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BENTONVILLE -- Walmart Inc. is testing a pilot program to connect volunteers with nonprofit organizations in Northwest Arkansas.

The program, called WalmartGivesNWA, started June 8 and will run through Aug. 23. Erin Hogue, director of community operations for the Walmart Foundation and Walmart.org, is leading the initiative.

The Walmart Foundation is the retailer's charitable arm. Together, the foundation and the company generally provide more than $1 billion in cash and in-kind donations to support programs that align with their philanthropic focus of strengthening the community, creating economic opportunity and enhancing sustainability in supply chains. Their efforts were recently joined under the umbrella Walmart.org.

Hogue said this project differs from Walmart's other giving programs by including non-employee community members. For every hour they volunteer at a participating nonprofit in Benton and Washington counties, Walmart will give $10 to that organization. It has allotted $1 million for that part of the program.

"We know people are looking for ways to connect with one another, and we oftentimes hear from associates who want to bring family or friends during volunteer opportunities, and this was a way for us to think about extending that and providing more opportunities to bring people together," Hogue said. "We believe that giving is in Walmart's DNA, and our customers and community members are an extension of who we are, and we want to include them in that with us."

The retailer already has a couple of programs to encourage employees to spend volunteer time with nonprofits. But WalmartGivesNWA adds an incentive for monetary contributions. The company will match 2:1 every dollar an employee donates to an agency, again up to $1 million.

Details about the program can be found at walmartgivesnwa.com.

An essential component of the program is Walmart's partnership with GivePulse. Founded in 2012 in Austin, Texas, GivePulse provides a platform to list, find, organize and measure the impact of service and volunteerism in the community, according to givepulse.com.

Any 501(c)3 organization can create a GivePulse page on which to list its volunteer opportunities. Volunteers who register with GivePulse can browse by area of interest or search for a particular agency to see what opportunities are available. A person can log the hours put in as a volunteer, and the nonprofits verify those hours worked. Under the Walmart program, a volunteer can then submit a request for the company's match.

Pairing the Walmart program with GivePulse "gives us an opportunity here in Northwest Arkansas to test a new platform that's user-centric and tech-enabled, and allows our Northwest Arkansas nonprofit partners to connect with more community members to serve our unmet needs here in the community," Hogue said.

ADVISORY BOARD

Walmart invited several nonprofits to form an advisory board for the project, and Hogue said its members have made helpful suggestions that have already been implemented. "We're also getting feedback from the community as well," she said.

"We want to learn through the program," Hogue said. "We're tweaking as we go."

Sarah Semrow, executive director of Sharing & Caring of Benton County, serves on the advisory panel. A lot of Walmart employees volunteer with the nonprofit, Semrow said, and that involvement helped get the agency selected to join the advisory group.

Sharing & Caring provides Christmas gifts and meals to underprivileged children, Semrow said. And although its biggest events will take place after the Walmart program ends, she said the summer holds plenty of volunteer opportunities. All of the regular volunteers were informed about the new giving program, she said.

The nonprofit hosted an event on June 15, just one week after the program started. "We were able to get a lot of both Walmart employees as well as community members to participate in that volunteer opportunity," Semrow said. "We have seen quite a few new folks get involved, as well as some of the ones that have been with us a long time."

Chase Jackson is president of the Humane Society of the Ozarks, and a board member and volunteer with Arkansas Weimaraner Rescue. Both agencies are taking part in WalmartGivesNWA.

Both groups take in dogs from animal shelters to keep them from being euthanized, Jackson said, and their adoption events help make room to save even more animals. Some of the events are held on the University of Arkansas' Fayetteville campus, he said, and the groups have other affiliations with the university. For instance, many students volunteer through UA's Volunteer Action Center, which is also on GivePulse.

After just the first few weeks of the program, Jackson said, the humane society has $800 in donations pending, and the rescue has just over $1,000. Despite a database listing more than 500 volunteers for the humane society and 200 for the Weimaraner rescue, this degree of participation is unusual for summer, he said, when many volunteers are on vacation or otherwise unavailable to help at adoption events.

Jackson attributes the increase in volunteer hours to the Walmart program and the opportunity that volunteers see in it to have an even greater impact. He's also seen new people join the groups because of the Walmart partnership.

Apple Seeds Inc. is experiencing a similar uptick, program director Brett Williams said. Based in Fayetteville, Apple Seeds' mission is "to inspire healthy living through garden-based education," she said. The many volunteer opportunities include helping at the nonprofit's teaching farm and orchard, hosting field trips there and teaching cooking classes.

"We reach about 10,000 students a year through all of our programs," Williams said.

After joining the Walmart project, Williams said, he saw a lot of people who had expressed interest but had not yet volunteered suddenly step up.

"That additional incentive of being able to see how tangible their support is has been huge," Williams said. "People are making extra effort to follow through and come out and get involved."

Williams said that so far, volunteer hours have stayed consistent with levels in the spring months, "which is not normal." Like other nonprofits, Apple Seeds typically sees volunteer engagement fall during the summer.

VOLUNTEER INCREASE

Jessica Andrews, chief executive officer of 7Hills Homeless Center, said she's noticed a slight increase in volunteer hours since the program began, "but also it's just been really cool that our longtime and regular volunteers are able to request this match. It's like an extra way that they can give back, which is really neat for someone who has been giving back for so long with volunteer hours."

The center was already on GivePulse, Andrews said, and she noted that while it hasn't had many new volunteers so far, "we've had more of our longtime volunteers actually take the time to log in and make that match."

Because the program is just a test, Walmart's Hogue said the retailer doesn't have any plans at this time to repeat it in Northwest Arkansas or implement it elsewhere in the country. "At this moment in time, it's really about testing and learning," she said.

"Of course, we're hoping to learn a lot that would inform other ways that we can better connect both our associates and community members," Hogue said. Walmart is always looking for ways to support and strengthen local communities, she said, "and this is providing us an opportunity to learn how we might do things differently, and then what is actually already working and the technology that's available."

"Of course, we're hoping to learn a lot that would inform other ways that we can better connect both our associates and community members," Hogue said. Walmart is always looking for ways to support and strengthen local communities, "and this is providing us an opportunity to learn how we might do things differently, and learn about the technology and what's available."

SundayMonday Business on 07/07/2019

CORRECTION: Apple Seeds Inc., a nonprofit focused on healthy living through garden-based education, reaches 10,000 students a year in Northwest Arkansas. The number of students affected by the program was incorrectly reported in an earlier version of this story.

Print Headline: Walmart tests project to lend helping hands

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