Nearly a decade ago, two guys started talking at a networking event. One said to the other, without catching his last name, “You should meet my cousin.” The next fall, in 2013, a “dirty, beat-up car” pulled up at the Gary Comer Youth Center on the city’s South Side, according to the cousin, Marji Hess, the center’s director of urban agriculture.
The 27-year-old driver, in work boots and jeans, got out to look at the center’s Youth Education Garden, inquiring, “Tell me what you’re doing,” Hess recalls. Comer had received a $12,349 grant from the guest to fund a container garden program for the Comer Education Campus at 72nd Street and Ingleside Avenue.
The visitor turned out to be Walmart heir Lukas Walton. From that modest beginning, Comer over the last two years has been awarded an additional $750,000 as a result of the relationship.
Now, Walton’s foundation, Builders Initiative, is starting to take the wraps off its emergence as a philanthropic force in Chicago, disclosing it’s pledged $2 billion over the last three years, while not identifying the biggest recipients. It says $200 million has gone to COVID relief, $40 million of it in Chicago.
Compared to Builders’ $2 billion, Chicago’s largest foundation, the John D. & Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, doled out $900 million in the three years ended in 2020.
Walton, now 35 and CEO, declined interview requests.
Builders Initiative says it plans to “scale quickly,” but is vague on how fast and by how much.
Oriented toward sustainable agriculture and seafood conservation, rural development and the impact of climate change, Builders Initiative takes its name from a lesser-known stanza in Carl Sandburg’s poem “Chicago”: “Bareheaded, shoveling, wrecking, planning, building, breaking, rebuilding….”
An umbrella organization called Builders Vision also encompasses private investing and asset management. Builders Private Capital, which includes S2G Ventures, has committed $1 billion in funding, according to a Builders Vision spokeswoman. With just under 60 employees, it plans to hire more.
Some recipients of Walton’s outlays, like Springboard for the Arts in Minnesota, say they were contacted out of the blue by his underlings. Springboard got a three-year commitment from Builders Initiative for a Rural Regenerator Fellowship program, according to Springboard’s Executive Director Laura Zabel. This year, 11 recipients were awarded $10,000 each over two years, she said.
Grantees say they don’t deal directly with Walton, but feel that he is engaged and in contact with program officers. Walton and his wife, Samantha, were co-presidents before Bruce McNamer, 58, an experienced foundation executive, was hired as president in late 2019. “Lukas and Samantha are committed to making a difference at a pretty substantive scale,” he says.
In a statement on Builders Vision’s website, the Waltons describe themselves as “two very different people,” but don’t elaborate on how “we have worked hard together to create an organization that is built on the strength of how seemingly disparate ideas and approaches can work together.” McNamer declined to shed light on the relationship and its impact on strategy.
People say Samantha Walton has a background in the arts that informs her role as a director at the foundation and its grant-making. The Waltons met several years ago on the el.
Matt Knott, Builders Vision’s chief operating officer since 2019, was president of Feeding America, which collaborates with food banks and pantries. The Arthur Andersen alum also has experience in Big Food, having worked for PepsiCo as vice president of marketing for Gatorade and a Quaker Oats brand manager.
Besides simply handing out money, Builders Initiative seeks to encourage better business practices that increase income generated by beneficiaries of the foundation. At Growing Home, an urban farm in Englewood, that means hiring a marketing staffer, posting on social media and putting up billboards, according to Executive Director Janelle St. John.
Before the foundation came along with a two-year, $300,000 grant, Growing Home was selling about 80% of its produce on the North Side. Now, up to 60% stays in Englewood, with the funding allowing for 50% price discounts and donations of another 20% of production. The grant is about double the two-year revenue figure for Growing Home’s food sales. St. John says the nonprofit aims to be certified to supply groceries and restaurants.
Among Builders Initiative’s national beneficiaries are the United Farm Workers Foundation; the CDC Foundation, which supports the Centers for Disease Control & Prevention; and Feeding America. Its biggest partner in COVID relief—300 grants so far and nearly 5 million meals distributed—is the Chicago Community Trust. The trust’s grantmaking ballooned last year by more than 50%, to $614 million, because of COVID-related programs.
Builders’ resources rest on the inherited wealth of Walton, a grandson of Walmart founder Sam Walton. Lukas Walton ranked No. 76 recently on the Bloomberg Billionaires Index, with an estimated net worth of $21.8 billion, making him the richest Illinoisan. Citadel founder Ken Griffin was not far behind, at No. 82, credited with a net worth of $21.1 billion.
After growing up in California and Jackson Hole, Wyo., and graduating from Colorado College, Walton came to Chicago in 2011 to work as an intern for True North Partners, a private-equity firm co-founded by his late father, John.
“He looked like somebody who was comfortable outdoors,” Hess says of Walton’s visit to Comer’s campus not long afterward. Interested in keeping him comfortable, she finessed an introduction to students: “I said, ‘Here is Mr. Lukas. He’s visiting us.’ I never would have drawn attention to his full identity.”