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How The Walmart Foundation Innovates Corporate Giving For A Bigger Impact

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Walmart Foundation, talks about making an impact both globally and locally, and how any company can be a better corporate citizen.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell, president of the Walmart Foundation, has never met Marina, but Burwell has made a big impact on her life. Marina is the 24-year-old survivor of abuse and the single mom of a toddler whose dreams of becoming a certified teacher are being realized. Thanks to the retail giant’s pledge to help 200,000 women from low-income households get access to higher education and learn job skills, Marina was able to get paid for a six-week transitional stint at a day-care center, which ultimately led to full time employment and tuition assistance.

It’s no surprise that Burwell tells this story with an audible amount of pride. Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment initiative is one of the biggest reasons she left her post as president of the Global Development Program at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and took up residence in Bentonville, Ark.

Sylvia Mathews Burwell

Walmart has drawn a fair share of criticism, especially after the recent class action suit (dismissed by the Supreme Court last year) in which it was charged with discrimination against female employees. Yet nearly a year into her new role, Burwell has presided over a number of programs that benefit women, such as a $7.7 million grant for the Beyond Jobs program and a commitment to buy $20 billion worth of goods from female-owned businesses aimed at impacting the lives of disadvantaged women, both in the U.S. and abroad.

For someone who spent the last decade working with the largest foundation in the country, with about $36 billion in assets, Burwell says she was surprised at how agile the Walmart corporate juggernaut has been. In her second week on the job, she recalls having a chat with a colleague about an in-store campaign. "I thought it was just a conversation about an idea," she admits. "Not even three weeks later there was a plan in place."

Likewise, when Walmart announced it would help the victims of hurricane Sandy, within hours of a phone call between Burwell, New York’s Governor Cuomo, and key staff from Walmart’s logistics, transportation, replenishment, and markets teams, truckloads of food were being delivered to the Javits Convention Center in Manhattan for distribution. "The speed and ability to deliver really surprised me," she says.

Things are about to get even faster. Burwell says that the Walmart Foundation is going to begin working with @WalmartLabs, the retailer’s Silicon Valley-based brain trust. WalmartLabs has already boosted the chain’s social media presence and its search engine in effort to compete with the likes of Amazon. Burwell says the Foundation is in the early stages of planning hack days for social impact, to find innovative ways to solve problems in workforce opportunity and women’s empowerment issues.

Right now, though, she and her team are getting ready to release the results of a social media campaign dubbed "12 Days of Giving" that makes grants to local nonprofits that are impacting their communities. When the initiative was launched on Facebook last year it garnered just over 5,000 nominations and awarded $1.5 million in grants to 145 organizations. This year, she says, Walmart Foundation received 21,600 nominations and plans to announce the winners starting December 10.

Next year, the Walmart staff who volunteer to vet the nominations may find themselves inundated with even more applications. But Burwell’s convinced that social media is key to making strides in corporate philanthropy. "Just as it’s used in a business to connect customers’ wants and products, in the philanthropic space you can share information in ways that will increase people’s ability to participate and to know and see results," she explains. Social media sharing will be especially important when assisting with disaster relief, she observes. "You can increase your ability to both respond with speed and with accuracy to need."

That’s why she says grant categories aren’t going to be set in stone from year to year. "Social media affords us the ability to be reactive to needs, the issues that are most important to people," she says. Getting better measurements will also ensure that grants get to the right organizations. There is no shortage of worthy nonprofits doing good work in their communities, so how to get beyond the visceral response of wanting to help everyone? Burwell likens the Walmart Foundation’s decision-making process to when a VC vets a startup. "There’s the logistics and economics part," she says. "Can the organization deliver and what type of impact are they having in their community?"

Though Burwell admits, "I probably would not be presumptuous to think that we could give lessons to other businesses," when pressed for how any company could be a better corporate citizen, she did have a few bits of advice.

"Innovation isn’t just about technology, it’s also about trying different things," she says. "I think that the evolution to what I call business-enabled philanthropy is one that many of us are in the midst of." So Burwell suggests thinking in terms of circles. Companies can draw one circle around what problems they believe are acute and need addressing and a second around solutions, "Because you have to have reason to believe there will be success." The third, and most important, is to determine what the business is good at.

For the world’s largest grocer, Burwell says hunger and nutrition were obvious choices for Walmart to try to impact. "You would expect that we would have knowledge and expertise, resources and logistics," she says. Walmart is now tackling how best to make food affordable, accessible, healthier, and sustainably produced. Where Walmart doesn’t have the resources, for example in nutrition education, the Foundation has made $5.5 million in grants to fund learning initiatives, she says.

Smaller companies can have a big impact, too, Burwell believes, by figuring out the core strength of the business and tapping the passions of its people. Walmart associates at individual stores were eager to participate in fundraising for the Children’s Miracle Network. Their enthusiasm, in turn, helped customers engage with the effort. The more people engaging and participating, the bigger the impact. Says Burwell: "People get excited when they are part of changing the world and changing their local community."

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[Image: Flickr user Walmart Corporate]

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  • Carolyn Warden

    Why don't the focus on giving Walmart employees a living wage instead of having an HR dept that refers them to social services rather than employer funded benefits.  I will not shop there until they treat their people better.  

    I wish they would go back to being a distribution channel for "Made in america" but I think the top management & Sam's family is too greedy to do that. They are poisoning the people manufacturing those products in China - or China is allowing every manufacturing employee to be poisoned with known problem chemicals that the 1st world forbids.  There won;t be enough Chinese workers some day - maybe 100 years from now - at the pace they pollute their environment and harm their workers.  So Sad that America's $ makes this possible at a faster pace.

  • Curious101

    Do your homework people!  The Walmart Foundation is not new.  It has been around for a very long time supporting local community organizations to the tune of millions of dollars every year.  What they don't do is spend a lot of money promoting their charitable endeavors.  Their philosophy has been that it is better for the money to go to help people in need than promoting their own reputation like Target.  Target donates $1 million to St. Jude and spends $10 million in advertising telling the public about what good corporate citizens they are.  Walmart donates $300 million to thousands of local charities and spends nothing telling the public.  I prefer to shop at the store that is actually making a difference not just beating their chests saying look at us!  

  • Robin

    I just don't understand comments like this. What, would you rather have them do nothing at all? Corporations have the agility and scope (as well as the ability to span across national borders, as if they didn't exist) to accomplish more good than any government could. I like to use Nike as an example. Could the US government go to Southeast Asia and force the governments to increase wages for manufacturing labor? Definitely not. But after pressure from consumers, Nike improved the working conditions, wages, and lives of 100,000s employees and supplier's employees. No government could ever force another nation to get rid of sweatshops. You look at corporations like FedEx and Walmart who are often the first to respond in natural disaster areas, faster than any government could do it.

    Yes, Walmart could improve things for their own employees, and they should! But, don't chastise them for creating a foundation and using it to spread good.


    Your Nike example is a good one, they corrected their policy's after outrage from the global community or at least from their biggest customers, the Americans.

    Comparing Walmart to Nike is like comparing nuts to fruits.

    Walmart is without question one of the most deplorable organizations in the world and has made no effort to improve working conditions anywhere, they just change country's for manufacturing.Their current favorite is Bangladesh where troublesome employee's can be reported to the local government for imprisonment or execution after being accused of stealing.

    Walmart has held the record for least dollars donated to charity of any of the top 500 companies in America for decades and now they suddenly have a new foundation only when their public reputation is in question in the American media.

    Where were they the last thirty years and why are they not paying their employee's and providing health care.

    Why is it acceptable for any American to provide corporate socialism to a company that has paid millions in fines in thirty eight states for "shaving" employee time cards.

    I don't mind paying taxes but not to support another company's profits.
    I pay for my employee's health care and give a living wage and I am not setting on billions of dollars of profits.

    If I can do it so can they. We know they can because they have profitable stores in Sweden, Switzerland and other country's where health care, vacations, child care and other social programs are mandatory.

    Walmart is blood money and they deserve jail not a pass by our mediocre press.

  • Schoolboy

    why not simply pay your associates better and provide them with affordable healthcare; start your charity at home