These 3 Walton Heirs’ Foundations Are Growing, but Still Mostly Off the Radar. We Take a Closer Look

Monument valley. The four corners region of the southwest is a geographic focus for the catena foundation. Beth Ruggiero-York/shutterstock

Monument valley. The four corners region of the southwest is a geographic focus for the catena foundation. Beth Ruggiero-York/shutterstock

In the world of philanthropy, America’s richest family is best known for its namesake foundation: The $5.6 billion-plus Walton Family Foundation.

But the Waltons’ giving is hardly limited to that vehicle, with several family members overseeing their own foundations. Some of the extended family’s philanthropy is well known, like Alice Walton’s support for the arts. Others, like Ben and Lucy Ana Walton’s Zoma Foundation, are public but less prominent. But some family members’ foundations are all but off the radar, lacking websites or social media accounts and giving little indication that they’re part of the family’s philanthropic reach. 

To shed some light on their giving, I took a close look at three relatively young Walton philanthropies that you’ve likely never heard of: Catena Foundation, Builders Initiative and Wend Collective. Each was launched by one of three grandsons of Walmart founders Helen and Sam Walton: Lukas, James and Sam R. Walton. (To see how they are related, check out this helpful family tree from Business Insider.) And each has virtually no public presence—which was a major reason we chose to feature them here.

Low-profile giving is common in philanthropy. But considering the power and the sprawling interests of both the family business and the family foundation—and the fact that two of the heirs in question also sit on Walton Family Foundation’s board—it’s understandable that at least two of the foundations have drawn suspicion over their lack of transparency. There has been pushback when news reports revealed that local funding was coming from a foundation controlled by a Walmart heir. Such stories are virtually the only public sources that link the heirs to these funds, outside of tax filings.

Some projects list the foundations as backers, but the institutions’ lack of public profiles would make it difficult for members of the public to learn more. For instance, the Navajo Tribal Utility Authority publicly announced it has partnered with Catena and Wend to bring water to more homes, but without mention of the Walton family. Similarly, four of the six listed funders of Ecology Project International’s Baja initiative are controlled by members of the Walton family—Builders Initiative, Catena, Christy Walton’s Alumbra Innovations Foundation and the family foundation—but only the latter two are clearly linked to the Waltons. 

At the same time, each heir’s decision to use a foundation structure suggests a more open approach could be part of the long-term plan. Donors seeking to stay out of the public eye are increasingly choosing to channel their giving through LLCs and donor-advised funds that are exempt from the disclosures legally required of foundations, a path the donors could easily have taken. Asked about their limited public profiles, contacts at each cited their institution’s age—all three were started within the last five years. Catena and Builders Initiative indicated more would be shared with the public in the months ahead. And Catena and Wend said they sought to deemphasize their role to keep the focus on their grantees. 

At this point, there’s still little official information out there beyond tax filings, which tend to be dated and limited in what they cover. But there are many clues that paint a portrait of their grantmaking and priorities. Like the Walton Family Foundation, all three funds support environmental causes. Education and the arts are priorities for some of them. But they also have their own pet issues, whether cycling projects or support for actual cats and dogs. Two of the donors seem to skew further left than their famously conservative grandfather, based on their foundations’ grantmaking and staff. This shouldn’t come as a surprise. Those two heirs, Sam and James Walton, have a history of donating to Democratic candidates, and the family overall has been skewing purple over the years.

More broadly, these three foundations offer a further glimpse into the interests of third-generation Walton philanthropy: climate as a broad priority, a belief in investments alongside grantmaking, and some willingness to fund more progressive organizations. These sizable and growing grantmakers also underscore the tremendous wealth of the Waltons and the scope of the family’s philanthropy—whether they continue to fly under the radar or emerge as a new wave of high-profile, Walton-affiliated foundations. 

Questions remain, of course. For instance, all three funds were formed within a 15-month period between 2016 and 2017 with transfers of Walmart stock, but it’s unclear if some common factor prompted their creation; contacts at the three organizations did not respond to questions about why the foundations were created.

Below are profiles of each of these three philanthropic enterprises. I contacted all three foundations seeking interviews and providing detailed lists of questions. Two—Catena and Wend—provided answers to some questions, while Builders Initiative shared a statement and confirmed a couple facts.

Catena Foundation

Catena was founded in 2016 by Sam R. Walton with an initial infusion of 1 million shares of Walmart stock—worth nearly $72 million at the time. It got another boost in 2018, when the Walton Family Foundation transferred $13 million to the foundation, bringing its assets to more than $79 million. The foundation started slowly, giving $2 million in grants in 2017 and $5.3 million the following year, along with a nearly $1.4 million program-related investment in the form of a loan to the Trust for Public Land.

Catena’s financial profile has changed dramatically since those early years. The foundation gave out approximately $33.5 million in grants in 2020, according to written responses from Clare Bastable, executive director. Catena is “scaling our grantmaking rapidly,” she wrote. She did not respond to a query about the foundation’s current assets, but public filings suggest an influx of cash: Catena sold $28 million in Walmart shares in the last three months of 2020 alone.

The foundation has eight employees, according to Bastable, who said the outfit “expect[s] to retain a relatively small staff size.” Sam R. Walton, 53, was listed as the foundation’s president in 2018. Three other individuals serve on the board; none are Walton family members, according to Bastable. The foundation is currently forming advisory boards to guide the foundation’s strategy and grantmaking on priority areas. 

“Our foundation is a young organization, and for the past few years, we have been focused on development of objectives and working with grantees and other partners to understand the greatest needs and opportunities. In addition, we prioritize bringing attention to our grantees vs. ourselves,” Bastable wrote. 

While the foundation maintains almost no public presence, that is set to change. Bastable said the foundation is developing a website. She noted that the foundation supports grantees acknowledging Catena’s funding, including in media coverage. Such mentions helped inform this profile, but almost never link the foundation to Sam R. Walton.

Headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, the foundation’s primary geographic focus is on Southwestern states, along with some funding in Latin America, Bastable confirmed. According to two 2020 press releases, it is specifically concerned with a five-state region that includes the Four Corners region of Colorado, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona. 

Asked about the foundation’s priorities, Bastable wrote: “The foundation’s mission is grounded in restoring human and ecological systems. A few of our priorities include addressing climate change and promoting clean energy deployment, empowering youth through access to bicycling programs and trails, and civic engagement.” She added that they “work closely with Native communities across all our priorities.” 

Its public grant history demonstrates how those interests overlap. The foundation helped fund a project, profiled by Outside magazine, that converted an old military truck into a mobile bike shop to serve the Navajo Nation. A separate $148,000 grant funded four bicycle technician training programs in classrooms in several Diné communities. Another grant provided five schools and communities, including several within the Navajo Nation, with 30 mountain bikes each, along with accessories and training. A number of other grants have gone to cycling groups.

COVID response has been another focus over the past 18 months. In 2020, the foundation partnered with three other funders, including Zoma Foundation, the philanthropy of Sam R. Walton’s brother and sister-in-law, to launch a $3 million COVID-19 response and relief loan fund for businesses and nonprofits in rural Colorado. Catena is also listed as a supporter of the COVID-19 response funds of both the Hopi Foundation and the Arizona Community Foundation, as well as being listed as a contributor to the Colorado COVID Relief Fund, which was co-managed by Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’s office. 

Other details come from its staff members. In an undated profile by her alma mater, one staff member said her work focuses on the health of the Colorado River, a major priority of the Walton Family Foundation, and the surrounding basin. Another staffer’s LinkedIn profile mentions the restoration of a former coal mine near Redstone, Colorado, including adding mountain bike trails, which Bastable confirmed is an ongoing project. Opened to the public this July, the project has received extensive press coverage that typically mentioned the Walton family’s involvement, but none of the foundations specifically. 

The foundation’s staff also have had several Democratic political connections. One senior program officer, Noah Koerper, formerly worked as state policy director for U.S. Sen. Michael Bennet, a Democrat who represents Colorado. Former Deputy Director Alex DeGolia is an Obama administration alumnus whose successful run for a local energy board was backed by the county’s Democratic party. The foundation has also made grants to at least one well-known liberal organization: Catena is listed as a 2020 donor to the Center for American Progress, which it gave $112,500 two years earlier. 

Catena has come under scrutiny for grants that have funded public sector work. The foundation was the source of a two-year, $252,000 grant that Colorado Gov. Jared Polis’ office used to pay for a climate advisor, according to an investigation by the Colorado Sun and CBS 4 Denver. Such funds can fill gaps where tight budgets leave administrations without specialists on key issues like climate change. But those arrangements can also limit oversight and transparency, including obscuring the true donors. 

The funds for a climate advisor, for instance, were given to the governor’s office by a Catena grantee, the U.S. Climate Alliance, and were listed as a grant from the United Nations Foundation, which is affiliated with the alliance, according to the report. A Catena representative told the media outlets it had no control over the process its grantee used to award the funding. (The Colorado Sun disclosed in an editor’s note that it had also received funding from Catena and Wend.)

Bastable said the foundation “partner[s] with governments directly and indirectly to help support additional capacity at their request,” but did not otherwise respond when asked for a list of locations where Catena provides support to governments.

Catena, along with the Walton Family Foundation, has also been criticized for funding media coverage of the Colorado River as the family foundation funded multi-million-dollar projects that could shape the future of the river. For instance, it funded Aspen Journalism, a nonprofit news organization in the region, for at least three years. It has also supported the Colorado-based High Country News and, as noted above, the Colorado Sun.

Builders Initiative

Like his cousin Sam, Lukas T. Walton started his foundation with a gift of Walmart stock, giving it nearly 5 million shares between 2017 and 2018. The foundation had nearly $444 million in assets as of 2018, according to its tax filings. It appears to have grown substantially since then, based on a recent influx of cash: Builders Initiative sold $140 million in Walmart stock in the last three months of 2020 alone, according to an SEC filing. A source with the foundation confirmed it has been scaling rapidly.

In 2018, the first year Builders Initiative gave out funding, the foundation made roughly $5 million in grants. Its grantmaking has certainly spiked since then, based on the foundation’s larger assets going into 2019.

According to a February job posting, the foundation is just one arm of a family office, Builders Vision, run by Lukas and his wife, Samantha. The couple believes in mixing private sector investments with grantmaking. Lukas, it should be noted, graduated from Colorado College with a degree in environmentally sustainable business. 

“Builders Initiative is dedicated to supporting those working to build a healthy and humane planet through grantmaking and impact investing,” wrote Bruce McNamer, foundation president, in response to a written list of questions. He indicated the foundation has five core priorities: climate, energy, sustainable food and agriculture, healthy oceans, and access to the arts. Builders Initiative confirmed that its focus is national, but with a priority on the regions in which it is based, Chicago and the Midwest. The statement said the foundation will reveal more about their work and grantees in the months ahead.

The foundation’s 2018 grants offer more specifics, albeit dated, about what it funds, with about $5 million going out via 18 grants. Most went to environmental organizations, such as the Environmental Law and Policy Center, Friends of Big Marsh and the Nature Conservancy, though a couple smaller five-figure gifts went to animal causes, such as Spay Arkansas and Best Friends Animal Society. Yet the largest gift by far, $2 million, went to a billion-plus-dollar project of Lukas’ aunt Alice Walton: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

There are a few public hints about Builders Initiative’s more recent funding. The foundation is listed as a member of Fresh Taste, a Chicago funder initiative focused on food that recently launched a $4.2 million fund. The foundation also supported the Ocean Conservancy in 2020. 

Located in Chicago, the foundation has at least six employees, according to LinkedIn. It has also previously contracted with Arabella Advisors, the philanthropy advisory firm, based on its tax filings. Lukas was listed as co-president of the foundation with his wife, Samantha, as of 2018, along with two other board members. Lukas also serves on the Walton Family Foundation’s board of directors, where he chairs the environmental program committee. While his family foundation bio does not mention the Builders Initiative, it was added to his Wikipedia profile early this summer.

As with most Waltons, there’s potentially a lot more to give. Lukas, now in his mid-30s, inherited one-third of his father’s fortune following his death in 2005. Forbes estimated his fortune totaled $16.9 billion as of August 27. 

Wend Collective

Following in the footsteps of his cousins, James M. Walton launched his foundation with a gift of Walmart stock in December 2017. Officially called Wend II, Inc., the foundation had nearly $88 million in assets as of 2018, the year of its most recent available tax filing. It made nearly $4.3 million in grants that year and nearly that entire amount went to one organization, People For Bikes, which received $4.1 million. 

Wend’s grantmaking grew nearly six-fold in 2019, reaching $24 million, according to Ben Davis, director of campaigns and sustainability, in written responses to a list of questions. Gifts ranged from several thousand dollars to more than $1 million and most were structured as general support, he said. Wend’s focus is national, but it also funds a handful of international projects, and due to its roots in Denver, Colorado, has many initiatives there.

“In starting Wend Collective, James did not bring a set of ideas or theories at the start. Instead, he worked with a community of people who were answering the call to serve their beliefs,” Davis wrote. “Today, that process continues to inform and fuel a deeply patient, trusting and risk-tolerant approach to our philanthropic work in the service of mending an increasingly fractured society.”

Davis did not provide any more recent figures nor did he share the foundation’s total assets. He also said the 2019 grants were made through various structures, not just the foundation.

Wend Collective represents both a foundation, legally Wend II, along with an impact investment fund. Its areas of focus include education, Indigenous rights, civic engagement, the environment and arts and culture. Online hints and publicly announced grants support that summary and offer more details, including work on transportation equity. 

Recent grants show the fund’s willingness to support progressive initiatives. The institution became one of the backers of the Democracy Frontlines Fund, a new collaborative effort to support Black-led movement organizations. Wend also provided support to the Hive Fund for Climate and Gender Justice, one of several social-justice-focused climate intermediaries. An earlier iteration of Wend also supported a report on the lessons learned from Standing Rock. And Davis’ March participation in a series called Racial Equity Truthtellers gives some additional perspective on organizational culture. Its grants also include more traditional recipients: it gave at least $250,000 to the Mile High United Way in Colorado. 

On the whole, however, public information about the fund is limited. “We maintain a low operational profile because we prefer the spotlight remain on the work and partners we support instead of on our organization. In general, we’re self-effacing. I think you’ll find that makes us as modest as the world will allow us to be,” wrote Davis. 

Wend has 24 employees and is based in Denver, Colorado, though many employees work remotely throughout the U.S., according to Davis. More than half are people of color and 60% are women, he said. “Resource distribution is [led] by a team with direct lived and professional experience in their areas of focus, and are intended to meet the specific needs identified by the leaders, advocates and community members in each space,” Davis wrote.

With staff titles like “Education Rabble Rouser” and a self-description as a “collective of wayfinders exploring pathways towards a better world,” it is among the least buttoned-down of the Walton family philanthropies. And it has a broad view of its mission. “We do not align behind a single organizational purpose; instead we move towards a better world on a path of shared values, empowered to be the change we want to see.”

In early 2021, Wend was revealed by a Boston Globe investigation as the funder of a variety of government projects in Providence, Rhode Island, including a report recommending major changes to the city’s public safety department and another report that details the state’s history of racial injustices. The fund had also given money through the city for people facing food insecurity, a guaranteed income pilot program, COVID-19 testing and other items. People For Bikes, a Wend grantee, also provided the city technical support. A city representative told the paper that the fund asked for anonymity because it did not seek credit for the programs it funds.

There may be more such work still undiscovered. Davis told the newspaper that Wend is “partnering with dozens of cities and states around the country on similar projects.” Asked about other sites, Davis said Wend has funded a three-year pilot project by People For Bikes with sites in Austin, Pittsburgh, New Orleans, Denver and Providence. He did not specify whether the fund supports such government partnerships in other locations. 

Like Catena, Wend’s staff have some political connections. Davis is a self-described “recovering political consultant” who worked on campaigns for Sen. Mark Udall and then-Gov. John Hickenlooper, both Colorado Democrats. It also borrows from the family’s main philanthropic vehicle: at least two staff members previously worked for the Walton Family Foundation. Davis also confirmed the foundation relies on Walton Enterprises for certain services.

James Walton, 33, serves as the foundation’s sole board member. He also serves on the family foundation’s board of directors, and his bio there was edited in mid-2020 to include Wend, which is one of very few public links between him and the fund.