Ever since Robert Burns joined the Walton Family Foundation a couple of years ago as director of its Home Region Program, big things have been happening.
For one, the foundation broke ground on a $31 million food hub in Springdale called the Market Center of the Ozarks. It also launched significant efforts to address regional concerns of affordability, such as the rising cost of housing in Northwest Arkansas. And Burns has led the implementation of the foundation's new 2025 strategy in the home region.
Before arriving to Arkansas, Burns earned more than 25 years of experience in workforce housing, philanthropy, community development and governmental affairs, most recently focusing on financial inclusion and economic empowerment in his role as senior vice president of Citi in Washington.
Now he heads a program with an annual grant budget of about $50 million. In February 2021, the Walton Family Foundation committed to investing more than $2 billion in philanthropic support over the next five years to its initiatives, including the Home Region Program and its other programming areas that protect rivers and oceans and the communities they support and improve K-12 education.
"Robert brings a mix of deep experience, fresh thinking and a commitment to collaboration," Tom Walton, chairman of the Walton Family Foundation's Home Region Program, says. "His leadership will no doubt continue to build greater access to opportunity for more people across the state."
That 2025 strategy initiative was announced in May 2022. It followed a series of conversations with regional leaders in the summer of 2020, when the Walton Family Foundation embarked on a year of seeking open, honest community engagement.
From those interactions, the foundation staff members began to understand current challenges more deeply and re-imagined its work in the Delta based on what they heard from its leaders, while pinpointing opportunities for "innovation, growth and prosperity" throughout the state.
"From the moment I joined the foundation as director of our Home Region program, I have seen that the vision of building a diverse, thriving region isn't just aspirational," Burns says. "It's happening city by city, neighborhood by neighborhood."
Strategy 2025 is a five-year commitment "to tackle challenging social and environmental problems with urgency and a long-term approach to expand access to opportunity" through three areas -- education and youth engagement; economic asset building for individuals and families; and high-impact coalition building.
So far, the Walton Family Foundation has enjoyed a longstanding record of working with communities in Phillips County and Coahoma County, Miss., but the new strategy will expand its efforts to Jefferson County with partners Go Forward Pine Bluff, Meraki Roasting Company and Higher Purpose, as well as national organizations Educators Rising and Aspen Young Leadership Foundation with Delta-focused projects.
Burns describes his professional mission as working to close the racial wealth gap in the United States and uplift communities that have been historically and systemically discriminated against.
Will Staley met Burns during a site visit the Walton Family Foundation conducted to familiarize him with the Delta region. As executive director of Thrive Inc., Staley is among the many who receive grants from the foundation.
"Robert jumped in and asked how we were doing at Thrive Inc., and I could tell his genuine interest," Staley says. "Being a grantee, there's always a bit of extra stress when grantors visit the office; however, Robert operated with a calm and kind presence, which reassured me that this would be a visit about building supportive partnerships."
SOCIAL INNOVATION EXPERT
Burns has worked in so many parts of the United States that when the Walton Family Foundation opportunity became available, it seemed to him a wonderful time to return to the heartland after a significant amount of time away from it.
"It's an area that I think fundamentally ... is where people can come together and look for solutions, sometimes in the middle, an area that you don't find as much on the East and West Coast sometimes," Burns says. "That, to me, is a real, appealing prospect."
Working for the Walton family-led foundation allows Burns to practice a place-based approach, a habit of letting the people of participating counties, cities and towns play a big role in the forming of solutions for their own communities.
In his role, Burns says he works with partners on strategy and grant making from a philanthropic perspective. By partnering and collaborating with so many other organizations, Burns and his team place a strong emphasis on making connections, growing leadership abilities and helping nonprofits respond to the growth of their areas.
Operating from Northwest Arkansas expands on the entrepreneurial essence of the region that produced the Waltons, the Tysons and the Hunts. Burns says the foundation has seen significant interest from entrepreneurs and others moving here because of the support structure that's already in place, available to help and coach people with big ideas who also need capital to craft those ideas into reality.
The Delta Strategy brings in new partners and old to work toward teacher quality and retention, building assets and wealth, promoting small business ownership, home ownership and credit building.
"Entrepreneurship is the engine that drives job creation in Northwest Arkansas and the Delta," Burns says. "The foundation is proud to support community-led efforts that help residents start and grow successful businesses."
Will Staley says the Walton Family Foundation funding enables the Creative Leadership Youth Program, a nonprofit branding and place-making firm in the Delta that provides access to more traditional art and design education workshops with an emphasis on how to make money with those skills.
"We work to improve our community while sharing our skills with youth related to art and design jobs," Staley says. "The result is new public art and recreation assets for the community while students build their skill sets."
The program can also help students navigate the next level with portfolio reviews, tutoring and campus visits for scholarship opportunities.
"Since that [first] trip, I've met Robert on more site visits [and] each time he has the same, kind demeanor and asks questions that let you know he knows what it's like to run a nonprofit," Staley says. "I appreciate the empathy and truly feel like I could contact him if I were ever in a bind."
APPALACHIAN IN THE OZARKS
Burns grew up on a family farm in North Carolina, where his parents both worked for the University of North Carolina and raised beef cattle. He finds a lot of similarities between his childhood home and here. Living so close to nature and being brought up with an appreciation of the outdoors, the natural beauty of both places overlaps, he says, right on down to the rolling hills and mountains.
Although Burns' parents worked at UNC, they insisted he and his sister not attend that college and explore their other options. Robert had it narrowed down to a couple of choices when Appalachian State University awarded him a scholarship that covered most of his undergraduate expenses.
Even then, "I had a sense of what I wanted to do," he says.
Burns had several jobs with the town of Chapel Hill within the Parks and Recreation and Maintenance divisions, where he had found a mentor. The man had worked there for a long time and was working on a master's in public administration, but he took the time to talk to Robert about what he was doing, introduce him around town and show Burns what work could get done in the course of a day.
"He was formative in helping me see what the possibilities were," Burns says. "I wanted to do that kind of work, being responsive to residents."
In college, Burns earned a political science degree with a minor in sociology, spent a lot of time volunteering and took on a number of leadership roles at the university, including those in student government. Then he became one of two North Carolina students to earn a Truman Scholarship, which paid for his graduate education.
Knowing he wanted to go into local government, Burns started looking at a master's of public administration program at the University of Kansas, even though he'd never been to Kansas. In the end, that's what took him to the Midwest. He thought he'd go back East after graduation, but stuck around and worked for a suburb of Kansas City in local government.
What actually brought Burns back to his family home was a job with the county manager in Wake County, N.C., where he worked with the board of commissioners on a number of projects to bring vibrancy back to the industrial city of Georgetown.
Olathe, Kan., was Burns' first experience of being in a city that was growing exponentially fast and learning how to respond to that growth. Ferguson, Mo., was where he honed his government experience, putting programming in place like a creative homeowner loan for senior citizens and other economic development to revitalize the city. And after following a blind advertisement in the St. Louis Business Journal, Burns found his first gig in philanthropy by going to work for the national nonprofit organization once known as Neighborhood America, which focuses on housing and community development around the country. He was the regional director working from Kansas City, Mo., awarding $120 million in grants to organizations in nine states.
Once he was promoted to work from its D.C. office, Burns headed up grant making, training and consulting for all the regional offices.
"One of the greatest things was I had done work in and visited all 50 states, plus Puerto Rico and Virgin Islands and D.C.," he says. "It gave me a greater appreciation for every community, that it's in its own way unique. You don't go in knowing the solution, you learn from the residents and folks in the community."
But for all his many positions and experiences, the most formative of Robert Burns' life was Hurricane Hugo, a category four that hit South Carolina in 1989, when he was living much closer to the water than he ever had. The state hadn't had a direct hit from such a powerful storm in a long while, and Burns knew it would be big.
At that point, "I had lived on the coast all my life, (storms) make their way inland and do damage," he says. Friends offered him a place to stay, but they were still in the path. "I'll never forget the sound. It was a sleepless night. You'd hear things, then electricity was gone."
There was the peacefulness of the eye, then the chaos on the back of it.
Afterward, since Burns was working for the city at the time, he had to go in to work despite the roads being blocked by felled trees. He cut his way out, then joined in the process of helping the community come together, helping organize the volunteers and use of chainsaws and grills for those cooking up their freezers full of food for the neighborhood before the goods expired.
They had handed out hurricane preparedness packs before the storm, a first for the city, then afterward coordinated mutual aid trucks full of supplies, personnel and Federal government assistance.
"People coming together really made a difference," Burns says. "It stuck with me."
CORRECTION: Robert Burns had a job with the county manager in Wake County, N.C., where he worked with the board of commissioners on a number of projects. An earlier version of this story gave an incorrect county.