The family of late Wal-Mart founder Sam Walton has shown extraordinary generosity in giving away roughly $1 billion to many causes, including support of scholarships for the disadvantaged and of voucher programs to help children attend private schools. In a rare interview, Wal-Mart fortune heir John Walton discussed his family's philosophy of giving and its focus on education with BusinessWeek Correspondent Julia Cosgrove. Edited excerpts of their conversation follow:
Q: Andrew Carnegie believed that the wealthy should give away most of their fortune. Do you agree?
A: I certainly couldn't argue with [Carnegie]. My mother says, "It's not what you gather in life, but what you scatter that determines the quality of your life." But our emphasis is not in simply giving, but trying to find places where we can make a difference.
I would prefer to pass up a grant rather than give one that's unlikely to make a positive difference. We're trying to create conditions that will make a lasting improvement in people's lives.
Q: Why the emphasis on education?
A: No other part of American society is as important. We think that it's tragic to have a country where everyone is equal under the law, but everyone doesn't have equal opportunities to secure the most important asset ever, which is a good education. We want to help people who don't have access [to a good education] and make education more broadly available.
Q: When your father died, in 1992 did he leave any directions as to how he wanted the family to give some of his fortune away?
A: He was great about leaving suggestions, but not directions. Education was definitely a focus of his when he started the foundation. He started our Central American scholarship program in 1985. As part of that commitment, the students sign an agreement that they will go back to their home country after their education. The concept is to provide good college opportunities to help those countries in Central America improve.
One of the last thoughts he left with us was the awareness that we were leaving far too many kids behind in our K-12 system. If we ever had the chance to do something productive to help improve K-12 education, it would be a tremendous benefit.
Q: What kind of result are you looking for in education?
A: Our grants not to individuals are mostly focused on systemic improvement of K-12 public education in the U.S., and at the collegiate level, on supporting outstanding programs that we find. It's a holistic approach. We're trying to find a leverage point at which you can invest that will have beneficial effects beyond the scope of the investment.
The University of Arkansas gift [a $300 million pledge] is for an organization with great people that is positioned to provide returns that go far beyond the immediate [investment]. It will have a positive economic impact on Arkansas and a very positive impact on education in the state because of the way the standards are being raised.
We also do a lot of scholarships to empower individuals. We have a great deal of confidence in the ability of individuals to make decisions in regard to education.
Q: How engaged is the family in its giving?
A: We are extremely involved in every major project. Our staff has some limited discretion within the guidelines set by the board. All major grants are voted on at the board level at regular board meetings, and different members of the family put in different amounts of personal time on various areas.
Q: Do you try to measure the outcomes of your grants?
A: We do detailed follow-up and analysis. Most of our grants require certain milestones to be met before the next funding is provided. We require documented results. Every grant goes through an evaluation to determine whether it meets our criteria for measurement, accountability, and impact.
Individual family members do site visits during the course of the year to make sure we all are keeping a hands-on approach to understanding the kinds of activities we are funding.
Q: It looks like the family has two foundations through which it gives: the Walton Family Foundation, with assets of about $450 million, and the Walton Family Charitable Support Foundation, with assets of about $215 million. How do you use these organizations in the family's giving?
A: The support organization focuses on a fairly defined geographic area, which includes Arkansas and the surrounding area, while the foundation we engage in gives out grants across the country.