J.L. Turner and his son founded Dollar General in 1939 as a wholesale business and opened their first storefront in 1955. Today, this Fortune 500 retailer has more than 8,000 stores, selling consumable basic products ranging from food and housewares to apparel and health and beauty aids.
Dollar General’s success is particularly noteworthy considering that J.L. Turner had only a third-grade education when the first store opened. This experience made him a passionate advocate for other adults lacking literacy skills, the primary focus of the company’s philanthropic efforts. These efforts include direct funding to adult education organizations, a literacy referral program, and several capacity-building initiatives.
Although Dollar General’s focus on adult education and family literacy is in large part the result of cofounder J.L. Turner’s personal struggles with literacy, the cause also is tied to the company’s mission of “serving others.” For Dollar General, this means “a better life” for its customers, “a superior return” for its shareholders, and “respect and opportunity” for its employees. With many stores located in underserved rural and urban neighborhoods that often have high rates of illiteracy, Dollar General believes supporting local adult education and family literacy programs is critical to achieving its mission. As one of its partners observed, Dollar General sees the connections among literacy, its customers and employees, and the well-being of their communities.
Grants to Literacy Organizations
Since 1993, Dollar General Literacy Foundation (the Foundation) has been providing grants to nonprofit literacy organizations offering adult basic education, general equivalency diploma (GED) preparation, English as a second language, family literacy, and workforce literacy services. Other literacy grants include Dollar General’s Back-to-School Grants, the School Library Relief Program, and Youth Literacy Grants. In 2007, the Foundation awarded more than $3.5 million to 335 nonprofit organizations.
To be eligible for grants, organizations must be located within the Dollar General 35-state market area and within 20 miles of a Dollar General store. They also must have a plan for how their grant-funded activities will be measured and evaluated. As Denine Torr, senior manager of community initiatives, notes, Dollar General wants to know “what they’re going to do and how they’re going to do it and also how they’re going to raise funds outside of Dollar General.”Literacy Referral Program
Recognizing that the hardest first step for many adults seeking to improve their literacy skills is often simply knowing where to go for instruction, Dollar General established a literacy referral program in 1987, which provides free referral information to the store’s customers and employees. Customers can pick up a brochure at checkout counters that describes the history of Dollar General and its cofounder, J.L. Turner. It also includes a self-addressed, prepaid reply card that customers can complete and mail to receive information about local literacy programs. Initially, Dollar General responded to the cards, but the response grew too big for the company to handle (more than 50,000 referrals have been made since it began). So, in early 2000, the company formed a partnership with ProLiteracy America to connect adults with appropriate programs.
Working with adult education programs over the years, Dollar General has developed a more comprehensive understanding of the strengths and weaknesses of the adult education field. Wanting to help the field move forward, but recognizing its limitations, Dollar General collaborates with national organizations with specific expertise in capacity-building initiatives. These organizations include ProLiteracy America, the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL), the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL), the Council for the Advancement of Adult Literacy (CAAL), the National Commission on Adult Literacy (NCAL), and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE). These initiatives vary from collaborating with NCFL to teach American Indian parents techniques for reading to their children, to working with ProLiteracy America to identify promising accountability practices in adult education and literacy programs.
The success of Dollar General’s corporate giving is in large part the result of its partnerships. Through these partnerships, Dollar General has had a significant impact on the communities it serves.Recognize your limitations and seek other organizations that can help.
When Dollar General’s Literacy Referral Program became too big for it to handle, it turned to ProLiteracy America for support. Representing volunteer and adult basic education organizations throughout the nation, ProLiteracy maintains a database of its affiliate programs and connects these programs with adults who mail Dollar General referral cards. ProLiteracy also follows up with programs three months after the referral to see if potential students enrolled and, if so, ProLiteracy follows up again a year later. This information is used to refine the referral network in each state. ProLiteracy also helped Dollar General improve the Literacy Referral Program by redesigning the referral brochures to be more accessible to lower-level learners.
In 2004, Dollar General and ProLiteracy decided to expand the program database to include nonaffiliate programs. Dollar General was concerned that some potential students may not live near a ProLiteracy affiliate. The company hopes that, by including more programs, adults will be connected to a larger network of services that can help both them and their children improve their literacy skills.Evaluate and improve your philanthropic efforts.
Dollar General and its partner ProLiteracy realized that referring students to programs was not effective if those programs were already at capacity, leaving students frustrated and without services. So, when Dollar General and ProLiteracy began discussing other ways to collaborate, ProLiteracy suggested two research projects that would provide a better understanding of how the referral process was working.
The first project examined how local programs could improve their own referral practices. Working with the program lists of the American Library Association (ALA), Literacy USA, and the Commission on Adult Basic Education (COABE), ProLiteracy identified nine communities and a lead agency in each that could provide information about their local referral processes and about what does and does not work well. ProLiteracy found that referrals were most successful for those programs that reached out to the students who were referred to them. With funding from Dollar General, it has since developed a workshop and a free, self-paced online course to help programs strengthen their outreach practices. More information about these tools and other materials developed for the referral project can be found at www.proliteracy.org.
For a second research project, Dollar General also provided ProLiteracy with funding to identify strategies for reducing program waiting lists and managing enrollment. ProLiteracy used these funds to invite programs to submit proposals describing their approaches to reducing waiting lists, selecting the most promising approaches to be shared with the field in the forms of a booklet, video, and CD of resources. These and other materials developed for the waiting list project are disseminated through mailings, postings on listservs, and workshops. They also are housed at www.thinkfinity.org, along with a self-paced online course on how to reduce waiting lists.Build the capacity of grant recipients to document and analyze their use of funds.
The partnership between Dollar General and ProLiteracy has expanded to include another initiative that focuses resources on program accountability, data collection and analysis, and reporting, to assist programs with federal, state, and local reporting requirements and ensure effective use of Dollar General’s contributions. The Dollar General/ProLiteracy Performance Accountability Initiative provides practitioners with online training on model practices in data collection and analysis, so that they can make informed programmatic decisions and measure the outcomes of their services. All training participants are field-testing the practices and providing feedback, lending additional expertise to the project.Have frank discussions with partners to identify needs.
When Dollar General and the National Center for Family Literacy (NCFL) first began to work together, Emily Kirkpatrick, senior director at NCFL, found them to be “very frank and open to discussion and serious about philanthropy.” NCFL made the initial approach, and the two organizations discussed the state of family literacy in the U.S. and how NCFL could improve it with philanthropic support from Dollar General. Together, they identified the following initiatives that Dollar General now sponsors either individually or in concert with other funders:
NCFL has a long history of working with the U.S. Department of the Interior's Bureau of Indian Education (BIE) to provide family literacy services to American Indians. Since Dollar General is interested in helping underserved populations, building on these past efforts made sense. Dollar General and NCFL collaborated on Read Together—Catch a Dream, which provided American Indian parents with training on dialogic reading, a method that encourages children to become active participants in the reading process. As documented by the National Early Literacy Panel, dialogic reading is more effective than other types of shared reading. Parents participating in the program receive training about specific techniques to help them start and continue conversations, or dialogue, about books as they read with their children. Children who participated in the program demonstrated significant gains in expressive vocabulary skills, and parents became more active in their children’s reading.
Be a catalyst for discussion and information sharing in the field.
According to Denine Torr, senior manager of community initiatives, the adult education field “needs to have a unified voice and Dollar General wants to help with that.” As part of this effort, Dollar General sponsored three seminars throughout the country designed to stimulate discussion between national and local literacy leaders about adult education and enable them to exchange information about promising models, tools, and resources. Hosted by the National Coalition for Literacy (NCL), the Dollar General Guest Presentation series will continue through 2008, with three additional seminars tentatively planned.
Benefits to Business
Some benefits to Dollar General of its adult education partnerships include:
Benefits to Adult Education
"[Dollar General] is enabling us to do work
that we might not
Some benefits to adult education organizations of their partnerships with Dollar General include:
"[Businesses should] be really dedicated to asking questions. The field can become stronger and more responsive to the marketplace as a result of business sensibility. The questions that they have about services, scalability, and capacity and so on are very relevant and can push efforts into new places, so that we can all benefit."