The Charles Butt Foundation may not have a large national profile, but it has a mammoth footprint in its home state of Texas. In fact, the donor behind it is one of the biggest billionaire backers of K-12 education that people rarely talk about. His butt and his family are worth over $9.5 billion, according to Bloomberg.
The foundation is built on earnings generated by HEB, a 115-year-old grocery chain with over 420 stores in Texas and Mexico. HEB is a household name in Texas and the state’s largest private employer. The company prides itself on its corporate good citizenship and involvement in the communities it serves — from hunger relief initiatives to sustainable environmental practices. Charles Butt, who is chairman and CEO of HEB, created his eponymous foundation with a focus on education, as he says in large font on the organization’s landing page: “I believe that a quality education for every child should be a preeminent national goal. ”
We weren’t able to connect with the foundation to learn more about its most recent giving, but in 2019, the last tax filing available, the grantmaker gave close to $25 million. It had been hovering at about that level since a significant increase in 2017. Charles Butt has also made some huge donations toward education since around that same time, including pledging $100 million in 2017 to establish a new organization devoted to the cause.
In other words, this is definitely a funder to watch in the K-12 space. Here are four things to know about the Charles Butt Foundation, its founder, priorities, and role in Texas and beyond.
A bootstrapped family history, with an emphasis on philanthropy
In 1905, Florence Butt opened a small grocery store on Main Street in Kerrville, Texas with just $60. Her husband, Clarence C. Butt, had tuberculosis and was unable to work. Florence named the CC Butt Grocery Store after her ailing husband de ella, and put her three sons to work as delivery boys. She ran the store until 1919, when her son de Ella Howard, who had just left the Navy, took over as manager.
Charles Butt started working in the family business at age 8, as a grocery bagger, and took over the company when his father retired in 1971. Over the years, HEB has continued to grow, and in 2021, it was ranked fifth on Forbes’ list of America’s largest private companies.
Philanthropy is a family tradition. Charles Butt’s mother, Mary Elizabeth Holdsworth, was a teacher who advocated for disabled children and people with tuberculosis, among other causes. During the Depression, she and her husband committed 5% of HE-B’s pre-tax earnings to civic and philanthropic causes, and the company that continues practice today, giving to “charitable organizations that focus on hunger relief, education, health, environmental sustainability , and diversity initiatives,” according to its website.
In 2018, when Charles Butt signed the Giving Pledge he cited his parents’ influence and his reasons for giving:
It’s our civic obligation.
The income gap between top and bottom earners is too great for the nation’s future stability.
It’s the right thing to do.
Education — primarily public schools — is the foundation’s top priority
“I believe that a quality education for every child should be a preeminent national goal,” Charles Butt wrote in his Giving Pledge letter. “Regrettably, public education has been underfunded, ignored, under-led, sidestepped, attacked, and then criticized for not getting better results. ‘The beatings will continue until morale improves!’” Later in the letter, Butt observed, “Other causes are more glamorous, but public education is foundational for the United States.”
The Charles Butt Foundation started off giving primarily in the San Antonio area. Butt later founded the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation, which had a statewide focus, and provided grants to identify and scale improvements to public education. Meanwhile, a sister organization, Raise Your Hand Texas, was created to promote public education policy and advocacy. This year, the Charles Butt Foundation and the Raise Your Hand Texas Foundation merged. Raise Your Hand Texas remains a separate entity, and will continue to promote public education advocacy.
The foundation’s programs encourage young people to enter the teaching profession through its Scholarship for Aspiring Teachers. It also works to develop and strengthen education leadership through its Raising School Leaders program. Research on education issues is another foundation priority, including an annual public opinion poll that tracks Texan’s attitudes about the state’s public schools. Its recently released findings revealed surprising results, given the uproar over so-called critical race theory, book bans, and the governor’s recent threat to bar immigrant children from public schools. In fact, the number of parents who gave local public schools high marks increased in this year’s poll (non-parents gave schools lower ratings than in previous years).
In addition to his foundation’s work, Charles Butt has made other significant investments in education in Texas. He founded the Holdsworth Center for Excellence in Education Leadership in 2017, for example, initially pledging $100 million. The center, which Butt named after his mother, works with Texas public school districts to develop and nurture education leaders. That same year, I have committed another $50 million to train teachers at Texas public schools. Butt has also supported A&M-San Antonio’s College of Education, and Human Development work in public schools on the south side of San Antonio.
Texas-based, but not exclusively so
The Charles Butt Foundation has deep roots in the Lone Star State, and its funding reflects that, but Candid data shows that it also provides grants to organizations in California, Maine, New York and Illinois. Charles Butt also supports causes, including a number of local food banks, in Mexico, where HEB has over 60 stores. In 2001, Butt was awarded the Aguila Azteca medal, the highest honor for a foreign citizen, for his business and philanthropic work in the country.
Home state hero
In an era when billionaires are routinely slammed for being entitled, self-indulgent, and tone-deaf, Charles Butt is surprisingly popular at home. Texas Monthly, which trains a smart and savvy eye on state politics and culture and isn’t known for groveling, included Butt in an article titled The Best Things in Texas 2021: HE-B’s Charles Butt. The article, illustrated with an image of Charles Butt as superhero, cited him for taking steps to limit hoarding and for giving HEB employees raises during the pandemic. The article also applauded Butt’s outspoken challenge to the Texas Attorney General’s push to restrict access to mail-in voting, calling him “the rare voice of opposition among Texas’s wealthy and powerful.”
At 84, Charles Butt isn’t married and has no children; his definition of family is expansive — and he clearly informs his funding priorities. as I have told Texas Monthly, “The children in our public education system are not ‘someone else’s’ children. They are our children. In Texas, we have about 5.5 million children in our public education system, and about 60 percent of them qualify for free or reduced-price lunches. Educating only affluent kids well won’t get the job done for the state or the nation. If you have a vague feeling that America is slipping fast, look to the way we educate our children.”