Philanthropy is so often motivated by personal experience. And the backstory of the Dollar General Literacy Foundation—one of the largest U.S. funders in this space—is a reminder of that. J.L. Turner, the co-founder of this bargain-basement retail chain created some 75 years ago, was functionally illiterate. He dropped out of school at the age of 11 to work on the family farm when his father died. In 1993, long after Turner's death, Dollar General had become a retail giant with thousands of stores and the company turned to philanthropy in a focused way. It created the Dollar General Literacy Foundation in his honor.
The foundation is a great example of a grantmaker that's laser-focused on a specific niche—except in this case, it's one that covers some 30 million U.S. adults who can't read. You'd think the shocking fact that so many Americans are functionally illiterate might draw the attention of loads of funders, but this isn't really the case. Here and there, you'll find major foundations giving big grants for literacy programs—say, as part of re-entry programs to help the formerly incarcerated—but there's only a limited number of funders who are attacking this problem in a sustained way.
Which is what makes the Dollar General Literacy Foundation so important. Over the years, as Dollar General's earnings have grown to billions of dollars, the foundation has stepped up its giving. In the past few years, it's given out between $14 million and $17 million annually to advance its literacy grant programs—funding that is spread far and wide, typically in modest-sized grants, in the 44 states in which Dollar General has stores. Literacy programs have to be within a 20-mile radius of a Dollar General store or distribution center to qualify for grants.
The latest round of the foundation's grants totaled $7.5 million and went to nearly 870 nonprofit organizations, libraries and schools.
So how does this grantmaking play out on the ground? Last year, we took a closer look at foundation's giving in its home state of Tennessee. Back then, the Goodlettsville-based funder partnered with the Department of Education to award grants to 12 summer reading programs in the state. However, those grants came under some fire since no grants went to the state’s largest county, which had am average third grade reading proficiency of just 39.5 percent.
But Tennessee certainly isn’t the only place that this literacy and library funder has been concerned with lately. Today, we’re looking at the foundation’s support in the state of Georgia to see how it compares to those efforts up in Tennessee.
As part of the foundation's latest round of grants, announced earlier this month, nearly $250,000 in literacy grants went to organizations in Georgia. The funder has a goal of impacting the lives of more than 8,200 Georgians with these funds directed toward adult, family, and summer literacy programs. Fulton County received the most grants, but in total, 21 Georgia counties received Dollar General’s latest round of support. The grants ranged from $400 to $15,000 each, and top earners were New American Pathways, the Dougherty County Family Literacy Council, LaAmistad, and the Harvest Rain Early Learning Academy.
As we said, grants from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation tend to be modest in size. But a few thousand dollars can go a long way in a rural community, which is where a lot of Dollar General stores are located. In addition, this is a transparent foundation with an open application process. In many states, there's no better funder to approach with a program to help adults learn to read, prepare adults for a high school equivalency exam, promote childhood summer reading, or learn English as a second language.