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Curious how the Walton Family Foundation is catalyzing inclusive economic growth and cultural enrichment in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta? Tune in to this episode of The Bentonville Beacon, where host, James Bell, is joined by Robert Burns, Home Region Program Director at the Walton Family Foundation.

The Walton Family Foundation represents several generations of family rooted in the places they work and in a family legacy of giving back. It brings together diverse perspectives to the same table, including caregivers and conservationists, educators and entrepreneurs, farmers and futurists, and doers and dreamers, to listen and learn, to reach a shared understanding, and to create innovative solutions that achieve true impact. The foundation works in three areas: strengthening the connections between K-12 education and lifelong opportunity; protecting rivers, oceans, and the communities they support; and advancing the Home Region of Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta.

In the Home Region, the Walton Family Foundation supports communities in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, working to realize a vision where everyone has access to opportunity so that every person and community thrives. They strive to catalyze a more vibrant, inclusive economy in Northwest Arkansas, and to grow equity through education and financial security in the Delta.

With its roots in Northwest Arkansas, the foundation is committed to making opportunity available to everyone who lives in the area by supporting entrepreneurs and innovators who strengthen the local economy; engaging teachers, parents and students to improve schools; and working to ensure residents in every neighborhood can access affordable housing, diverse transportation options and vibrant cultural spaces.

Likewise, the foundation is committed to investing and engaging in the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta, where they are looking to the next generation of community leaders with innovative ideas to strengthen schools, support small businesses and create economic opportunities that help Delta residents build a brighter future for their region through bold, homegrown solutions to the unique challenges facing their people and communities.

Throughout the episode, Robert shares how partnerships and collaborations facilitate meaningful transformation, the critical importance of storytelling in relating a powerful and clear understanding of people and the impact of their work, and how the Walton Family Foundation discovers and selects the game-changing initiatives it supports. Thanks for tuning in!

Show Notes

Timestamps in this blog are for the audio-only version of the podcast; video timing differs.

(0:54) Introduction to Robert Burns

(3:57) About the Walton Family Foundation (WFF) and Its Mission

(6:42) The WFF’s Objectives in Northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas-Mississippi Delta

(12:30) Highlight the WWF’s Home Region Initiatives

(17:54) NWA’s Contribution to Innovation across the Country

(22:34) The WWF’s Support for and Collaboration with EforAll

(25:53) Local Organizations the WFF Supports

(29:55) Robert’s #BecauseBentonville Story

(32:40) Future Initiatives of the WFF’s Home Region Program

(36:50) Starting a Sustainable Relationship with the WFF

(40:01) How Storytelling Plays a Role in the WFF’s Community Engagement

(45:16) Closing Question


Robert Burns

Walton Family Foundation

Walton Family Foundation Home Region

James Bell, MBA

Bentonville Economic Development

Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce

Get Connected!

Thank you for tuning into this episode of The Bentonville Beacon, brought to you by the Greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce! Join us weekly for more stories and advice from the entrepreneurs, business executives and community leaders who are sparking the rise of the Greater Bentonville Area. If you are interested in starting a business, expanding your current business, or discussing whether your business should have a presence in Greater Bentonville, or would like to discuss this podcast, please contact James Bell at or (479) 273-2841.

Links for Additional Mentions

Kim Davis

Walton, Hunt & Tyson Families

Upskill NWA

Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art

Walmart Foundation

Excellerate Foundation

Stephanie Cornell

Ozark Regional Transit

Ra-Ve Cultural Foundation

Visit Bentonville

City of Bentonville

City of Rogers

City of Centerton

Entrepreneurship for All (EforAll/EparaTodos NWA)

Northwest Arkansas Council

Heartland Challenge | University of Arkansas

Fuel for Your Health Accelerator

Rodrigo Salas

Fuel Accelerator

Community Development NWA

Groundwork NWA


City of Pea Ridge

Razorback Greenway

Bentonville Schools

Ignite Professional Studies

Helen R. Walton Children’s Enrichment Center

Scott Family Amazeum


Urban Land Institute Northwest Arkansas (ULI NWA)

Igniting Futures: Bentonville’s Next-Gen Leaders at the NWA Tech Summit with (Bentonville Beacon Podcast)

Canopy NWA

Northwest Arkansas Design Excellence Program

Meredith Bergstrom

Jeremy Pate

Alice Walton

The House of Songs

Music Moves

Brightwater: A Center for the Study of Food


James Bell [00:00:03]: Welcome to the Bentonville Beacon, where we bring you success stories from business leaders and owners about their triumphs and growth in the Bentonville and northwest Arkansas community. You’ll hear about how Bentonville has been the backdrop for incredible growth, not only for businesses and their employees, but in their personal lives as well. Tune in, subscribe, and enjoy hearing about Bentonville, where you get more of what you want and less of what you don’t. Welcome back to the Bentonville Beacon podcast, where we’re sharing stories and advice from the entrepreneurs, business executives, and community leaders, sparking the rise of the greater Bentonville area, which represents one of the fastest growing and most dynamic cities and economies in the United States and is nestled in the Ozark Mountains of northwest Arkansas in the heartland of America. Hey, I’m your host, James Bell, and today I am honored to introduce our esteemed guest, Robert Burns. Robert is director of the Home region program at the Walton Family foundation. With a deep rooted commitment to fostering inclusive growth and empowering communities, Robert plays a pivotal role in advancing the economic and cultural vibrancy of northwest Arkansas and the Arkansas Mississippi Delta. Today, he’ll share his journey, how partnerships facilitate meaningful impact and the transformative initiatives of the Walton Family foundation in the home region. James Bell [00:01:30]: Robert, welcome to the Bentonville Beacon podcast. Robert Burns [00:01:32]: Hey, thank you, James. I’m excited to be here. Have admired your work and I appreciate the invitation. James Bell [00:01:37]: Oh, well, thank you. Well, we’ll jump right in. Robert, will you share your journey and what led you to your role at the Walton Family foundation? Robert Burns [00:01:46]: Absolutely appreciate it. And I feel I’m right at home here in Bentonville and northwest Arkansas. I was really fortunate having spent time growing up in North Carolina and then spent a part of my career both working in Missouri, working in Kansas. At one point I did my graduate work at the university of Kansas. My roots are in North Carolina. I spent a long time in DC and my partner and I were really excited to think about an opportunity to get back to the heartland. And I was working in philanthropy with Citigroup in Washington, DC and had a search firm reach out about a position. And when they reached out, I didn’t know what the organization was at that time. Robert Burns [00:02:34]: Eventually it was revealed. And the Walton Family foundation has not just a reputation in the philanthropic world world, but also among family foundation. It’s one of the few family led foundations in the country that still remains. Plus, it’s one of the most renowned foundations on a number of different areas and the focus of the work working in with local governments, working with nonprofits, working to make this region as vibrant and inclusive as possible. Really spoke to me, and after putting the application in and going through the interview process, which was really informative for me, it just kept increasing the positive feelings. So I feel like the stars were aligned and really thrilled to be here. I love what I get to do every day, the people I get to work with, and most of all, the community. It’s an amazing place to be able to live and to work and to be a part of. James Bell [00:03:37]: Yeah, that’s fantastic. I’m with you for my role. It was the same thing. The stars sort of aligned and everything seemed perfect. And I got here and I found that it was. Is this a real word? Perfecter. Yeah. Yeah. James Bell [00:03:51]: And it’s just been incredible being here. Robert Burns [00:03:54]: Well, you just created it if it wasn’t. James Bell [00:03:57]: Well, Robert, the Bentonville Beacon audience members, I’ve learned, span the globe, and so will you share then a bit more about the Walton Family foundation, what its mission is, and what are the specific areas that you’ll work in? Robert Burns [00:04:11]: Certainly we are at the forefront a family led foundation, and being so, our board, our committees are active and engage with family members from the Walton family. And as I noted earlier, we’re one of the few that really is truly a family led foundation still. And that’s really important because we benefit from the leadership of the family. And because of that, we’re always encouraged to really be thinking ahead, to be thinking of where we’re going to be next. And we fund three specific areas. Education, which is a national program and is led by an individual like myself. We also fund environment, which is an international program, and then home region. And home region is the program that I get the opportunity to lead. Robert Burns [00:05:02]: That’s very place based. We focus here in northwest Arkansas, specifically Benton and Washington counties. And then we’ve had a longstanding commitment and funding commitment to the Mississippi Delta. And there we fund in two counties in Arkansas. We cross the river, and we also work in one county in Mississippi. And those counties are Phillips and Jefferson in Arkansas. And then in Mississippi, it’s Cahoma county. James Bell [00:05:29]: Oh, neat. I wasn’t sure what the specific counties were. Just need to learn why those counties, if you have any insight on that. Robert Burns [00:05:39]: Yeah. And some of it’s historic. When you think of Phillips and Cahouma, they are located literally across the Mississippi river from each other. There’s a long history between those two communities, and because of that, that has really been an active, more like a small metro area that’s been dependent on each other. There’s also high need in both of those counties. And as the foundation looked at strategy for the next strategic plan, there was a decision made to expand into Jefferson county, which is where Pine Bluff is located. It’s a core focus for the Delta region. It’s a hub for things like medical care, shopping and other areas. Robert Burns [00:06:22]: It also is an area in a county that has a significant amount of challenge to it. And because of the way we work from ground up, with a lot of community input and engagement, it was determined to make that expansion. But there’s a lot of history in terms of our footprint, particularly in Phillips and Cahoma counties. James Bell [00:06:42]: Will you talk about then your primary objectives in northwest Arkansas and in the Arkansas Mississippi delta? Robert Burns [00:06:49]: Sure. Happy to. Let me start with the delta because I think for some, that might be the area that we don’t have as many listeners that are aware of the work there. So in the Mississippi Delta, and it’s important to note, James, we have five year strategies, and with those strategies, and because of the unique differences and some similarities, we have a strategy that focus is on the delta. We also have a focus for northwest Arkansas. So in the delta, we focus on three core areas. One is education, which is at the heart, really a key component of the foundation as a whole. And that’s everything from teacher recruitment and retention to high quality education opportunities in the delta to also figuring out, like, what’s going to work for the communities in which the schools are located. Robert Burns [00:07:41]: The second is around economic asset building. There is a real need in the delta to help individuals build assets, which to me is like a fundamental part of how folks can get ahead. That includes things like home ownership, small business development, credit building and improvement of credit. It also includes things such as job opportunities that may not be available. Then the third area of focus for us is really around partnership and collaboration, bringing other funders, other corporations, other national nonprofits that may not have a presence in the delta to bear to see if they could be invited into the delta. One of the things that I take a lot of pride in, and I credit the team that works in our Delta, led by Kim Davis, that really has created a lot of trust with local partners. If we can be the entry point for another partner that brings additional resources to the table, that’s fantastic. Here in northwest Arkansas, as I noted, we do have a strategy that’s focused here, again, Benton and Washington counties. Robert Burns [00:08:53]: And our bigger goal is to make this area as vibrant and inclusive as possible. So therefore, we focus on a number of different things, and I won’t go through all of them. But important to note, we have a very key focus on the entrepreneurial ecosystem. It’s something that is at the roots of northwest Arkansas, sort of the genesis of a lot of what’s happened here. If you think about the Waltons and the hunts and the Tysons and others that have been here, really entrepreneurial spirits. So building upon that, doing everything we can to build a really vibrant ecosystem of entrepreneurship, which I think is, frankly paying off in what we’re seeing, we have a big focus, given the growth in the region and the challenges around affordability, on regional affordability. That includes transportation and housing, specifically. Housing is a new area of focus and an important area of focus for the foundation. Robert Burns [00:09:52]: We also focus on education and choice in terms of education in the region and making sure that folks that have lived here for decades or maybe just moving here have options in terms of whether they want to go their kids to go to public school, which we are blessed to have really high quality public schools in most of the districts here. But we also have other options, charter schools, private schools, and ways that you can go to early childhood if your child needs that. We also fund career pathways work, which is basically looking at what are our needs in terms of the workforce, where can we invest in that? So programs like Upskill, which helps individuals enter into the medical profession who are not in that and leads them on a course to quickly attain certifications, education that’s needed for that. We also have a high focus just on inclusive shared spaces, and that sounds like a big picture item. But if you think about the work of parks and open spaces and organizations that work in the community, it’s really that it’s making sure that everybody who’s here or everybody that’s moving here has a space where they feel welcome and they feel a connected part of the community. James Bell [00:11:11]: That’s wonderful. You know, I’m just looking at these, and that was really enlightening, hearing about what’s happening in the delta. First of all, that’s, that’s incredible work you are doing there. So appreciate that. And then I’m personally affected by, as everybody, most people here are, by all these things that you’re doing here in northwest Arkansas. I mean, I think about these inclusive shared spaces. I mean, the park system and the trails and everything that’s happening here are incredible and better than anywhere I’ve been. I’ve lived all over the country. James Bell [00:11:46]: Think about housing as we get ready to buy a house here in the next year or so, we’ll finally do that here. Robert Burns [00:11:52]: Good. James Bell [00:11:52]: We’ve got children that’ll two young kids, one’s almost four, one’s four months old. They’ll be entering public schools here in the next few years. So, you know, all of these things deeply affect our family. And then on top of that, a lot of the work that I do is with is alongside the ESO partners, entrepreneurs, support organizations that you support. And so I really, really appreciate the work you’re doing here. Robert Burns [00:12:16]: Well, it’s only because of partners. I mean, we are a part of this, but we really benefit because we have partners on the ground that we can help fund or that we can help collaborate with. James Bell [00:12:30]: You bet. Could you highlight some of the projects or initiatives in the home region that you’re especially proud of? Robert Burns [00:12:38]: Yeah. I’m going to cite a recent example that I think really gets to the core of why the partners are incredibly valuable. This is the second time we have put this together. But last week, we had a nonprofit convening here in Bentonville. We held it at Crystal Bridges, which no matter what you do there, it’s an incredible place to have an event. But this nonprofit convening, the last one we did about a year and a half ago, was just with the Walton Family foundation. This time we expanded, and we asked if our partners at Walmart foundation and Accelerate foundation would come and partner, and they did, and it was great working with them. And then we also invited our partners from last time, the center for Nonprofit Excellence. Robert Burns [00:13:25]: And with survey and feedback from our partners on the ground, the nonprofits that we work with day in and day out, they gave us things that they would be interested in. So we used that to craft an agenda. And we had around 220 participants when that came together. And it was courses on things that matter to nonprofits, things like governance, fundraising. How do I build my organization? How do I scale what I get to do every day? And those are things you just don’t find. It’s hard to find online or otherwise. The biggest thing is, what I love seeing at something like that is the magic when an executive director or someone who’s working in fundraising meets another person, and then you hear the side conversations happening, they start forming a relationship, and you’ll hear someone say, wow, somebody has the same challenge. Now they’re a partner with me. Robert Burns [00:14:22]: They can help coach me. They’ve been through this before. That’s where the real magic happens. And we will be offering follow up coursework since then. But it is by far one of my favorite events of the year, because just standing back and we don’t participate in the sessions themselves. We come to the bigger sessions, but we exit because we think it’s really important that our partners have space, that they can talk freely, and we might, or the other funders that are present might impede that. We were really fortunate to have Stephanie Cornell, who’s our relatively new executive director, be able to address the crowd there. So that was fantastic. Robert Burns [00:15:00]: I’ll give you a couple of other examples, too, that I love. One is a partnership we have with Ozark Regional Transit, that is the regional transit provider. And when it comes to transportation, granted, we may not have some of the same transportation assets as other large metro areas, but we have a really robust regional transit provider. Through a grant from the Walton Family foundation and work at Ozark Regional Transit, we provided an opportunity where folks can now call a bus, and most of these are smaller vehicles, and the buses will much like an uber pool or a lyft pool. They’ll come to the vicinity of where someone lives, so you don’t necessarily have to go to the bus stop. Now, to be clear, Ort still has bus stops. They have regular routes. They operate those. Robert Burns [00:15:50]: But through this service, we’ve seen ridership go up pretty dramatically in all four major cities along the I 49 corridor. It means something’s working around that. And because of it, cities have looked at ways they could increase their capacity. We think that’s a model of, like, innovative thinking. How could you do something differently when it comes to a bus system, which are notoriously hard for someone to really understand how to use? And we really value that partnership. And then I’ll use a smaller, very localized example. We’re really proud to partner with the Ravi Cultural foundation, and Rave is an organization here in Bentonville that works with the growing and very present south asian community here. And it really started out as a way to be cultural programming, opening up to the community here and having residents be able to get exposed, but vice versa. Robert Burns [00:16:48]: South asian community, more exposed to the community. It’s really become a model of civic engagement. How, as you move to the region and move to the area, do you get to know about what’s going on at the chamber of commerce or visit Bentonville or the city of Bentonville or the city of Rogers or city of Centerton? And how do you get engaged there? And that’s been a really critical part. But I could say that about multiple nonprofits across the region, and that’s one of the benefits, is that we have nonprofits, cities, school districts, community colleges that we get to work with. And because of the work, you’re doing on the ground, you know, where the needs are, and we can help respond to that. James Bell [00:17:34]: I really appreciate that. Yeah. You mentioned several organizations I’ve had the opportunity to connect with, and I’ll bring one up here in a moment with e for all. But even we’re seeing these organizations do things together, which is, I see, as a way of creating sort of a multiplier effect, right? Robert Burns [00:17:53]: Oh, absolutely. James Bell [00:17:54]: But moving on to the next question here, Robert, the greater Bentonville area in northwest Arkansas, it’s an understatement to say that we’ve experienced remarkable growth in the last decade or so. How do you see our city and our region contributing to the broader narrative of innovation and community development across the United States, perhaps even the world? Robert Burns [00:18:21]: Yeah, we’re really fortunate that we, like a lot of areas, have been able to learn from other regions of the country. We now, on a regular basis and through a lot of our partners, we have folks, it seems every week coming to this region to learn what’s going on, to look at the amazing trail network, we have to tour crystal bridges, to meet with city officials, to meet with the nonprofits that are going on. But just to get an understanding, I try to tell people. So I’ll relate this story all the time. I’ll try to explain, like, why do, why do Chris? And I love it here so much. And part of it is I can try to explain it, but if you don’t come here and experience it, it’s not the same. And I’ll give you an example. There’s a leadership group here in town right now that represents a bunch of nonprofit organizations from across the country, most of whom had never been to the state of Arkansas. Robert Burns [00:19:20]: Of course, hadn’t been to northwest Arkansas. And I remember having dinner with them the first night, and they were just like, this is not what I expected. They were blown away. And I love when someone’s here and they say, I can’t wait for my next chance to come back. And you hear that story repeated again and again. But I feel like we, and with partners and the cities and the county and the school districts and everyone else, we have a really unique way of working together as a region. And I credit groups like the Northwest Arkansas Council, which has been around for a very long time, and the spirit with which people approach challenges here, there’s more of a can do spirit. And as you know, from living here, I mean, the degree of separation between people is very small, and it’s a huge benefit because I frankly feel like people go out of their way to help each other. Robert Burns [00:20:15]: And if folks can come experience that culture and take it back or figure out some of the innovative programming that we’re doing and replicate that, all the better, because I feel like we have those teachable moments. Yeah. James Bell [00:20:29]: We can see it all across, all across the region and in different areas. For example, in the entrepreneurial ecosystem that you mentioned earlier, the way that the short connections here and the fact that people just help to help. Robert Burns [00:20:45]: Yeah. James Bell [00:20:46]: Has invigorated that ecosystem on top of the support from what the Walton family Foundation does and all the folks working in a way that I haven’t seen in other places and has really spun it up faster, in a better way, in my opinion. Robert Burns [00:21:05]: That’s great to hear, too. I appreciate the affirmation. Yeah. James Bell [00:21:08]: Well, I hear from entrepreneurs every day that come here or that I meet with here who talk about this. I’ll give you an example. I believe you’ll support the Heartland challenge. Robert Burns [00:21:18]: That’s right. James Bell [00:21:19]: And last year, one of the companies who came here, it’s actually one I’d known from some work I’d done in Tennessee. And so they get here, I meet their new CEO. We quickly make some introductions to some different folks locally, and the next thing you know, they’re getting into an accelerator here. And was sitting here with this particular entrepreneur a few weeks ago, shooting an episode for the fuel for your health program. And he said, I think I’d like to come here. Robert Burns [00:21:56]: Awesome. James Bell [00:21:56]: He started talking about his girlfriend. He was bringing her down for the weekend. He goes, when is this airing? It’s kind of a recruiting trip. Robert Burns [00:22:07]: You got a dual purpose there. James Bell [00:22:09]: That’s exactly right. So it goes to the point of what you said, though. You have to get people on the ground, because one of the first things he said to me is, this is nothing like I expected. And then the experience of being here and of being around the folks here and the help he got here is unlike he said, he’s gotten another place. Robert Burns [00:22:29]: Sure, sure. And that story repeats itself. It does, as you just said. James Bell [00:22:34]: Yeah, absolutely. Well, you know, we’ve talked some about it. Collaboration with local organizations is critical to your work, to achieving your goals. At the Walton Family foundation, one of my favorite programs that you support is e for all or entrepreneurship for all. And their program, their epara Totos program within it, that’s a program that’s focused on serving underrepresented individuals and helping them successfully launch and build their businesses. And I really appreciate your support because as somebody who sits on their leadership advisory board, I see it every council I see that work in action often, and so I really appreciate the work, appreciate the work that you all do in supporting them. I’m interested in learning. What is it about e four all that attracted the Walton Family foundation to say, come put an office here and open up a program here? Robert Burns [00:23:32]: Sure. I appreciate it. First of all, I want to thanks for what the role you play, and I should say this about so many people in the region. Everybody that’s participating as a mentor or leadership committee or sits on a board of directors is like, or is elected to one of the bodies, and, like, thanks for what you do for the civic economy. I mean, that’s a really important role, and I think people want to get engaged that way. But with e for all, I want to give a shout out to Rodrigo. Rodrigo is an incredible human, and I think we’re really fortunate as a region that he and his family are here. He’s done a great job of establishing this relatively new chapter of a national organization. Robert Burns [00:24:12]: But part of it was, if we think about how to make folks have a sense of belonging and inclusion, is how do smaller entrepreneurs who are trying to get their business started and learn how to make that the most viable business that can be or help determine that, how do you do that? So, it was a relatively small business, and E for all had a proven national track record. One of the things that really makes sense is don’t try to create something from scratch if you can bring in something that’s really working. So that was part of the work in bringing e four all here, and it was based on what we were hearing among the entrepreneurial community. And that, first and foremost, was the way, because that feedback from entrepreneurs, from business owners on the ground, really led us to look for organization, and E for all emerged from that. You may have gone, but I went, I guess it was about two weeks ago to their graduation down in Springdale. Yeah, I missed it with the latest group, but it’s really phenomenal. And for me, at a personal level, it was wonderful because one of our friends was part of this cohort, and I’ve seen him thrive because of what he now has learned. And I think what eventually will come out of that is a really cool restaurant concept locally. Robert Burns [00:25:33]: So I feel like you see the results, and I love when someone locally, and sometimes it’s someone I don’t have the good fortune of knowing right away, but they’ll talk about the impact a program has had on them, and that really goes to like what we think of outcomes. But that’s the real outcome. It’s on the people and the place. James Bell [00:25:53]: Absolutely, absolutely. Well, it’s changing lives, and I’ve observed that directly with the companies in the program and the entrepreneurs in particular. What are some of the other local organizations that the foundation supports? Robert Burns [00:26:08]: In the entrepreneurial ecosystem? James Bell [00:26:10]: Yeah, sure. In the entrepreneurial ecosystem or beyond. Robert Burns [00:26:12]: Yeah, so there’s so many examples, but some of which will be more well known and others. But the entrepreneurial ecosystem. So the fuel accelerator program is one we’ve already talked about. E for all. We support groups that are working to bring entrepreneurs here. We support summits that are bringing potential funders to the table who are now taking part in that on the housing. And I could keep going. There’s a lot of entrepreneurial organizations that we have the good fortune of supporting. Robert Burns [00:26:49]: We support at the housing level, groups like the CDC of northwest Arkansas, which is one of the few nonprofit affordable housing producers. We were very happy to be part of the establishment of groundwork, which is really leading efforts here at a holistic level to have more conversations about housing and why it’s important and why, as we grow, the need for workforce housing is really paramount and to help creative approaches around how we can do that work. In the area of transportation, I talked about Ort. We certainly fund groups like trailblazers who are doing just that with cycling, some of the smaller groups that are working on the ground to increase mobility and participation locally. We’re very happy to partner with folks like the City of Bentonville or the City of Rogers or City of Pea Ridge on public projects that are open space or particularly a planning opportunity to help think about a facility in a different way, or to help expand a side path or a trail that then allows someone to access another trail. We’re really fortunate. We have the Razorback Greenway, which runs roughly 40 miles north to south. But you’ve got to be able to connect to that to really make it feasible. Robert Burns [00:28:10]: We have this amazing trail network, and we’re really thinking more about how do you connect those. And similarly, it’s like, how do you make cycling more accessible to everybody? So that if you or I are dressed just like this and we decide to go hot bottom bike, which I did earlier today, we’re able to get from point a to point b, but more so, we feel safe and comfortable doing that. We work with the Bentonville School District and happily fund the ignite program, which if folks haven’t had a chance to experience that, to me, it’s one of the most phenomenal education programs I’ve seen in the United States, we fund the Helen Walton Early Childhood Enrichment center. That’s a big component, folks like the amazium theater squared and Fayetteville. So there’s a lot. I feel like I’ll leave out a number of organizations, but these are examples because we fund so many different groups that are part of the ecosystem here. And sometimes we look much like e for all. Bring in more of a national intermediary to also assist. Robert Burns [00:29:16]: So we’ve been doing some work around public space work. Our friends at Urban Land Institute do a lot of work here around space and planning. So those are some really good examples, I think, of partners, but the list would take us probably too long. But it’s one of the benefits of being able to do what we get to do. James Bell [00:29:37]: Yeah, I love hearing about all those organizations. I, too, enjoy ignite and spending time around those kids a lot. I feel a little less smart every time I spend time around you and I both. Robert Burns [00:29:50]: Yeah. And envious. I’m like, wow, I wish I had that program like that when I was in high school. James Bell [00:29:55]: Absolutely. If I had access to one 10th of what they have access to, it’s really an incredible program. Folks should check it out. And there is an episode about ignite. So go back in the archives and check that out. Robert, before we jump into the final chapter of the show, I have to ask you the show’s trademark question. That’s the hashtag because Bentonville story. In your role or in your work, you must have many stories of moments where you look back at and think, that could only happen in Bentonville, or it describes the essence of this place. James Bell [00:30:29]: What’s your hashtag? Hash. Because Bentonville story or stories. Robert Burns [00:30:32]: Yeah, it was really, it’s hard to think of one. I’ll just generalize and just give you some examples. Meeting an entrepreneur who is experimenting with northwest Arkansas as an area, who’s coming from another state, and I should say importantly, like, fuels ideas to bring entrepreneurs here, expose them to the amazing place that this is, and maybe they think about relocating their business here. You talked about an example earlier, but you meet one of the entrepreneurs, and they are incredible people. Entrepreneurs are incredible people. Takes a lot of courage to do what an entrepreneur does, but being able, they’ll mention something about their work, and I’ll be like, well, tell me more. And then they’ll say, well, I wish I could meet someone at this organization. I say, well, I happen to know a person that’s there. Robert Burns [00:31:25]: Could I make an introduction just to be able to offer that degree of helpfulness? It’s something a lot of people could do, but that’s the spirit of this place, is that we help each other. And I think it’s the willingness to do that and to go that extra mile. The other thing that I love, which happens very often, is meeting someone who’s a newcomer to the area, who wants to get involved locally and just being able to point them in the right direction, or to groups who are on the ground, who are doing awesome volunteer work such as canopy, or how they might get involved in one of the local entrepreneurial organizations to be able to be a mentor or mentee, are thinking of an organization that actually has a board opening that they might want to consider. Those are the kinds of things to me that really are getting to the essence of this, because it’s what makes us, I think, unique. And as an area that really will continue to be a real beacon for the future, but also leads to our growth in the future. James Bell [00:32:40]: Absolutely. Well set future plans. Let’s talk about that. Looking ahead, what are some of the strategic priorities or initiatives that the Walton Family Foundation’s home region program is focusing on in the coming years? Robert Burns [00:32:56]: Yeah. So we operate under these five year strategies and we’re currently in the middle of our current strategy. But I think it’s really, as a region, a lot of it comes down to growth, and the growth will certainly, in my mind and in the data that we see, we see that as going to be growth in the future. And how do we from that growth both continue to grow the capacity of the sector and how do we as a region respond to that growth? So I have a feeling that things like housing will continue to be an item, but the other areas as well. I mean, thinking about how we invest to continue to make this region as vibrant and inclusive as possible, but it also thinks about things like how do we increase civic engagement? It’s a recurring need and one that I think is really important for both having people feel connected to community, but also just feeling like, hey, this is a place I could call home. Yeah. And if you feel that you have some way of getting involved here, and it could be through church, it could be through a nonprofit, it could be through volunteering on a city commission. That is going to be something that really keeps people in place, but it has an added benefit. Robert Burns [00:34:21]: It gives back to the community that time, talent and treasure that someone brings to the table. That’s huge. When it comes to the needs of the community, we also face a lot of increasing demand given growth around infrastructure. We already fund some work in infrastructure. And that certainly, to me, is going to be an area that as the area grows, we’ll probably have to think about ways to respond. And then the third thing I would put in the category is something I’m really proud of at the foundation that we do. We have a program called Design Excellence. And design excellence is a program that’s been with the foundation for quite a while, is led by Meredith Bergstrom on our team, and prior to that, Jeremy Pate. Robert Burns [00:35:04]: And what it does is it really looks to bring world class architects, urban designers, planners to the table. They then help determine some firms that could help one of the nonprofits or a city as they look at a facility, and we will fund the design work that then could lead to a project that then gets built out. So there’s a lot of examples around the region, but that element of planning, thinking ahead, creative design, designing for people so that you feel like you can enter in and find where you need to be, those are really critical. And we also take a lot of pride that the partners, many of whom are represented in the area, those organizations, because of this design excellence program and what’s actually been built, have won both national and international acclaim for their projects. About three weeks ago, the American Institute of Architects brought a study group here for about five days. Architects, I think it was about 150 from around the country, and they choose two sites a year. So they chose northwest Arkansas, and they chose Sao Paulo, Brazil. I’m like, that says something. Robert Burns [00:36:22]: The fact that architects from across a number of different places decide to come and lots of partners get involved to then take them around, and they had a similar reaction. Many had never been to Arkansas before. And what they take away, I always feel like you’re also paying that forward. Someone leaves this place and they can take that story ahead and talk about all the things that are positive about this region and the state. James Bell [00:36:50]: Absolutely. I had heard of the design excellence program. I didn’t realize how deep it went and the things it’s doing. That’s really neat. What advice would you give to, what advice would you offer nonprofits and others who perhaps want to start a sustainable relationship with the Walton Family foundation? Robert Burns [00:37:11]: Sure. So one important aspect of our work, and this crosses all of our programs, we are an invite only foundation. We always are looking for organizations that are doing great work out there. We are fortunate and granted, with timing, I didn’t have a chance to go through the entire list of groups that we support, but it’s pretty vast. We’re always looking like other opportunities. I think educate yourself first. Look at the strategy that’s on the website. And the website offers the strategies both for Delta and for home region here in northwest Arkansas. Robert Burns [00:37:50]: But also you could see the focus we have on education or environment through those programs. Look at, make sure it’s a strategic fit. That’s a really key attribute. We’re not going to fund things outside of a strategy because that is something that’s very important in terms of the work that we do. And then I really strive to do this because a big part of my career is I’d spent time in local government, I’d spent a lot of time in the nonprofit sector and in philanthropy. And I always feel like philanthropy can be mysterious. I always want us to be accessible. So I always feel like if you have a question, reach out. Robert Burns [00:38:31]: The worst it could be is maybe a no or a maybe or an exploration. A lot of times to actually get to a grant is a process of exploration. But I just emphasize it has to fit strategy and it has to be something that the organization’s capable of doing or with some assistance, they could do. And that’s important to kind of understanding the nature of how we work. James Bell [00:38:57]: Perfect. You know, before the show, I was making some notes, Robert, about storytelling. I guess ill talk about some of that in the context of the podcast and ask about the Walton family foundations work in storytelling. It created this podcast, as I say, at the beginning of every show. Its to share the stories of entrepreneurs, business executives, and community leaders, sparking the rise of Bentonville. The purpose is to help amplify their voices, those people in their organizations and their initiatives to help them achieve their goals at the root of things. But it’s also an attraction tool, using it to show people beyond our region that there are people who share similar hearts, similar ideas, similar goals and passions here, and that they ought to be here, too. And in a sense, I think of it as a beacon of hope for those longing for a different life, to be somewhere where they can live, work, play, build a successful business, and thrive and achieve their dreams. James Bell [00:40:01]: So I see storytelling then as a critical component to engage people in our community and beyond. And so, thinking about the Walton Family foundation, then, how does storytelling play a role in the foundation’s effort to engage the community and amplify the local voices here? Robert Burns [00:40:22]: Storytelling, to me, is a critical ingredient. And as human beings, I think it’s probably the best way we communicate something to one another. And I always use my mom as an example for some, the work I was just talking about is it’s hard to understand. But I can relate a story to my mother that I think gives her a very clear visual image. Now it’s up to me to try to tell that story well, if we can give people the tools and resources, the stories we have on our website, as an example, you earlier talked about e for all. I was really fortunate a few months ago to do a LinkedIn Live interview with Rodrigo to talk about the work they’re doing. That’s now you can find that on our website. Those stories are out there. Robert Burns [00:41:08]: Or we just had Meredith Bergstrom do a whole segment about transportation here in northwest Arkansas. That story is out there, the work around affordable housing. There are really powerful video stories out there where individuals that are firefighters and public safety officials and teachers talk about the struggle they have in terms of finding housing in the region. That’s powerful. That’s a personal story. It’s the most powerful when it comes to that. But I think we do this every day. It’s getting the word out there. Robert Burns [00:41:44]: And storytelling is often unique to a place because it’s, it helps you understand what the region, what the residents are really about and what makes Bentonville and northwest Arkansas unique. It comes through in the stories, and you see wonderful work being done here locally by a lot of folks doing documentaries or filming things here in the region, particularly around the cycling community, which just is so dynamic here, and other things that the region is known for. And I think that’s just going to continue to grow in the future as the region grows, is the need to tell that story not just locally, but nationally and even internationally, and have people understand what sets us apart. I really credit many years ago Alice Walton’s vision about creating crystal bridges that has really created a place that is, you know, above no other in terms of what’s here in the United States. It’s been a draw for the region, but now you look at how that’s created other opportunities for artists and performers and architects and thinking about things in a way that combines the real assets of this region. But that’s something that I think we continue to capitalize upon. James Bell [00:43:06]: Nice. Well, Robert, only have a couple of questions left for you. Robert Burns [00:43:09]: Sure. James Bell [00:43:10]: And I never let anybody get out of the studio without a whimsical question. So I have to ask you one of those. If you were to organize a talent show featuring only the residents of the home region, be they in northwest Arkansas or in the Arkansas Mississippi delta, what are the unique talents that you think would just steal the show? Robert Burns [00:43:33]: Yeah. So I would want to combine the delta and northwest Arkansas. And I’ll say a little bit more. Why? Part is we have such a rich history here of music, and particularly in the delta with the blues and somewhat jazz, but the real roots there is music would have to be one of the main talents. And we are blessed with like incredible musical talent here, whether it be performance, are singing. So that would be a given. That would absolutely be the case. And a lot of the local organizations on the ground, like house of songs and music moves and folks like that would be engaged. Robert Burns [00:44:11]: Art, bar none. We would absolutely have art be a part of that. I could see how you could incorporate some of the art and the music together, make it really visually impactful. And then I would also put in, I think you have to do something that marries the outdoor recreation and cycling opportunities. So you could imagine a scenario where you got this amazing talent show with folks coming off the jumps and some sort of musical talent below that. And art, that’s a part of it. But something that really is a testament to all that. And the last thing, I mean, we have to sustain. James Bell [00:44:45]: Right? Robert Burns [00:44:45]: So we have incredible food scene here. We’re also really fortunate that a lot of our food still is locally sourced and we could promote that. And the amazing chef and chefs and talent that are here in this region. To think of a region our size, having folks that are James Beard nominated and the fact that we have an amazing culinary school here through Brightwater, all of that lends to that fabric. So just with those four things, I think we could have a pretty incredible talent show. James Bell [00:45:16]: Yeah, that would be a pretty incredible show. Last question, Robert, what’s something I should have asked you that I did not ask? Robert Burns [00:45:24]: You’ve done a great job, James. James Bell [00:45:26]: Well, thank you. Robert Burns [00:45:26]: I think the thing I would emphasize is folks just continuing to think about what they can do for the community as a whole and a broader encouragement, because this is a personal passion of mine. But it’s also something we fundamentally believe in at the foundation. Is the best solutions come from the ground up. It’s really where residents and folks who are customers of organizations, they’re the ones with the best solutions. Find ways to get involved, let your voice be heard. Find ways to give back to the community. And I also think it’s really critical that for the younger generations, which are so active here in the community and could teach us all something, don’t let it just be the adults. Find ways to engage the youth. Robert Burns [00:46:21]: Many boards could use folks of different generations and find ways to engage them. It also brings along a lot of life lessons and folks being able to teach each other that, but I always think it’s multigenerational. It’s also finding ways to engage folks related to abilities, so engaging folks who may have a disability or that may need some adaptation. But it’s incredible to see what that affords someone when they feel they have the freedom to now get on a trail with an adaptive cycle or be able to have access to something they wouldn’t have before. But I think it’s finding these ways and continuing to open up access and continuing to think about how do we continue to be as vibrant and inclusive as possible. And I have all confidence that we will be. This area, to me, has an incredibly bright future ahead of it. We’re all a part of that, and it’s incumbent on us to make sure that that continues in the very best way possible. James Bell [00:47:24]: That is a perfect way to wrap this up. Robert, thank you. Your insights have really provided a valuable perspective for me, and I’m hopeful for the audience as well, both on the work that the Walton family Foundation does and its commitment to the home region, but on YouTube. And so I want to thank you for this work. It’s really inspiring. So thank you. Robert Burns [00:47:48]: Great. Well, thank you, James. I really appreciate the fact that you do this and that you get the word out. So thank you for the invitation. I’m really honored to be able to do it. James Bell [00:47:57]: I appreciate it. To our Bentonville Beacon audience, thank you for joining us on this enlightening journey. The Bentonville beacon is brought to you by the greater Bentonville Area Chamber of Commerce, where I serve as vice president for economic development. The stories shared here aim to inspire and inform and showcase the remarkable individuals, organizations and initiatives that are shaping the greater Bentonville area and beyond. Share this episode with those who are passionate about driving change and creating lasting impact in their communities. Whether you’re watching on, youTube or listening through your favorite podcast platform, be sure to hit, subscribe and stay connected and informed about our latest conversations. Until our next episode. Let’s continue to celebrate and support the endeavors that make our community a beacon of opportunity and growth. James Bell [00:48:52]: Goodbye for now, and we’ll see you next time on the Bentonville Beacon.

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