A Billionaire, Intent on "Dying Broke," Keeps the Big Gifts Flowing

photo:  Wollertz/shutterstock

photo:  Wollertz/shutterstock

When we last checked in with T. Denny Sanford, the South Dakota businessman and philanthropist partnered with another major donor to give Dakota State University (DSU) $30 million to fund the construction of the Madison Cyber Labs.

As I noted at the time, the gift, which aims to transform Madison, South Dakota, into a magnet for cybersecurity jobs, was textbook Sanford. The 82-year-old former credit and banking mogul's giving tends to focus on South Dakota and California and seeks to generate the "best return" for the community. 

What's more, Sanford is also part of the increasingly popular trend of "sunset philanthropy," or giving away one’s fortune during life as opposed to leaving it to a foundation that exists in perpetuity. But emptying the bank account is easier said than done when you're a billionaire. While Sanford has already given away more than $1 billion, he is still sitting on a net worth of $2.2 billion. Yet if recent news is any indication, Sanford remains serious about his desire to "die broke."

In mid-January, he announced a $30 million donation to the San Diego Zoo, the largest single gift in the zoo's history. This gift will go toward the estimated $69 million cost of constructing a brand-new children’s zoo to be named the Sanford Children’s Zoo.

A few weeks later, the Washington, D.C.-based Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans announced an endowment gift of $30 million from Sanford to establish the Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford Scholarship Program, a 10-year initiative that, starting with the 2019-20 academic year, will provide $3 million annually in scholarships to Alger scholars who choose to attend any of a dozen institutions selected by Sanford. The gift is the largest to the association in its 71-year history.

Add it all up, and the past six months have found Sanford awarding large gifts at a particularly rapid clip—with more giving undoubtedly on the way.

Access, Empathy, and Impact

I'd like to drill a bit deeper into Sanford's gift to the San Diego Zoo for two reasons. First, the size of the gift.

Sanford is the largest donor in cumulative gifts to San Diego Zoo Global. In 2013, he gave the zoo $9 million based on the idea that old, fun footage of animals would benefit kids during their hospital stays. Nine million dollars certainly isn't chump change, but it's a far cry from $30 million to build a new zoo from scratch. 

I'm also intrigued by the guiding principles behind Sanford's gift.

Commenting on the gift, Debra Erickson, director of communications for San Diego Zoo Global, said, "Since so many children have little or no access to nature, the new Sanford Children’s Zoo will provide them with a unique and engaging outdoor adventure where they will learn about animals and their homes as they play.

"During their exciting, ever-changing adventures, they will begin developing an empathy and concern for animals and plants which will lay the groundwork for their future involvement in conservation."

"Access" and "empathy" are two words that have been popping up quite a bit lately across the education and arts space. The former is the driving force behind major recent gifts to public libraries. Meanwhile, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation recently funded efforts to explore ways the visual arts can foster empathy and compassion. 

The idea of access clearly resonated with Sanford, who said that the new zoo is "just exactly what the city and the zoo needs because it's going to relate better to the little ones."

Also consider the idea of impact. In a 2007 interview with Forbes, Sanford, explaining his approach to philanthropy, described himself as "highly rational. Very plainly, very succinctly, I look at life as an investor. What will give me or my community the best return?"

Not coincidentally, when commenting on his gift to create the Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford Scholarship Program, Sanford said, "as I considered where my philanthropy could make the greatest impact, I turned to the Association. I wanted to create a program that would remind students that if someone like me can overcome challenges to succeed, they can, too."

Access, empathy and impact. On paper, zoos seem well-attuned to these donor priorities at the moment, yet with a few exceptions, we're not seeing a lot of money flowing their direction—especially gifts to the tune of Sanford's $30 million. Time will tell if Sanford's gift was a harbinger or merely an outlier.

More Giving on the Way

Again, it's worth remembering that Sanford isn't a stranger to large gifts. He's given $100 million to UC San Diego to create the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, $70 million to the Sanford-Burnham Medical Research Institute, $30 million to the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, and $29 million to National University.

But it's been a particularly busy six months, even by Sanford's aggressive standards, and he has no intention of slowing down anytime soon.

Expounding on his "die broke" credo, Sanford told Forbes that leaving his fortune to a foundation or heirs would be "a huge burden to place on someone else." Sanford said, "I like to think I have enough years left to spend all this money."

So far, so good.