“Highly Rational.” A Billionaire Donor's Latest Gift Sticks to the Script

HQ Vectors Premium Studio/shutterstock

HQ Vectors Premium Studio/shutterstock

T. Denny Sanford, the 83-year-old former credit and banking mogul, exemplifies the increasingly popular trend of “sunset philanthropy,” or giving away one’s fortune during one’s lifetime as opposed to leaving it to a foundation that exists in perpetuity. He has repeatedly said he wants to “die broke,” and if the past year is any indication, he really means it.

Last January, he made a $30 million donation to the San Diego Zoo, the largest single gift in the zoo's history. A few months later, he announced a $100 million donation to fund the Sanford Harmony program, which benefits children through lessons stressing collaboration, communication, and tolerance for differences. Now comes word that Sanford has given $55 million to Children’s Home Society (CHS), South Dakota’s oldest nonprofit human services organization. According to the society, the gift will “transform CHS’s ability to assist children and adults in need and ensure the organization has adequate resources for decades to come.”

“The services provided by Children’s Home Society are invaluable,” Sanford said. “The organization cares for those who require the most care of all—our young people and those who are in serious danger. I hope my gift will inspire others to do what they can to support Children’s Home as it heads into its next century of service.”

The gift is textbook Sanford for a while host of reasons. Let’s start with the first.

A Focus on Children

The gift supports one of Sanford’s most cherished causes: ensuring the emotional well-being of children. Sanford elaborated on this idea in a chat with Inside Philanthropy on the heels of his Sanford Harmony gift. “I look at my philanthropy as an investment, and if you look at the things I invest in, virtually all are health-related,” Sanford said. “Emotional health is as important as physical health.” Sanford Harmony, he added, “is preventative medicine” with the potential to reduce problems like suicide and mass shootings as children mature into adulthood.

He also made his gift to the San Diego Zoo with the area’s children in mind. The new zoo, he said at the time, is “just exactly what the city and the zoo needs because it's going to relate better to the little ones.”

Sanford's CHS gift will address two significant needs. First, it will expand the society's Children's Inn, which provides up to 30 days of emergency shelter for women with children who are victims of domestic violence, elder abuse, dating violence, sexual assault and child abuse and neglect. Second, a portion of the gift will be placed in an endowment to support the long-term improvement of support, compensation, and retention of staff.

Sanford's support for the society dates back to 1995 with a major sponsorship of its largest fundraising event, the Orion Classic golf tournament. Through his companies First Premier Bank and Premier Bankcard, Sanford has been an annual event sponsor every year since. In 1999, he provided a $2 million gift to initiate the first endowment challenge campaign for CHS. That campaign raised a total of $10 million.

In 2002, Sanford donated the lead gift of $200,000 toward a building project in Rapid City. The facility now houses the organization’s forensic interview center along with its foster care and adoption program. In 2005, Sanford was the sole challenge donor for another endowment campaign with a gift of $14 million, matching $3 for every $1 raised, and helping to raise a total of $20 million. That same year, he gave a gift of $550,000 toward the expansion of CHS’s administrative offices and space for its foster care and adoption programs at Sioux Falls Children’s Home.

A South Dakota State of Mind

Sanford’s approach to giving hasn’t changed all that much since his 2007 interview with Forbes in which he 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?”

This idea of philanthropy as investment feeds into the second key takeaway behind his CHS gift. While Sanford’s philanthropy often benefits the San Diego area, a significant portion ends up in South Dakota, a state not known as a magnet for the kind of big-time philanthropy we see in more populated or affluent regions.

Sanford, who grew up in St. Paul, moved to South Dakota, but has also maintained residences elsewhere, including Colorado and Arizona. He donated $400 million in 2007 to Sioux Valley Hospitals and Health System in Sioux Falls, which later became Sanford Health. Sanford Health merged with MeritCare Health, based in Fargo, in 2009. All told, Sanford has donated $1 billion to Sanford Health.

One example of Sanford’s philanthropy-as-investment credo was his $30 million gift to Dakota State University to build the Madison Cyber Labs, an initiative aimed at transforming Madison, South Dakota, into a cyber-security jobs magnet. Many U.S. companies are facing a shortage of computer security personnel to thwart and detect threats. Forbes dubbed “cybersecurity specialist” the “fast-growing job with a huge skills gap.” And, as a recent Investors Business Daily piece notes, computer security has also become an AI hotspot for tech companies concerned that bad actors will use AI to launch more potent cyber attacks.

Celebrating the gift, South Dakota Governor Dennis Daugaard channeled Sanford’s returns-driven approach, saying, “With this gift, Madison can continue to create a new economic development cluster which will attract high paying jobs, give former students the ability to 'come home,' create cutting edge companies and grow our state’s economy.”

Sanford also donated to the Sanford Underground Research Center in Lead, South Dakota, the former Homestake Gold Mine, which is engaged in physics research involving the building blocks of matter.

Go Big or Go Home

The third key takeaway behind Sanford’s CHS gift is its impressive size. This has become a recurring pattern in his philanthropy. In addition to his other commitments, Sanford has 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 $30 million to the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans to establish the Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford Scholarship Program.

Last but not least, in 2017, he gave $28 million to the National University System, a private nonprofit system comprising university and education-related affiliates. By this point, you can probably guess why the philanthropist-as-investor did so. “Helping others is what this is all about, and it's why I'm so pleased to recognize the remarkable impacts these three programs are having nationwide,” Sanford said at the time. The National University System will administer last year’s $100 million Sanford Harmony Gift.

Sanford may not be the most publicly recognizable mega-donor operating today, but one thing is clear: He’s a man of his word, and it’s safe to say more gifts are on the docket.

The only open question is the extent to which Sanford’s check writing can keep up with the compounded interest. A recent study by the Bridgespan Group, which found that ultra-wealthy American families donated just 1.2 percent of their assets to charity in 2017, pointed out that many active philanthropists are making money faster then they’re giving it away, thanks to a strong stock market and economy. For example, Michael Bloomberg’s net worth is up 50 percent since he stepped down as mayor back in 2014.

Sanford can relate. As of October, Forbes estimated Sanford’s net worth was $2.6 billion, up from $2.2 billion in March.