you assumed this position. And I know you looked around for a disaster playbook or certainly for a pandemic playbook for philanthropic investment, and one didn’t really exist. So you got together with The Bridgespan Group, and you put your heads together. Tell us what you came up with. 

Caryl: Really fun. First of all, great organization to work with. Probably the only one who has a better team than them is me right now [as I’m very proud of my team.] But really, really amazing folks. 

They started with the premise of — We’ve all worked on emergencies, all of us who were part of this thinking group. What did we learn that could apply here? And there were definitely lessons learned. I think No. 1 was that this is not the moment to step outside your lane. Look at what you’re good at; figure out how you can approach whatever the disaster is through what you do well.  

And that for me, came out of experiences with international humanitarian aid where an earthquake in Haiti would happen, and I would see really well-intentioned people show up with their tent and their sleeping bag and take up space for someone who was actually trained to do what needed to be done… could have been, drink water that was scarce, eat food that was scarce, and then often be disruptive to organized responses. So knowing that lesson, how does that apply here? Well, the Walton Family Foundation works in three streams: K-12 education, our home region, and the environment.

So we started with: Let’s take a look at our own grantees. What do they need in order to sustain themselves? How do we be helpful as a funder? And how do we use those three streams to help the country get through this COVID pandemic? So that was kind of a Lesson No. 1. 

I think the other thing was to respect the expertise of others. We are not a food bank; that’s not what we do. However, there was a great need for food. So let’s go do our due diligence in: How could we in this moment perhaps support those who already have a network set up that could expeditiously, efficiently, and appropriately meet the needs of highly diverse communities across the country? Not fund somebody to create one that might work. Well, I think that was a second response. 

And then, third: How do we make those responses local? Staying to the belief that we think that solutions are often found within the communities you’re trying to solve for, so how do we do things that engage local people in responding to local needs? And I think that with Bridgespan, those theories got tested, and the playbook got created. 

Denver: That’s an interesting playbook because it seems to me, if I hear it right, too, you stuck to your mission, but you adapted to be relevant to the moment. And that is just the perfect combination of what you’re trying to do with it at a time like this.

Caryl: Absolutely! And similarly, we’re applying that to the diversity of race issues across the nation right now that we started work on– diversity and inclusion and equity way before this summer’s event. But in looking at what’s happened this summer and adjusting our strategies to meet those challenges, we’re going to address them through the three streams that we work in.

…the goal is that regardless of where you live, regardless of your economic sector, racial identity, no matter what, you have a right to a quality education and that it is the only tool in the arsenal that truly interrupts that cycle of poverty. 

Denver: Well, let’s start with Stream No. 1 — education. You’ve given over a  billion dollars, I think, over the past couple decades towards the educational field. I think you’ve also said you’ve learned a lot along the way. Tell us about what you’ve done and what you’ve learned. 

Caryl: So the Waltons have given the dollars, not Caryl. Let’s be clear. I wish. It would be nice to be able to make the claim “It was Caryl,” but it is the Walton Family Foundation. And I think it reflects the family’s true commitment for over 30 years now that every child has a right to a real quality education, and that not every child learns the same way and in the same environment will thrive.

So, historically, the foundation has supported charter schools. We’ve supported district schools. We’ve supported private schools. We have supported a variety of education endeavors, recognizing that not all children are the same, and not every opportunity is the same. And that the goal is that regardless of where you live, regardless of your economic sector, racial identity, no matter what, you have a right to a quality education, and that it is the only tool in the arsenal that truly interrupts that cycle of poverty. 

Denver: What would you say to those who are critical of the charter school movement? Some of them say they really haven’t closed the gaps. Others will say it’s siphoning money away from the public schools. What would you reply to that? 

Caryl: I would reply at a number of different levels. First of all, there isn’t an “It.” Charter schools come in many different sizes and shapes, and some have been more successful, and some have been less successful. Similarly, with the public schools. Some are more successful; some are less successful.

I do know that as a mom, I want an opportunity to choose what I believe is best for my child now. And while we hope our nation will solve — we’re facing a huge crisis right now, and I hope that coming out of COVID, we will build back better, so to speak — but for my child, I don’t have 10 years to wait for that answer. My child needs to be educated today. 

Denver: The foundation has made a significant commitment of a billion dollars over the next five years to continue this work. What are some of your top priorities, Caryl?

Caryl: I think right now, one of the biggest priorities facing us is we know there’s going to be a huge educational divide as we come out of COVID. 16 million kids have not had access to K-12 education because they didn’t have an internet connection, or because they didn’t have the actual computer, or perhaps because there were six kids trying to learn in one room, and that just wasn’t possible. We also recognize that teachers have gone through that same crisis simultaneously. We know that there were 400,000 teachers in America who lived in households without decent internet connection. 

So coming back to school right now in this back-to-school period, I think what’s really scary is: you’re going to have some kids who have been out of learning for five- to seven months at this point. And we know that what happens between June and September, there’s a gap — imagine that — for these children while others will not have had that gap. Final thing is that they’re going to go back to school. Many of them will have parents who lost jobs or whose economic situation has changed. Many lost family businesses; some lost relatives, lost parents, lost siblings. There were deaths in the family, or at least extreme illness. We have seen what happens to children, that whole psychosocial support that’s needed for kids. 

And now, they’re going back into a classroom with a teacher who’s living through it simultaneously, and no one has prepared that teacher for how to deal with that child and how to deal with them, even more so, remotely when school is normality, where there are multiple adults who see that child and can’t get that child the help he or she might need. Now that the child doesn’t have access to normality whatsoever. So part of what we’re looking at right now is: How do we support parents, families, students, and teachers in getting through that return- to-school period? 

In the environment space, we are really heavily invested in the Colorado River, for example. The Colorado River is vital to millions of people across a number of states, and even now to other countries, not just to us. It provides water to almost 40 million people. It powers over 16 million jobs. It irrigates nearly 6 million acres of farmland, and that sustains a $5 billion agriculture industry in the midst of an economic disaster right now due to COVID. So, the health of this river is particularly critical, so it is a big emphasis for us.

And the river is at this critical moment right now. The water demand exceeds the supply. We believe that there is enough water to go around, but it has to be managed flexibly, and it has to be managed responsibly. So we are really looking at innovative solutions: What are the good agricultural practices we could support to be put in place that will save that river, that will cut back the erosion, that will ensure water for our children and their children in moving forward?

 And then there is our home region. This is where Sam and Helen had their success. They have given back to this region ever since, and we have set some pretty audacious goals. We want to make Northwest Arkansas the most inclusive community in the country. We want to make it be a place of opportunity for economic success. We want to do the capacity-building necessary to empower the next generation to take on that leadership and to take advantage of what it has to offer. So that includes support for K-12 education here. That includes support of the Delta, broadly, not just Northwest Arkansas, the environment here, and with a special lens right now to racial equity in how we’re doing the grantmaking or into capacity-building.

Denver: The foundation has done a lot of work in the Gulf of Mexico area and Louisiana. Tell us what’s been going on there in light of recent developments.

Caryl: Well, as you know, the family spent a great deal of effort on cleaning up the oil spill. But in addition to that, the adversity that Louisiana has faced in the past 15 years, its residents have proven time and time again just how resilient and strong those communities are, which I think is important because I think outside of the region, there’s this perception of, “Oh God. Here, it goes again. Louisiana is getting hit!” But the people there just keep coming back, and I think that that’s really critical. 

We have an opportunity to re-establish and to rebuild the Louisiana Coast into this really thriving human and natural ecosystem, one that really hasn’t been seen for centuries. Since 2010, the Walton Family Foundation has invested roughly one hundred million dollars in coastal restoration efforts. And that money has been leveraged with bringing more than $8 billion in resources for the largest funded environmental restoration program on the planet to date. 

And then simultaneous to doing the environmental work, we’re improving the education system in New Orleans. So, following the years after Hurricane Katrina, they faced the critical question: When families return to rebuild their lives, what’s school going to look like? Is school going to be there? Many people fled. I remember being in the shelters in Houston immediately after the hurricane because so many people were down there, and a lot of people were contemplating: Do we go back? 

The K-12 work that the Walton Family Foundation has been doing has spanned the last 15 years. It includes about $25 million in grants to education in the region to ensure we’re not only restoring the land, but we’re building the community.

Denver: Caryl, if I see a thread through everything you do, it truly is a belief in the people. It’s not a foundation going in there for a handout or to help them, or something like that. You almost approach all of this, no matter any one of the three areas, knowing that the people have the answer to their own problems. And if you can just take some of the blocks out of the way, they will figure it out themselves. Would that be true? 

Caryl: That’s definitely true. I think that my almost 14 years in doing humanitarian work taught me that when I went in some of the poorest, most disadvantaged places in the world, the level of innovation was phenomenal. And that if we listened, we could figure out together how to best support people in need, that they will know what they need better than I know what they need. They will have ideas about how that can be supplied in ways that will suit their lifestyle. We may have experienced having seen it done elsewhere in another way that we can put on the table simultaneously. 

And what’s exciting about the Walton Family Foundation is: it’s a partnership. This is a family that learns. To a T, everyone involved in this foundation is an ongoing learner and does their due diligence in ways that they are open to ideas; they’re receptive to new approaches, and they bring the wisdom of the experience to date, and they’re not afraid to be wrong. And so it’s exciting to be a part of it. 

Denver: I can believe it. When you approach it with that kind of humility, wonderful things can certainly happen. 

What’s it like for you being on the other side of the desk, not out there banging the drum fundraising, but instead making grants? Is there a change of mindset that’s needed on the way you lead or not?

Caryl: I have a newfound respect for this side of the desk, I’ll tell you that. I think all those years, I have almost 40 years of raising the money, and I always thought, “Oh, it must be so much fun to just give it away.” Boy, there’s a lot more to it than I ever thought. 

The Walton Family Foundation gives a significant number of grants every year. And I think looking at, from start to finish: Is our grant application the right one? Are we asking the right questions? Trying to really stay true, having sat on the other side of the desk, of measuring impact, not just efficiency. Understanding that it’s about the net result “What did we learn from this? Not just “Did it succeed?” Because if we learned it, it means we can do it better next time. This was a really good grant. Trying to get my head into that mindset has been really interesting. 

I think also one of the things we’re tackling now that I’m really finding exciting is ensuring that our outreach is such that we’re finding all of the opportunities, and that our networks are such that are bringing diverse opportunities to us, and looking at how we expand those. And I think that that’s exciting. 

I think also, I hadn’t thought about it before I came here… the extent to which the values on which a foundation could be built would actually play out every single day. People talk about values all the time. I know in our previous interviews we’ve done together for other organizations, we’ve talked about: what are their priorities and how are values operationalized… this is a living, breathing values machine. We do this because we believe in it. We do this because it’s the right thing to do. We do this quietly. We do this humbly. We do this…those are things that I had not anticipated or really given a lot of thought to before I got here.  They are the things that leave me in awe.

Denver: It doesn’t surprise you about that though for an organization that was founded by Sam and Helen Walton because it just seems very consistent with their ethos. And I know what you’re saying, the values are just not here and you’re not just living the values. They’re so deeply embedded into the DNA of everything that they’re almost unconscious. You don’t even have to think about them. They’re just who you are. 

Caryl: Absolutely! They are a part of everything this foundation does, and I am excited by that, and I am also intrigued by it. I’m intrigued by the level of diligence that is done, not just before we do a grant, but in an ongoing way as the grant unfolds. And then one of the things the Walton Family Foundation has that’s really impressive that I hadn’t contemplated also before I got here is a strategic learning and evaluation department in-house, so that everything we do is evaluated at the highest level, and the strategies and learning that come out of that are integrated into everything we do from that moment forward.

Transparency matters. If you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge the mistake. Tell us what you’ve learned from the mistake. You will have our respect. We know that we’re human, and none of us have the answers. If we had the answers, we’d all fund that answer. We’re all struggling to find solutions.

Denver: Really intentional.  Just picking up on what we started here in terms of being on both sides of the desk. What advice would you have for nonprofits who are out there trying to approach… not your foundation, but any foundation and trying to raise money for their cause, particularly in this post-COVID racial equity world in which we live in?

Caryl: I think I’d go back to the COVID playbook that we did with Bridgespan:  Be who you are. Don’t try to convert yourself into something you are not. If you’ve never done a food bank, don’t try to do one. And look at who you are and how you might innovate, how you might take a left or a right a little bit, but don’t do a U-turn. I think that’s really important. 

Secondly, transparency matters. If you’ve made a mistake, acknowledge the mistake. Tell us what you’ve learned from the mistake. You will have our respect. We know that we’re human, and none of us have the answers. If we had the answers, we’d all fund that answer. We’re all struggling to find solutions.

 I think the other thing that I would say is: I don’t know a foundation out there who isn’t impressed by leveraging dollars. So who else can you bring to the table? What kind of partnerships can you form, and how will you share the learning from what you’re doing? 

Denver: Exactly what you did in the Colorado River in terms of bringing other people to the party, and that has made all the difference in the world.  For listeners interested in learning more about this work, your website is

And I want to thank you Caryl, for being here today to share these insights. It was such a pleasure to have you on the show again. 

Caryl: Thanks. Always good to be with you. I always enjoy it. Thanks so much.

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