Wal-Mart has long been a corporate partner to hundreds of nonprofits in the Washington region. Since the world’s largest retailer announced plans in 2011 to open six stores in the District, Wal-Mart has also increased its giving to $3.8 million from $2.4 million, even as some try to press the company to boost wages. We caught up with the woman in charge of the community relations arm of Wal-Mart for this region, Nina Albert, and asked her how the company has retooled its giving strategy in light of the expansion. What follows are excerpts from that interview:
Talk about your background.
I am a D.C. native. My background is in real estate and economic development. I worked for the city for six years, primarily on the restoration and revitalization of the Anacostia Waterfront. So I know D.C. well. I joined Wal-Mart a year and a half ago.
How has community engagement changed since the expansion?
Once stores open, there’s going to be an employee base that can volunteer and give its time to be part of the community in a way that funding doesn’t do. With our presence here, you’re going to get the full benefit of us being a corporate citizen in the city.
Has it changed the way the company gives to the community?
The Wal-Mart Foundation has four pillars of giving: hunger and nutrition education; workforce development; education; and environmental sustainability. We’ve been working with local community and official leaders. They have indicated to us that they are most interested in addressing two areas: hunger and nutrition education, and workforce development. Those are the two areas where we are trying to make our mark.
What was your process to determine those areas of focus?
Before I came on board, Wal-Mart had held more than 200 community meetings where we were hearing the community’s primary areas of interest and concern. Access to affordable and fresh food comes up regularly as does access to jobs. Those are messages that have been iterated over time in informal as well as formal gatherings.
You’ve done projects in other regions. How does community engagement in D.C. different from other markets?
There are some things that are the same, similar questions everyone asks: How is Wal-Mart a corporate participant in the community? I get asked that by chambers of commerce. I get asked that by residents. I would say that’s true in all the regions I cover. I think this city is very well balanced. People in this city see very clearly the pros and cons of things. In this city, citizens are not afraid to voice their concern. I mean that in a great way.
What are the greatest obstacles you’re facing at the moment?
We’re trying to help the D.C. Council understand what the impacts of the Large Retailer Accountability Act [which would force the company to pay higher wages] are. I look at our corporate giving, which for this year was $3.8 million. It’s a tremendous, impactful opportunity. There’s an underlying assumption that businesses are poor players. That is the basis of the LRAA. It’s almost the exact opposite. Major corporations want to have a positive impact on their communities. But when there’s a piece of policy that unfairly targets or disadvantages an organization or industry sector, it changes the dynamic of what a company can do for the community. That is a very current example of what we’re working on. To date, we’ve had a great relationship with the communities where we’re going to be building stores. I think it’s a little bit of mixed messaging that the council is doing. They actively recruited us and were very excited for us to come to the city. You can’t give businesses mixed messages. You can’t say I want you, but by the way, we’re going to change the rules for you. The community at large understands that. I think there are certain political interests that are getting in the way of keeping an even playing field.
How will the act impact Wal-Mart’s giving?
It’s very difficult for us to predict. The definition of what a large retailer is has changed three times in the last month. No one in the business community knows who’s in and who’s out and what the impact is. From a Wal-Mart perspective, we don’t know what the process will be, so it’s difficult for us to weigh in on exactly what would change as a result of it.