the death of Helen Walton, the frail and aging widow of Sam Walton�the founder
of the Wal-Mart Empire�the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) could receive as much
as $20 billion, making it the largest and potentially most powerful foundation
in the world, according to a new report by the National Committee for
While members of
the Walton family have their own philanthropic projects, the Walton Family
Foundation and the Wal-Mart Foundations are the family and company's flagship
philanthropic enterprises. The Walton Family Foundation currently gives away
more than $100 million a year�a healthy chunk of it to opponents of public
school education. The Wal-Mart Foundation donated more than $170 million in
2004, 90 percent of which went through its local stores to small community and
Another entity, the
Wal-Mart Stores Inc. Political Action Committee for Responsive Government,
earmarks the vast majority of its contributions to Republican Party political
candidates and Republican political committees. Of the $2.1 million the PAC
gave in 2004, $1.6 went to the GOP while less than $500,000 went to Democrats.
and Wal-Mart: Self-Interested Philanthropy," the new report by the
National Committee for Responsive Philanthropy (NCRP), examines the
intersection between corporate philanthropy and public policy by looking
closely at the philanthropic efforts of the Walton family. "The importance
of the Waltons is not how much money they are giving now, but how much money
they will be giving in a few years and where the money will be going," the
endeavors and contributions to political candidates and political action
committees (PACs) have increasingly become a way the wealthy can divest of
surplus capital while promoting their political and social agendas. In 2004,
"corporations and their foundations . . . contributed $12 billion in cash
and in-kind donations to charities," the NCRP report documents.
Over the years,
wealthy conservatives and liberals have plowed millions of dollars into an
assortment of political projects. While the Koch and Scaife families have
supported a number of mainstream charitable endeavors, a large portion of their
grantmaking goes to conservative ventures�including the creation and sustenance
of a vast array of right-wing think tanks, public policy institutes, and media
outlets. In recent election cycles, George Soros and Peter Lewis have become
"very visible progressive donors . . . to both charity and politics,"
according to the report.
John Walton, killed
in an airplane crash earlier this year, 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." It is expected that the
Walton Family Foundation's cash transfusion would lead to an increasing support
for conservative candidates and conservative causes.
Bentonville, Arkansas-based company has become a household name over the past
two decades; the Walton family controls nearly 40 percent of the company's
stock (4.3 billion shares) worth some $90 billion.
provides shoppers with deeply discounted merchandise at its more than 5,000
stores (3,400 in the U.S.). However, the low prices on the shelves of the
world's largest retailer belie the heavy price tag both workers and consumers
pay in communities where the big-box retailer is located.
Workers are grossly
underpaid and overworked in sweatshops overseas, while their nonunion
counterparts in the U.S. often cannot afford decent healthcare for their
families. Wal-Mart has been the target of a flood of suits; it is currently the
defendant in the largest sex-discrimination class-action lawsuit ever, a suit
representing more than 1.5 million women. When Wal-Mart comes to town, many
small businesses close down and the company's bottom line is dependent upon
soaking up hundreds of millions of dollar 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 has siphoned more
than one billion dollars in economic development subsidies from state and local
governments across the country.)
When Sam Walton
died in 1992, he left the bulk of fortune to his wife Helen and their four
children, Sam Robson (Rob), the late John, Jim, and Alice.
from the Foundation Center, a group tracking philanthropic activities, the NCRP
report points out that in 2003 the Wal-Mart Foundation "was the
51st-largest corporate foundation based on assets and the second-largest based
on total giving"; figures that includes in-kind and product donations. 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
Wal-Mart 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 report.
In 2003, the Walton
Family Foundation (WFF) was the 63rd-largest foundation in terms of assets
($733+ million) and 25th-largest in terms of giving (nearly $107 million).
its giving on three spheres: education reform, the northwest region of
Arkansas, and the Delta region of Arkansas and Mississippi. Before his death,
John Walton was "one of the nation's leading private individual funders of
charter schools and voucher initiatives," the NCRP report states.
"Why," the report asks, "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?"
argue that it is the beginning of the 'Wal-Martization' of education, and a
move to for-profit 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 for-profit company
that develops/manages charter and private school as well as public
The WFF provides
more than $1 million dollars to a number of so-called school reform/choice
groups. The Children's Educational Opportunity Foundation of America (also
known as Children's First America) received $10.3 million in 2003 and $8.3 in
2002. It has also funded the Washington, DC-based Black Alliance for Education
Options (BAEO), an African American group working "to advertise and market
the school voucher movement to African-American families."
In addition to
supporting "school reform" issues, the WFF "funds pro-voucher
think tanks like the Goldwater Institute and the Manhattan Institute for Policy
Research," People for the American Way has reported. People for the
American Way pointed out that "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."
Since its founding,
Wal-Mart has incessantly expanded across the US and throughout the world. Over
the past few years, it's presence in Washington, DC, has grown considerably: it
hired its first Washington, DC, lobbyist in 1998; in 2000, it opened a
Washington, DC office, and now it employs six lobbying firms (in addition to
its own), and has become a top PAC contributor to federal candidates.
the Walton family have only recently begun to translate their vast wealth into
political power," the report concludes, and with Helen Walton's $18�20
billion coming down the pike, the future of the Walton Family Foundation looks
Bill Berkowitz is a
longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column
Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories
and defeats of the American Right.