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Boston-based Walmart Foundation chief leaving post

By Beth Healy
Globe Staff / October 15, 2011

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Margaret A. McKenna, the Boston-based chief of the Walmart Foundation, said yesterday she has stepped down from the nation’s largest corporate philanthropy.

McKenna, the former president of Lesley University in Cambridge, will be succeeded by Sylvia Mathews Burwell of the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Burwell, who will be based in Bentonville, Ark., where Walmart Stores Inc. is headquartered, officially takes the post in January. McKenna said she will continue to consult for the foundation during a transitional period.

McKenna, who has run the multimillion-dollar charitable arm of Walmart since 2007, has overseen about a half-a-billion dollars a year in giving: $288 million to educational and hunger-related nonprofits in 2009, plus about $200 million in food the company gives away annually.

“The Walmart Foundation is far stronger than it was when Margaret joined us,’’ said Leslie Dach, Walmart’s executive vice president of corporate affairs, to whom Burwell will report. “The company and countless communities have benefited tremendously from her leadership.’’

McKenna, 66, said she officially retired in May but agreed to stay aboard until Walmart found a successor. She said she decided to retire after she had met her goals to put in place a strategy and operations for the fund. “I felt good about where we were, it was a good place,’’ she said.

McKenna leaves as the Arkansas retail giant is trying to make a push into the Boston area and deeper into the Northeast. The chain wants to open Walmart grocery stores in Somerville and Boston but is facing local opposition.

“People need to sit down and talk about what are the real concerns, and address them. This is a business opportunity - to have jobs, to have construction jobs, to provide healthy, low-cost foods to neighborhoods that don’t have them’’ she said. “Everybody needs to calm down.’’

McKenna brought an educational and civil rights lawyer’s resume to a company that was buffeted by allegations that it had destroyed small businesses, underpaid women, and failed to contribute to the communities where it made its massive profits.

Burwell joined the Gates Foundation in 2001 as executive director after serving on the budget staff for the Clinton administration and as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin.

Beth Healy can be reached at