Walton Foundation’s Caryl Stern Plans to Step Down After Pandemic Leadership
Nonprofit veteran Caryl Stern is stepping down as the top leader of one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, lthe Walton Family Foundation less than three years after she joined the grant maker, created by Walmart Stores founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen, the foundation announced today.
We’re sorry. Something went wrong.
We are unable to fully display the content of this page.
If you continue to experience issues, contact us at 202-466-1032 or email@example.com
Nonprofit veteran Caryl Stern is stepping down as the top leader of one of the nation’s largest philanthropies, the Walton Family Foundation less than three years after she joined the grant maker, created by Walmart Stores founder Sam Walton and his wife, Helen, the foundation announced today.
Stern, 64, served as chief executive of Unicef USA for 12 years before joining the Walton Family Foundation.
“It is time to contribute to the issues I care about without the daily administrative responsibilities that come with this role,” she told the foundation board, according to a letter sent to Walton’s grantees and others from Annie Proietti, the foundation’s board chair and granddaughter of the big-box retailing pioneer.
Proietti said that the organization was about to commence a search for a new leader and that Stern would stay in the role through the transition.
In the letter, Proietti praised Stern’s leadership at the foundation, which focuses on the environment, elementary and secondary education, and economic development in the foundation’s northwest Arkansas region and in the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta. Under Stern’s watch, Proietti wrote, the foundation adopted new strategies in each of its grant-making areas and welcomed new leadership at the board and staff levels.
Every five years the foundation revamps its approach: The 2021 strategy placed an emphasis on supporting approaches that were tailored by grantees, efforts to push for diversity, equity, and inclusion and to collaborate more with other grant makers and nonprofits.
Stern, Proietti wrote, helped build a “more cohesive culture” at the grant maker, which, as of the end of 2020, the latest figures available, had $6.7 billion in assets. their website has 2020 grants but not assets.
Leading in the Pandemic
Perhaps most important, Stern came to the Walton Family Foundation with a lot of experience leading disaster-response efforts, something Unicef does on a regular basis.
“It is the unexpected moments that make it clear Caryl was the right leader at the right time for our foundation,” Proietti wrote. “Just six weeks after starting with us, we experienced a global pandemic. Caryl’s disaster-response expertise helped to lead the foundation’s actions in the early days.”
In 2020, Stern’s first year on the job, Walton’s grant budget climbed by more than $200 million over the the previous year, hitting $750 million.
Part of that increase came from a $35 million Covid relief fund created in March 2020 as the pandemic hit. A study Walton commissioned found that the fund enabled schools to provide students with more than 10,000 computer devices and tablets and 12,000 wifi hotspots. The fund paid for the distribution of 170,000 meals and more than 65,000 items of personal protective equipment.
In a summary of the study’s findings published in the Chronicle, Stern wrote that the foundation expedited many application processes for grantees of the fund, including a shorter timeline for making grant decisions, and added responsibilities for foundation staff members, rather than potential grantees, in completing applications. The pandemic experience, she wrote, has prompted the foundation to consider permanent changes designed to improve the application experience for nonprofits.
Throughout the pandemic’s first two years, Stern wrote, the foundation felt a “tension” between acting quickly to help nonprofits weather the storm and making longer-term investments. While any emergency demands an immediate response, she wrote, the Walton Family Foundation recognized that in future crises, it should consider staggering the availability of grants to be ready for new challenges.
She also said that Walton should have reached out to new grantees rather than mostly funneling grants to nonprofits it had already supported.
“By not identifying new grantees ... we missed an opportunity for our grant making to be even more diverse and inclusive, limiting access to resources among organizations that serve people with tremendous needs,” she wrote.
Stern, who used celebrity star power to fuel public advocacy campaigns at Unicef USA, was an interesting choice to lead the Walton Family Foundation. Unicef USA is a media-savvy organization with nine offices spread across the country and 26 board members, including actress Téa Leoni and former basketball player Dikembe Mutombo.
The Walton foundation is prominent in philanthropy circles but has a much lower public profile. It operates out of its Bentonville, Ark., headquarters and three satellite offices. All four board members are related to the Walmart founder.
In a 2019 interview, Stern highlighted the difference between working for a nonprofit where the goal is to turn heads — and move donors — and a family foundation.
“The family knows who I am and what I do, “she says. “I use my voice. I totally understand, though, that I’m going to work for the family.”