Philanthropy lost a giant when John Walton was tragically killed in an ultralight-plane crash in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. He was 58 years old.
John was one of America’s most generous and far-sighted education reformers. At a time when other leading philanthropists were shoveling hundreds of millions to school districts to support the status quo, John understood the power of choice and competition to transform a bankrupt system. Under his leadership the Walton Family Foundation became one of the leading strategic forces in school choice philanthropy and the single most important funder of the charter school movement. Among its many amazing contributions: it provided 500 charter schools with start-up capital of up to $250,000 each.
One of John’s most brilliant strokes of genius was the launching of the Children’s Scholarship Fund with Ted Forstmann. The CSF has provided tuition scholarships to 70,000 low-income children—opening opportunity for a student body as large as the Washington, D.C. school system. Even more dramatic has been the phenomenal impact of CSF on public debate. An astonishing 1.25 million children applied for these scholarships, demonstrating beyond a doubt that low-income families welcome the option of a better education for their children.
A father named Miguel from Costa Mesa, California, once wrote John to thank him for the opportunities made possible by the Children’s Scholarship Fund: “we are so thankful. We feel so blessed to have been chosen. My only hope is that one day I or my children will be able to give back to society the way you have given to us. We thank you from the bottom of our hearts.”
John provided crucial support for many of the most significant grass-roots networks that are broadening support for school choice, among them the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) and the Hispanic Council for Reform and Educational Options (Hispanic CREO). He also helped to create two very important national leadership organizations—the Alliance for School Choice and the Charter School Leadership Council.
John’s philanthropy aimed at helping all children, not just those in choice programs. As he put it: “we have enthusiastically supported the charter movement—as well as vouchers and scholarships to private schools—because we believe empowering parents to choose among competing schools will catalyze improvement across the entire K-12 education system.”
John also followed a set of philanthropic practices that all donors, whether or not they agree with his policy prescriptions, would do well to emulate.
All too many donors suffer from a “not invented here” syndrome. Not John. Whenever another donor came up with an idea or program that advanced John’s principles, he was usually willing to support it.
He was patient and persevering. He realized that serious policy reform can take years, and he was not discouraged by temporary setbacks. And yet, while never wavering in his strategic commitments, he was always ready to make tactical adjustments, including, when necessary, pulling the plug on long-term grantees that weren’t getting the job done.
John was never afraid to speak his mind, but, rare among donors and people of great wealth, he also was an exceptional listener. In keeping with the honor-the-customer ethos at the Wal-Mart corporation built by his father Sam and now chaired by his brother Rob, John had a truly democratic spirit. He had confidence in the abilities of ordinary people, and he respected everybody he met.
John was a loyal and good-humored friend, a devoted father and husband, and a rugged adventurer who lived life to the fullest. He leaves behind his wife Christy and their son Lukas, who graduated from high school two weeks before his father’s death.
On the day of his funeral, John had been scheduled to lead a hike for donors at a Philanthropy Roundtable-Jackson Hole Institute conference on K-12 giving. As we paid tribute to John that evening, one of our conference participants, the Reverend William M. Steinbrook of the Challenge Foundation, read a passage from the Book of Micah that described John’s life: “all that I require of thee is to seek justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God.”
John’s humble leadership personified excellence in philanthropy. His achievements and his spirit will inspire donors for generations to come.
Adam Meyerson is president of The Philanthropy Roundtable.