Member Spotlight | Sam Caplan

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Sam Caplan, Walton Family Foundation

An Interview with Sam Caplan, Chief Information Officer and Deputy Director of Operations, Walton Family Foundation, and a TAG member since 2016.

If your titles at Walton are any indication, there’s a lot on your plate right now. Tell us about your first 90 days.

I'm around 30 days in so far, so still getting my sea legs! I'm taking two approaches. The first is to get acclimated to the culture, to meet everyone and build relationships, and to learn as much as I can about our organization, teams, and program areas. The other approach is focused on our technology and grant-making processes. WFF had already started the search for a new grants management system before I joined, so I've taken ownership of that and it's consumed most of my time. I've also started reaching out to my network to learn more about their best practices and how I might adopt them here.

What energizes you about #philanthropytech right now? Where have we been and where do you see us going as leaders and practitioners in this sector?

I think traditionally #philanthropytech has taken a risk-averse or conservative approach to technology and innovation, and it's been reflected in the systems we use and our processes. But recently I've noticed that we're collectively shifting towards more innovation in our technology and our thinking. I believe that the philanthropic sector is going to start employing technologists beyond our traditional role in operations and that we'll become a thought partner within our organizations, helping others understand the role and impact technology can play in improving society. The Ford Foundation's "Technology Fellows" program is a great example of this, where technologists are embedded within program teams. But back on the ops side, I think we're going to start seeing some really interesting development taking place. Maybe we'll build an artificial neural network to help find patterns and insights within our reams of grant data. Or maybe create bots to help automate tasks like searching for red flags in an NPO's 990 data. And, I'm really hopeful that we start to see 'data trusts' begin to emerge, enabling us to collectively mine each other's data.

As a seasoned IT leader in philanthropy, what advice would you have for someone just getting started whether that’s making a switch from the private sector or moving up in their career?

Network like crazy. Scour LinkedIn and find your peers and technology leaders in the sector, and connect and build relationships. Go to the TAG and Peak conferences and make friends. We're a fairly small and insular community, and having a network of peers is invaluable. And, contribute back to that network - write blog posts and find ways to share your ideas. The beauty of being part of the philanthropic sector is that we are all working towards the same outcomes and we're not competitive. I want to learn about your best practices and innovative ideas, and I'm happy to share mine.

Being located in Arkansas, you’re a poster child for efforts like the “Rise of the Rest” investing outside the classic East Coast/West Coast hot zones of innovation culture. What’s bubbling up in Bentonville and beyond? What would people be surprised to learn about your hometown or region?

Bentonville, Arkansas is a pretty amazing place in terms of philanthropy. Both the Walton Family Foundation and Walmart Foundation (we are separate entities) are located within a mile of each other, and both provide significant resources to Northwest Arkansas. The result is that Bentonville has amazing schools, one of the best bike trail networks in the world, and Crystal Bridges, a world-class art museum. We're "Manhattan meets Mayberry." I also think people would be surprised to discover how much giving each foundation does. Last year WFF gave over $500M, and Walmart is usually around $300M annually (plus another billion dollars of in-kind donations). That's a lot of philanthropy from a town of fewer than 50,000 residents.

What does life outside of work look like for you? How do you stay balanced?

I ride my Triumph motorcycle all over the Ozark mountains, which is amazingly fun. I also have a family (wife Jessica and son Eli) who are super into the outdoors and scouting, so occasionally I'll allow myself to be dragged into nature for a hike or to float a river. Lately, I've been playing tons of 'Stardew Valley' on my Nintendo Switch. I'm really not a 'live to work' guy so it's not hard to turn off at 5 PM and enjoy time doing non-CIO stuff.


The Technology Association of Grantmakers (TAG) is a 501(c)(3) non-profit membership organization that promotes the power of technology to advance the goals of the philanthropic sector.