SCOTTSDALE, Ariz. | Retired banking executive T. Denny Sanford has given much of his $1.4 billion in donations to the health care and research fields, but the 80-year-old philanthropist says he finds the most joy in spearheading programs that help children.
Sanford, who has created programs aimed at teaching teachers how to inspire children and create harmony between boys and girls, is now looking to tackle bullying, particularly social media bullying that disproportionally affects young girls.
“I see the results more quickly,” Sanford said of his education- and children-focused initiatives. “I see these kids’ lives change in front of my eyes.”
In a wide-ranging interview with The Associated Press at his home in Scottsdale, Sanford said the anti-bullying program is in early stages of development. One thing he’s sure of, though, is that it will stress prevention in trying to reach children at a young age.
“Bullying programs are essentially ineffective,” he said. “They only address correcting bullying as opposed to preventing it.”
Sanford grew up in a small apartment in St. Paul, Minnesota, the youngest of 10 children. His mother died of breast cancer when he was 4 years old. Sanford’s father had him working at his clothing distribution company starting at age 8. He made his money in the banking business and owns First Premier Bank/Premier Bankcard, which markets subprime cards to people trying to rebuild their credit. He has given away more than $1.4 billion of his fortune to groups across the country and was honored in Washington, D.C., last week with a Horatio Alger Award, given to leaders who have succeeded despite adversity and are committed to philanthropy and higher education.
Sanford now spends about 50 percent of his time working with charitable causes from his homes in Scottsdale, Sioux Falls and La Jolla, California, while setting aside time for golf and sailboat racing. Sanford said he has done well, but he has committed to “die broke” after developing a strong desire to change his success into significance. “And I’m well on my way,” he said.
His first major gift was a $2 million donation to the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota in 1998. He followed with a $16 million gift in 2002 to Sioux Valley Health’s new children’s hospital, which put his name on the building.
In 2005, Sioux Valley executives Kelby Krabbenhoft and Brian Mortensen came out to one of Sanford’s homes in Colorado and told him they would like to change the name of their organization and put Sanford’s name on it. Sanford Health was born.
Sanford said he’s taken good care of his two sons and two grandchildren, so all of his assets at death will turn over to a foundation supporting his charities. He estimates that the amount will be near the $1.4 billion he’s already given away. Sanford Health is due 60 percent of his estate, and several other organizations including National University and the Children’s Home Society are set to receive smaller chunks, he said.
Sanford said many of his latest endeavors come from him seeing voids in society. At National University, a California-based nonprofit that offers online and other courses, Sanford has developed a program he’s branded Cause Selling to teach non-profit workers how to present their causes to donors in a professional manner. The Sioux Falls-based Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at Augustana University is administering the course.
“People have good causes, but they don’t know how to explain them,” he said.
National is also his partner on the anti-bullying program.
The University of South Dakota is distributing his Sanford Harmony Program, which teaches boys and girls in preschool to middle school how to better understand the opposite gender. Sanford said the program, which was borne out of 8 1/2 years of research, has been well received by teachers during its first 18 months in classrooms.
“It creates more harmony in the classroom, but ultimately the idea is to reduce the divorce rate and abuse and so forth,” he said.
He also teamed with Teach for America to create Sanford Inspire, which provides teachers with a toolbox to help children think big about their goals.
“There’s no school of education that teaches teachers how to inspire,” he said. “They’re taught how to teach reading, writing and arithmetic, but they’re never taught how to get kids believing in themselves. ”
Sanford said he’s enjoying this stage of his life, and he’s happy that his wealth will continue to assist the organizations he’s partnered with after he’s gone.
“That’s the whole game,” he said. “OK, so you’ve got it, what are you going to do with it? You can only have so many cars and all of that kind of stuff so put it into something in which you can change people’s lives.”