Who Needs a Foundation? Sanford's Latest Huge Check is $100M for Stem Cell Research

A $100 million grant to UC San Diego to establish a stem cell research center is the latest in a long line of gifts resulting from T. Denny Sanford’s ongoing mission to die broke. 

The gift, announced earlier this month, will establish the Sanford Stem Cell Clinical Center, which will no doubt cement University of California San Diego’s already enviable position as a leader in the field. The South Dakota billionaire’s contribution is the second-largest in the university’s history, and tied for the second-largest in Sanford’s impressive track record of philanthropy. The 77-year-old credit and banking mogul has given more than $1 billion, mostly to children’s and medical causes, in an effort to spend away his fortune during his lifetime. 

Sanford is part of the increasingly popular trend of “sunset philanthropy,” or giving away one’s fortune during life as opposed to leaving it to a self-perpetuating foundation. Like a scorched-earth version of The Giving Pledge. As his buddy and adviser Newt Gingrich said in a Forbes profile, “Denny is the kind of hard-nosed guy who says, ‘I don’t want to create a permanent foundation staff doing things I don’t approve of because it fits their cultural values.’” Sanford adds, “The Ford Foundation is the example of the worst thing that could happen.”

So since 1998, Sanford—whose wealth comes from low-limit, high-interest credit cards for troubled borrowers—has been writing massive checks with a guiding principle of helping children, but also stamping hospitals, clinics, football stadiums and various other institutions with his name along the way.

The Ford Foundation he is most certainly not. Sanford is a fun-loving character known to cook breakfast in his underwear for company executives (gross), downhill ski, race sailboats, and otherwise lounge at his vacation homes in Scottsdale, Vail and La Jolla. He writes the checks from his own bank account. No board, no staff. Just a personal assistant who reviews proposals. He doesn’t give many gifts, but when he does they make headlines.

In 2013, prior to the UCSD gift, Sanford gave $70 million to an underground physics lab in an old South Dakota mine that now does work on neutrinos and dark matter (that’s worthy of an entire separate post). But his hospital and medical research giving has drawn the most attention. 

He gave $100 million in 2013 to create the Edith Sanford Breast Cancer Foundation, a center in his mother’s name that focuses on genomic research. The gift was through Sanford Health, formerly Sioux Valley Hospitals & Health Systems until Sanford gave his largest gift of $400 million in 2007. Since then, with a running total of $600 million in contributions, investigative reporters have charged that Sanford is deeply connected to the health care nonprofit, and that his other companies benefit in numerous ways from the connections.

Still, strings or no strings, the UCSD stem cell center will surely benefit tremendously. It will exist across four sites (one of which is the Sanford Consortium for Regenerative Medicine, endowed by Sanford with $30 million in 2008), aiming to develop treatments using stem cell technology by accelerating clinical trials. UCSD does have a good head start in the field, though, having pulled down nearly $138 million in the past from the voter-bonded California Institute for Regenerative Medicine. With Sanford’s $100 million, it might just give the San Diego research center the edge it needs to turn out some transformative results. And that would cement the billionaire’s legacy far beyond a credit card company.