Wal-Marting Philanthropy

by Bill Berkowitz

Z magazine, February 2006


By now, almost everyone knows the story of Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, private employer (it has more than 5,000 stores; 3,400 in the U.S.), and the largest company based on revenue, with more than $280 billion in sales. Wal-Mart's discounted prices, however, come with a heavy price tag. Workers are underpaid and overworked in sweatshops overseas, while their non-union counterparts in the U.S. often cannot afford healthcare. When Wal-Mart comes to town, many small businesses close down, permanently changing the "civil fabric" of local communities. The company's bottom line is dependent on soaking up hundreds of millions of dollars in taxpayer subsidies extracted from cash-strapped county budgets. A May 2004 study by the Washington, DC-based Good Jobs First entitled "Shopping for Subsidies: How Wal-Mart Uses Taxpayer Money to Finance Its Never Ending Growth" found that the company siphoned more than one billion dollars in economic development subsidies from state and local governments across the country. Wal-Mart has also been the target of a flood of lawsuits; it is currently the defendant in the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit ever, a suit representing more than 1.5 million women.

Wal-Mart, and the Walton family that runs the company founded by Sam Walton, devotes a significant portion of its holdings to boosting conservative political candidates and a conservative social agenda centered on the privatization of public education.

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP) offers some context in its report, "The Waltons and Wal-Mart: SelfInterested Philanthropy:" "Philanthropic grant-making and campaign contributions to political action committees (PACs), as well as to candidates, increasingly represents the surplus capital of the wealthy, which they can devote to promoting their sociopolitical worldview."

The NCRP report notes, "Corporations and their foundations in 2004 contributed $12 billion in cash and in-kind donations to charities." A "lack of government regulation over the reporting of those contributions," makes tracking "the true amount of corporate gifts nearly impossible."

It is "even more difficult," the NCRP report maintains, "to uncover the true intent behind many corporate philanthropic projects." While companies benefit in a number of ways when gifts to non-controversial charities are acknowledged and publicized, donations to politically charged campaigns and causes often raise the hackles of both stockholders and customers. In recent years "little government oversight and a general lack of transparency" have become the spawning grounds for "the misuse and abuse of corporation philanthropy," as witnessed by scandals involving Enron and Tyco International, which included "questionable board and executive uses of corporate philanthropy."

The Walton Family

Bentonville, Arkansas is home to the Walton family and the Wal-Mart corporate empire. Andy Serwer reported in an extensive profile in the November 15, 2004 Fortune magazine that the family controls "about 39 percent [4.3 billion shares] of Wal-Mart stock, worth some $90 billion, which makes them by far the richest family in the U.S."

According to the NCRP report, "although all family members have had business ventures and wealth independent of their inheritance, the bulk of the family's fortune is managed together by Walton Enterprises." On an annual basis, the Walton's $90 billion "produces dividends upward of $800 million."

When Sam Walton died in 1992, he left "the bulk of his wealth" to his wife, Helen, and their four children. According to the NCRP, Sam Robson Walton is the eldest son and has been chair of the Board of Wal-Mart Stores Inc. John, who recently died, was "the activist in the family, working to fund political campaigns for school vouchers and charter schools and directing much of the family's charitable giving." Jim, the youngest son, "is CEO of the Walton family's financial division, Arvest Holdings, which owns Arvest Bankthe largest bank in Arkansas." He also "heads" Walton Enterprises and owns the local newspaper in Bentonville. Alice is apparently the only Walton child that "does not directly control any of the family enterprises."

With strong encouragement from Helen, Sam Walton started his family foundation with $1,000 in 1987. By the time Sam Walton died five years later, he left the foundation $172 million. NWANews.com's Mark Minton pointed out in November 2004 that, according to the Walton Family Foundation's tax return filed that same month, it "held assets worth $733.9 million at the end of 2003."

While assorted members of the Walton family have established their own philanthropic projects, the Walton Family Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundations are the flagship foundations. The Walton Family Foundation already gives out more than $100 million a year-much of it to opponents of public school education-and it may receive as much as an additional $20 billion when Helen dies.

Despite donations to Planned Parenthood and $5 million for the establishment of Walton Arts Center near the university campus in Fayetteville, Arkansas, the Walton family has been a champion of alternatives to public education. It has supported the establishment of charter schools and private school choice. "It gave a string of grants totaling nearly $3 million to the national Knowledge is Power Program, which recruits teachers to create public college prep charter schools in underserved communities," Minter reported. "The gifts included donations to 21 such schools around the country."

According to the NCRP report, "almost all political contributions made by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Political Action Committee for Responsive Government, and individual family members, are directed toward Republican candidates for public office or Republican political committees. Of $2.1 million given in 2004, $1.6 million went to the GOP, while less than $500,000 went to Democrats.

Newsweek reported that WMF has consistently ranked first in total giving based only on cash contributions. Wal-Mart reported that WMF gave more than $170 million in 2004, up nearly $60 million from two years earlier. According to the company's figures, "more than 90 percent" of its donations go through its local stores.

Although the foundation prohibits the funding of "faith-based organizations whose projects benefit primarily or wholly their membership or adherents," nevertheless, "churches and other houses of worship receive a large percentage of grants," according to the NCRP report.


Schools for Profit

According to its 2003 IRS tax filing, the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) was the 63rd largest foundation in terms of assets ($733 plus million) and 25th largest in terms of giving ($107 million).

The WFF concentrates its giving on three spheres: "systematic reform in education," focusing on K-12; "the northwest region of Arkansas"; and "the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi." The WFF also concentrates on funding charter school initiatives, Educational Options Scholarship Initiatives, school improvement, and Arkansas education. Before his death, John Walton was "one of the nation's leading private individual funders of charter schools and voucher initiatives."

The NCRP, looking into the WFF's penchant for spearheading the privatization movement, asks: "Why is the richest family in the world so committed to education and specifically to school choice, when they themselves mostly attended public school to apparently good effect?

"Some critics argue that it is the beginning of the 'Wal-Martization' of education, and a move to forprofit schooling, from which the family could potentially financially benefit. John Walton owned 240,000 shares of Tesseract Group Inc. (formerly known as Education Alternatives Inc.), which is a forprofit company that develops/manages charter and private school as well as public schools."

The WFF provides more than $1 million to each of the following socalled school reform/choice groups: the American Education Reform Council, the Center for Education Reform, Children's Scholarship Fund, Colorado League of Charter Schools, and the Florida School Choice Fund. The Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of America (also known as Children's First America) received $10.3 million in 2003 and $8.3 million in 2002.

The WFF has also supported the Washington, DC-based Black Alliance for Education Options (BAEO), an African Americanheaded group that "works to advertise and market the school voucher movement to African-American families" (www.baeo.org). In October 2002 BAEO received a $600,000 grant from the Bush administration. "We want to change the conversation about parental choice by positively influencing individuals who are resisting parental choice options and get them to reconsider their outlook," Undersecretary of Education Gene Hickok said when he announced the grant. The Black Commentator characterized the BAEO as "the school vouchers propaganda outfit created by the far-right [Harry and Lynde] Bradley Foundation."

In addition to its support for the "school reform" movement, the WFF "funds pro-voucher think tanks like the Goldwater Institute and the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research." In a short piece, titled "John Walton and the Walton Family Foundation," People for the American Way point out, "On the legislative front, John Walton personally contributed $2 million to the failed 2000 Michigan voucher initiative as well as $250,000 to California's Prop 174 in 1993, another unsuccessful voucher initiative. Walton also bankrolled the California effort through his American Education Reform Foundation, as well as an unsuccessful 1997 voucher campaign in Minnesota."

The National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy concludes its report by pointing out that, "Wal-Mart and the Walton family have only recently begun to translate their vast wealth into political power." While Sam Walton expressed little interest in national politics, his progeny have moved in that direction.


Bill Berkowitz is a freelance writer covering conservative issues and policies.

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