Remembering Leon Levine

Philanthropic donor Leon Levine of Charlotte, North Carolina died on April 5, 2023. Levine, who was born and raised in a tiny rural town, began his business career in his teens helping his family run a small department store. In 1959, at age 22, he opened the first Family Dollar Store in Charlotte with an initial investment of $6,000. In 2015, Dollar Tree bought some 8,000 Family Dollar stores for $8.5 billion.

Long before that sale, however, Leon Levine had begun his philanthropic journey, launching the Leon Levine Foundation in 1980 with his wife Sandra. They immediately began to direct financial support to a variety of organizations in North Carolina, with a special focus on the Charlotte area. One of the earliest grantees was Shalom Park, now a 54-acre campus that serves the local Jewish community—and all of Charlotte—as a gathering place for religious worship, education, recreation and cultural events.

Over time the Levine Foundation’s grantmaking expanded to include health care and medical research, human services, religion and museums. In the recession years of 2008 and 2009, the foundation gave over $20 million to local charities to respond to significantly increased needs at a time when the community’s banking industry lost over 50,000 jobs.

Higher education was also a beneficiary of Leon and Sandra Levine’s generosity, with one 2009 grant demonstrating their own intense civic engagement and their desire to build such commitment in others. I wrote about the Levine Scholars Program in 2019, and it’s a story worth repeating now in memory of Leon Levine:

Two hours southwest of Chapel Hill and Durham there operates another interesting scholarship partly inspired by what John Morehead kicked off 70 years ago. The Levine Scholars Program brings high-achieving students who have demonstrated leadership and a commitment to civic engagement to the urban campus of the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Established in 2009 by Leon and Sandra Levine, the program initially supported 15 students annually. Five years later they made an additional gift to increase the number of scholarships awarded each year, extend the program through 2024, and construct a new residence hall to house Levine Scholars and students in the university’s honors college.

Neither of the Levines attended UNC-Charlotte, but both are passionate about the Charlotte community from which they built their first store into today’s national network of Family Dollar outlets. Being very familiar with the way that competition sharpens all participants, Leon Levine admired the impact of the Morehead-Cain scholarship on Carolina and sought to create a similar merit-based scholarship that would simultaneously reward good students and raise the stature of the university in his hometown.

Like Morehead and Robertson counterparts, Levine Scholars enjoy four-year scholarships, supported summer experiences, mentoring relationships, dedicated staff and advisers, and an alumni network (which already includes several Fulbright winners). At the heart of Levine’s program, however, is what Leon calls “a little extra spice”—a special emphasis on civic engagement. A central requirement of the Levine scholarship is the series of individual and group community-service projects, alternative spring-break experiences, and internships with charitable groups that recipients are guided through.

Just like their Morehead-Cain counterparts, each Levine Scholar receives an $8,000 grant for an independent project. But the Levine funds must be used to create their own charity or undertake a project in partnership with an existing Charlotte charity. Participating organizations range from hospitals to schools, museums to assisted-living facilities, women’s shelters to food banks. The goal is to have Levine Scholars emerge from their college years with understanding of the intrinsic satisfaction of serving others, the management requirements of nonprofit work, and the importance of the charitable sector to a community. And to top it off, says Leon Levine, “by the time they graduate, we will have the potential of keeping them in Charlotte. That could be a bonus for the entire community.”

As much as their classroom successes, it was the accomplishments of students in these civil-society projects that inspired the Levines to make their second gift to expand their scholarship. “We could not have envisioned the heights we have seen these fine young students in the Levine Scholars Program reach in the first five years,” remarked Leon at the time.

This excerpt first appeared in “Scholars Across Carolina,” Philanthropy Magazine, Summer 2019.

Mentioned on this page

Let’s Keep in Touch

Our Values-Based Giving Newsletter helps philanthropists and charitable organizations apply their values to their giving and follow the best practices for success.

This field is for validation purposes and should be left unchanged.