Leon Levine Foundation looks ahead

Leon and Sandra Levine
Leon and Sandra Levine

Todd Cohen

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Late last fall, with the economy collapsing and wreaking havoc on local social-service agencies and the people they serve, Leon Levine learned through a government report that over 2,000 children age three and under were sleeping in cars at night.

His response, through the Leon Levine Foundation, was to create a $1 million emergency fund to address critical community needs.

In late August, as United Way of Central Carolinas prepared to launch its annual fund drive in the face of rising damage from the recession
and continuing community anger over the organization’s pay scandal, the foundation announced it would give $1 million to the drive once United Way had reached its goal.

Six years after retiring as chairman and CEO of Family Dollar Stores, the retail chain he founded in 1959, Levine is devoting himself full-time to a second career as a philanthropist, working closely with wife, Sandra.

“We wanted to give back to the community,” he says. “And with the economic problems we’ve been having, we have had some opportunity to help some people.”

With $335 million in assets as of June 30, 2008, according to the most recent annual Form 990 it has filed with the IRS, the foundation made over $13 million in grants in the fiscal year ended June 30, 2009, up 10 percent from the previous year.

And at age 72, Levine is making plans to leave the bulk of his wealth to the foundation at his death, a bequest that he says could make the foundation at least several times the size it is now.

The foundation focuses its grants mainly in the areas of education, health care, religion and human services, and also responds to emerging issues as they arise, says Tom Lawrence, an investment manager who manages the Levine family office and serves as vice president of the foundation.

The foundation’s funding mix typically includes large “leadership” grants in its focus areas.

It gave $5 million to create a scholarship program at Central Piedmont Community College and $2 million for the school’s Levine Information Technology Building, for example, and gave $10 million for Levine’s Children Hospital at Carolinas Medical Center and made a $5 million endowment challenge for the children’s hospital.

And it recently announced it was giving $9.3 million to UNC-Charlotte over 10 years, the school’s largest individual gift commitment ever, to create what the foundation plans to support as an ongoing merit scholarship program for student leaders akin to the Morehead-Cain Scholars Program at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Over the years, the foundation has given over $7 million for the Levine Museum of the South and over $15 million for projects at Shalom Park, a 60-acre campus that is home to the Jewish Community Center, two synagogues and other agencies.

It also pitches in to address urgent needs.

Earlier this year, for example, when Hope Haven needed $100,000 to fix its roof so it could continue to provide residential services for women in rehabilitation and treatment, the foundation made a $50,000 challenge grant that helped the agency quickly raise an equal amount.

And in August, when the impact of the recession threatened big cuts at Pat’s Place, which provides advocacy and treatment for sexually abused children, the foundation made a $50,000 grant.

Lawrence says the increase in grants over the past year partially reflected continued growth in the foundation’s asset base but also represented an intentional response to “needs in the economy and community.” Levine says the need was clear.

“So many people are hurting,” he says. “It was an opportunity for us to step in and we jumped to the tune.”

Now, to prepare for Levine’s eventual bequest, the foundation is talking with consultants and leaders of other foundations throughout the U.S. about how to prepare the organization to grow.

Drawing on the expertise he developed in evaluating potential partners and investors as he built Family Dollars Stores from a single store to 4,400 outlets before he retired, Levine says, he now wants to position the foundation to have the greatest value and impact.

“What exactly do we need to have,” he says of the foundation’s plans, “to make the grantmaking most effective.”

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