The next time you think that a difficult economy means you need to cut back on your company’s charitable acts, you might want to consider the work of the 2013 Hearthstone Builder Humanitarian Award winners.
Despite the boom and bust of recent years, Betenbough Homes, a medium-volume home builder in Lubbock, Texas, has given more than $30 million to local and international charities since its 1992 founding. Bryson Garbett, CEO of Garbett Homes in Salt Lake City, sold just 80 homes in 2011, but he so far has managed to personally donate more than $12 million to support the arts, Habitat for Humanity, and classrooms and scholarships in poor Mexican villages.
Both winners’ extensive list of good works show that you don’t need to be a big company to be generous, but they also illuminate the unexpectedly far-reaching impact of a single person’s decision to take a different path in his life and the influences of that decision on those around him.
If you’re skeptical of this, that’s understandable. The winners of this year’s Hearthstone Builder Lifetime Public Service Awards—Garbett for his individual efforts and Betenbough Homes for its company-wide contributions—couldn’t have predicted the outcome of their long-ago choices either.
“When we went on that one-week mission trip to Mexico in 1997 [instead of a planned vacation to Disneyworld], I never could have imagined where that would lead us or what would happen,” says Garbett, whose efforts have now helped educate thousands of Mexican children.
You don’t need to tell Ron Betenbough how fickle a business home building can be. “I made a lot of money” in the 1980s, says the Texas builder, who remembers having as much as $4 million in the bank. Then came the crash. The experience changed him, but not how you might expect. Several years after he established Betenbough Homes in 1992 with his son, Rick, Ron made a proposal at Thanksgiving. “He said, ‘The first time around, God blessed me and I missed it. So if I get blessed again, I want to do things differently,’” remembers Holly Betenbough, Ron’s daughter-in-law. “We had no clue what it would mean.” Neither did Ron. “I decided that I was going to let the Lord guide me,” says the 71-year-old builder.
The family decided it would share the company’s financial blessings through an informal program that would provide grants to local organizations. Since then, it’s evolved into something more structured. According to Holly, who serves as the company’s full-time ministry director, Betenbough has three levels of giving. It matches all individual employees’ donations to the charities of their choice with no limit. It donates approximately $275,000 annually to “community giving,” which supports any organizations that help the communities of Lubbock, Midland, and Odessa, Texas, where the company builds. Lastly, it gives a handful of large grants to carefully vetted organizations tackling issues either domestically or overseas. The evaluation process has become more formal over time. “We ask, ‘Is it fruitful? Are they good stewards of money? Is it sustainable?’” Rick says. If the answer is “yes,” then the final grant amounts are determined by an employee vote. (Betenbough is now an ESOP and is 70 percent owned by its employees; Rick, Holly, and Ron each own 10 percent of the company.) Overall, Betenbough Homes gives away a total of $1 million to $2 million annually. Major beneficiaries have included Christian Ministries in Africa, a nondenominational organization that operates orphanages and primary schools. Since 2006, the builder has provided more than $700,000 to the organization and arranged four volunteer-work trips to Africa for Betenbough employees.
This level of giving and commitment to good works has created a distinctive culture at Betenbough. “It has contributed to an employment environment where it’s not just about making money,” Rick says. “People are here because they love what we do with the money that the company makes.” Holly agrees: “We all want to be part of something bigger than ourselves.”
In 1997, Bryson Garbett, his wife, and their seven children were eagerly anticipating a long-planned, shoestring budget trip to Disneyworld as a reward for surviving some tough home building years. Then they heard about a mission trip to a small village in Mexico and decided to revise their travel plans. The trip proved to be the catalyst to start Foundation Escalera, a nonprofit organization that hopes to break the cycle of poverty that Garbett and his family witnessed. “The needs of the families we met in that village—when we returned, it just haunted us,” Garbett recalls. “The only thing we could really do as a small family was to help the young people there get an education.”
Foundation Escalera has made it possible for thousands of impoverished Mexican school children to do just that. This year, Escalera will help 150 students attend high school in Mexico City by paying half of their $2,000 annual room, board, and tuition costs. “We went all over Mexico to find them because most students in that situation aren’t looking for scholarships,” Garbett says. That quest led him to the Mexican state of Chiapas, where he realized Escalera’s scholarship offer was of little use. The young, primarily indigenous villagers spoke native languages, not Spanish, and they had very limited education, making the idea of going to high school in the capital city an extremely unrealistic proposition. Garbett’s solution? To build junior high classrooms in the villages of Chiapas. “We figured out a way to do it that was cheaper, faster, and with materials better suited to the high altitude climate,” Garbett says. “Chiapas now builds more schools—using the methods we showed them—than all the other Mexican states combined.”
The initiative, run by Garbett’s daughter and son-in-law, also has attracted the interest of researchers. A team of graduate students from Columbia University, Cambridge University, and the London School of Economics recently presented a paper on their efforts to boost the educational achievement of children in Chiapas.
That sort of attention is not the norm for the people of Chiapas, a place often remembered for an anti-government uprising in the 1990s by Zapatista guerrillas. “The most frequent way I heard these people described was ‘marginalized’ or ‘the forgotten ones,’” says Garbett, who has been gratified by the help and support of his family, friends, trade partners, and others. “One of our framers went down there with us one year—it changed his life. He gave up framing and spent the last year building schools. Thanks to him, we went from building six classrooms a year to 22 a year.”
Betenbough Homes of Lubbock, Texas gives $1 million to $2 million and hundreds of volunteer hours each year to the surrounding communities.
Utah builder Bryson Garbett founded Foundation Escalera to provide education to children in rural Mexico in hopes of breaking the cycle of poverty.
Learn more about markets featured in this article: Salt Lake City, UT.