Sylvia Mathews Burwell. (Courtesy of Walmart.com.)
This article was reported in partnership with The Investigative Fund at The Nation Institute, with support from The Puffin Foundation.
Update: On March 4, President Obama nominated Sylvia Mathews Burwell as director of the Office of Management and Budget.
Recent reports suggest that President Obama is about to nominate Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the president of the Walmart Foundation, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. Her nomination would be a coup for Walmart and its foundation, which under Burwell’s watch has wielded its massive budget to expand the retail giant’s influence at all levels of government and to pave the way for store expansions.
The most recent tax disclosure from the Walmart Foundation, obtained by The Nation, shows that between February 2011 and January 2012, the company gave over $175.68 million in grants to charities, municipalities, churches and various community groups across the country, from the Environmental Defense Fund to Friends of NRA to Puppies Behind Bars. Our review of the foundation’s giving reveals that it has donated considerable cash to groups that have gone on the record to support Walmart during its most contentious political disputes, including the ongoing effort to open stores in New York City. The foundation also donates directly to municipalities, funds groups tied to powerful elected officials and instructs grantees to publicize Walmart’s generosity.
Leslie Dach, who oversees the foundation as Walmart’s most senior executive devoted to political affairs, touted the benefits of the company’s philanthropy during a presentation to investors in October 2010. According to a transcript, Dach described “our reputation” as “a lever” in pursuing the company’s goals, which he said include “new markets,” among them “urban America.” A former Democratic Party operative, Dach also extolled the company’s improved polling numbers among self-identified “liberals” and “moderates.”
Activists allege that Walmart’s charitable outreach is part of a bid to co-opt potential critics and isolate workers demanding changes to Walmart’s labor practices. “They are very clear about the fact that they’re trying to use their political giving as a lever to pry open these markets,” said Russ Davis, the executive director of Massachusetts Jobs With Justice and a leader of the coalition Massachusetts Stands Up to Walmart.
* * *
Burwell, a former deputy chief of staff to President Clinton, joined the Walmart Foundation in late 2011, after about a decade of working with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. A Walmart press release announcing Burwell’s hire stated that she would report to Dach. At the time, Walmart was in a protracted lobbying effort to expand into major US cities, including New York, where efforts to build the first Walmart within city limits had become a controversial flashpoint. Faced with community opposition, Walmart failed to reach a deal with a developer to open a store in East New York.
Part of Walmart’s effort has been a campaign-style website, hosted by the company, with testimonials from “Community Stakeholders,” including some who are affiliated with organizations that have received donations from the Walmart Foundation. Hazel Dukes, a board member of the national NAACP and the president of the organization’s New York state chapter, is featured on the Walmart campaign site saying, “We welcome Walmart in New York City because they are willing to be part of the solution.” The Walmart Foundation’s latest filing shows a $200,000 grant to the national NAACP. Walmart itself was listed as the largest sponsor of the NAACP New York State Conference convention in 2011; the Walmart Foundation donated to several local chapters, although not the New York state conference.
Dukes did not respond to The Nation’s request for comment, but Eric Wingerter, a spokesman for the NAACP, explained that donations from the Walmart Foundation represent only a small percentage of the NAACP’s annual budget and that Dukes “expressed support for a Walmart coming to Harlem in order to bring jobs into a struggling neighborhood and grocery stores to areas that are currently food deserts.” Wingerter said that the Walmart Foundation’s donations to the NAACP had “no influence” on Dukes’ position or positions taken by the NAACP generally.