In 1984, Lea Culver co-founded Culver’s, a fast-casual restaurant chain that now has more than 700 locations in the U.S. Ever since the business’s founding, Lea’s cultivation and strengthening of supportive relationships with local communities has been a primary driver of company success. Both Lea’s recognition of the role that local families have played in company growth and her passion for philanthropy have led her to leverage the business as a platform from which to give back to both employees and the community. The cornerstone of the Culver’s Foundation, the company’s not-for-profit arm, is an employee scholarship program, and the community-based mission of the foundation consists of charitable giving to local organizations and causes. We recently sat down with Lea at Culver’s headquarters in Prairie de Sac, Wisconsin, to discuss the work of the Culver’s Foundation, her personal approach to giving and her efforts to engage the next generation in philanthropy.
Brown Brothers Harriman: Tell us about what motivated you to become a philanthropist. What values and life experiences led you to be so charitably inclined?
Lea Culver: I have always tried to give back as much as I can, and it goes back to the example my parents gave me while I was growing up. They did not have a lot of money to donate, but they gave back with their time and talent.
In 1984, when we opened Culver’s, we were mindful that we did business in a small town, where everyone helps one another. Once we were established, we started giving back to the community as much as we could. I always thought that was important because the community supported us in the beginning and helped us survive those first few years. Giving back became a core of our business.
I really believe that one of the best ways to serve other people is in the restaurant business. People come in with things on their mind, and it’s our opportunity to give them a great experience. That was one of our key values – that we welcome everyone in and make them feel like guests in our own home. Sometimes it might be the only smile they get for the day. You never know why they are coming in, so always make their time with you as pleasant and wonderful as you can.
BBH: Talk about the work that is being done through the Culver’s Foundation.
LC: The Culver’s Foundation is a tax-exempt, not-for-profit entity that we started in 1993. The cornerstone of the foundation is a scholarship program. We have talented young people working with us, and we believe our responsibility is to help instill a good work ethic in them and give them the tools that they need to succeed.
We developed the scholarship program at the suggestion of one of our suppliers. He said our young employees did an amazing job and asked if we ever considered giving back with a scholarship. We didn’t have any extra money at that time, so the supplier donated the first $500 for a scholarship. That started growing, and this year we will give over half a million dollars to young people who are working at Culver’s and continuing their education. The scholarships are for one-, two- or four-year accredited programs and range from $2,500 to $3,500.
The other part of the foundation is our charitable giving. As time went on, I started working less in the restaurant and focusing more on the foundation and the charitable giving.
BBH: What other organizations do you support through the foundation?
LC: Our mission is to support children, education and overall family well-being. At first, it was organizations in our own community – schools, churches and parks, for example. As we’ve grown and people start recognizing that we have a foundation, we get requests for donations from farther away. Our franchisees really support their local communities so that we can narrow our geographic focus.
BBH: So the franchisees are self-directed when it comes to philanthropy?
LC: Yes, and one of the reasons I think they choose Culver’s is because we emphasize supporting our communities. They’re individually owned and operated, so we don’t really have a say in what they do, but we certainly instill that when you move into a community, you don’t simply move in as a business. You move in as a partner, knowing that you’re going to help make the community a better place. They give back in a variety of ways, but one of the significant efforts that many of them undertake is hosting a “share night,” where an organization comes in and presents to visitors and receives a certain percentage of that night’s profits.
BBH: Tell us about your personal philanthropy and how that has evolved over time.
LC: There is a lot of talk lately about philanthropy. I never thought of myself as a philanthropist. I used to think of a philanthropist as someone who makes significant financial donations, but I have a new philosophy because I looked up philanthropist in the dictionary. A philanthropist is a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, so everyone can be a philanthropist.
As I talked to friends, I started thinking about “living philanthropy.” Anyone can be a philanthropist every day simply by doing something to make the world a better place for someone else – buying someone a cup of coffee, donating to the food pantry, taking old clothes to a donation bin or simply talking to someone who is lonely. A lot of it is giving back to the community that supports you. Sometimes it’s just helping in the moment and doing whatever you can to make the world better for someone else.