He Made Big Bucks Selling to the Poor. Now He's Giving Some of It to Help Them

After making his fortune selling to the income challenged, Howard Levine, the CEO of Family Dollar, recently added 600,000 shares of his corporation’s stock to the Howard R. Levine Foundation, a gift of $45 million in addition to the $20 million he had already donated. Almost all the new money is intended to help the poor in North Carolina. Initially, Levine plans to give out more than $3 million a year for food, shelter and housing assistance.

What prompted this largesse? Thank you notes touched his heart, written by children who appreciated his hands-on approach to managing his foundation. Last year, Levine donated $100,000 so that the Arts & Science Council of Charlotte wouldn’t cut field trips for elementary school students to historic sites, the opera, and the ballet. A class of fifth graders took the time to write Levine thank you notes: “I get a lot out of that," Levine says. "I saved those letters, and I showed my wife and my own kids. My family instilled in me the idea of giving back, and I’m trying to do the same with my own children,” Levine told the Charlotte Observer.

There’s an irony about the size of Levine’s gift. Across the country, dollar stores sales zoomed during the recession. Income-challenged customers adopted the admonition, “Shop here first,” for paper goods, cleaning solutions and ultimately food. Dollar stores geared up to meet the challenge, adding capacity, freezers for frozen goods, and in many cases, fresh produce. The entire market segment thrived, until customers' incomes rose and they returned to their previous buying patterns. It’s almost as if consumers were embarrassed to keep shopping at dollar stores, when they could afford a bit better.

Family Dollar had to close more than 300 underperforming stores. As a publicly traded company, the chain was the object of a bitter takeover battle between Dollar Tree and Dollar General. Dollar Tree ultimately bought Family Dollar, yielding a combined entity of 13,000 stores with almost $19 billion in annual sales. After the takeover, the value of Levine’s stock climbed.

Now at $65 million, the Howard R. Levine Foundation is one of North Carolina’s largest donor-advised funds. The Foundation for the Carolinas holds the money while Levine recommends whom should receive his grants.

Levine also announced that he’s giving $1 million to renovate the historic Carolina Theatre in Charlotte, built in 1927. The 1100-seat movie palace will be restored as a performing arts and community center. He has also given millions to the Jewish Community Center of Charlotte, the Loaves & Fishes pantries, the American Red Cross, a Hospitality House program that defray expenses visitors in Charlotte who are in town to visit a hospitalized loved one, and A Way Home, a program that helps homeless veterans and their families find housing.

If you’re going to approach the Howard R. Levine Foundation for help, stress local Carolina relevance even if your project may resonate elsewhere. Levine and his wife are actively looking for more charities to help.