By Erin Ailworth
BOSTON- The philanthropic arm of Walmart Stores Inc. said Friday it will donate $779,000 to Boston Children’s Hospital, the latest in a series of generous donations to area charities that could bolster the Arkansas retail chain’s local reputation after several failed attempts to expand in the Boston market.
Since the beginning of the year, the Walmart Foundation has donated more than $900,000 to Greater Boston charities, including $50,000 to the Greater Boston Food Bank and $25,000 to Boston Medical Center. In addition, the megaretailer provided $5 million in funding to a Brandeis University-run national program to place nearly 3,000 at-risk teens in part-time summer jobs across the country.
“Walmart is in many ways, as a corporation, taking a leadership role that the government used to take,” said Susan P. Curnan, director of the Center for Youth and Communities at Brandeis.
The chain intends to keep funding local charities even though it currently has no stores in Boston, according to Walmart spokesman Steven Restivo. “Because of our [existing] relationships in the city we will continue to evaluate programs to fund whether we have stores in the Boston area or not,” he said.
The grant to Children’s Hospital will fund patient care, research, family support services, and the Children’s Miracle Hospital Network’s Champions program. Every year, the program sends one child from each state — representing all children struggling with severe medical challenges — on a trip with his or her family to Washington, D.C., and a celebration event at Disney World. Each child also receives a $500 Walmart gift card.
Through such philanthropy, Walmart may be trying to improve its local image. It has been difficult for the chain to break into some Massachusetts communities — especially Boston, where Mayor Thomas M. Menino remains opposed to the retail giant’s presence.
Walmart had hoped to build one of its Neighborhood Market grocery outlets at a shuttered MBTA maintenance facility near Dudley Square — a location with few supermarket options. But city officials declined last year to endorse the plan, saying they were concerned how Walmart’s presence might hurt local businesses. Menino’s office declined to comment for this story, saying his views have been well publicized already.
And last month, Walmart abandoned plans for a 34,000-square-foot Neighborhood Market in Somerville and a 90,000-square-foot store in Watertown. Although the retailer had not submitted formal plans for either store, its proposals divided residents of both communities.
Walmart currently has 47 Supercenters and discount stores in Massachusetts, as well as two Sam’s Clubs.
There is also a Supercenter under construction in Raynham, and the company has plans to break ground on another store in Saugus in the fall. Despite the recent setbacks, Restivo said Walmart remains committed to expanding in Massachusetts and giving to worthy local causes.
“We continue to think our stores can be a part of the solution in the Greater Boston area,” Restivo said.
The retailer’s broad-based giving strategy is not unusual, said Rick Jakious, chief executive of the Massachusetts Nonprofit Network, a statewide association meant to strengthen local philanthropies. Many companies, no matter the size, have recognized that corporate giving is more effective when linked to business strategy because they can target issues and communities that matter to their customers.
Walmart’s sheer size, however, sets it apart.
“Walmart is a pretty unique company in that they can be a game-changer to anything from an individual local organization to an entire national issue, simply by virtue of their scope and scale,” Jakious said. “So when they put their commitment and their dollars and their employees’ time and energy behind something, they can make a difference in a meaningful way that not a lot of other companies can.”
Jakious was working at City Year Inc. in 2011 when the Boston community service group received a $3.2 million award from Walmart that “changed the trajectory and depth of knowledge” around what City Year was doing with its early literacy program, he said.
Greater Boston Food Bank chief executive Catherine D’Amato said Walmart’s support has been invaluable to her organization, which has received two trucks and roughly $85,000 from the retailer since 2009.
D’Amato is counting on that support to continue, both because the Greater Boston Food Bank is part of the national Feeding America effort that Walmart supports, and because of the retailer’s expansion goals. “We still have their attention,” she said. “The New England market, as you know, is a very desirable market. It’s one of the few remaining locations for a company, a box store, the size of Walmart to penetrate.”
While he recognizes the good that Walmart’s charitable giving can do, Russ Davis, executive director of workers’ rights group Massachusetts Jobs with Justice said that he remains cautious of Walmart’s growing local presence.
“They’re going to give money to groups strategically in order to create a good impression,” Davis said. “Our concern is that it not be used as a commercial weapon. Groups shouldn’t feel pressured.”