What Denny Sanford Learned from the UMinn Stadium Debacle

Sometimes, if you want to really understand someone, you have to do a little digging. Specifically, if you want to truly understand a philanthropist, you have to look at where they started out—at their formative philanthropic experiences, if you will. In 1998, T. Denny Sanford started giving—modestly, at least by his standards—to children’s hospitals and projects around Minnesota, his home state, and South Dakota. Things were going well. He gave $2 million to the Children’s Home Society in South Dakota in 1998, and followed it up with another $15 million a few years later. Then, in 2002, he reached out to his alma mater, the University of Minnesota. He offered $35 million for the construction of a new football stadium.

Your idea of what happened next depends a lot on your loyalties. The University claimed Sanford wanted “too much control” over the project, and the two parties failed to reach an agreement. Sanford alleges the University got greedy, more than doubling the projected cost of the stadium, trying to coax a few extra millions out of Sanford’s pockets. He pulled out, feathers ruffled. For the next decade, he avoided anything overly fraught with red tape. He wanted direct giving, simple giving. He stuck mostly to health centers and hospitals in the Midwest. By 2009, he’d apparently buried the hatchet with UMinn enough to swing $6 million their way for construction of a Minnesota Athletics Hall of Fame near the once-contentious stadium.

It’s easy to see how such a rational, shoot-from-the-hip type like Sanford might have gotten burned by burgeoning college bureaucracy. In those days, after all, Sanford was operating with just a personal assistant in his corner. There was no Denny Sanford Foundation. And while we admire Sanford’s desire to avoid the superfluous—his philanthropic operation is one of the leanest and lightest you'll see—we also understand the protective benefits a foundation apparatus can provide.  

This is all the more reason for Sanford to keep his giving priorities succinct, straightforward, and ever-present, if only to avoid the sort of Minnesota media fiasco that so clearly left an impression twelve years ago. Once bitten, twice shy, so the saying goes. We’re just lucky that Sanford didn’t pull out of philanthropy completely after being burned—that instead, he’s wised up, established a modest foundation, and just angled his giving away from bumbling university bureaucrats and toward smarter, more efficient hospitals and health centers.