This Generous Billionaire is Now on a Quest to Improve Fundraising

Billionaire philanthropist T. Denny Sanford—whose contributions have topped $1 billion for health, youth and educational organizations—has a new cause.

The credit card mogul recently spearheaded an effort to raise $10 million to improve fundraising, which might seem like a big departure from his longstanding interests. But it’s easy to understand why the philanthropist is raising the fundraising flag.

Sanford’s interest in the development profession grew as he observed fundraising shortcomings in the medical and other organizations he supports.

“We could find great doctors, great researchers,” he said in an interview with Inside Philanthropy. “But most difficult, especially with government funding pulled back, is finding good fundraisers.”

Following are some fundraising lessons we took away from Sanford’s evolving charitable interests.

Follow the philanthropist’s lead

Sanford, 79, didn’t wait around for someone else to fix fundraising problems or to issue a request for grant proposals. Like many other wealthy entrepreneurs, he took the bull by the horns, actively seeking an organization he could partner with to offer fundraising solutions. 

To that end, he buttonholed Michael Cunningham, the chancellor of San Diego’s National University, in a parking lot. “Mike, you might be able to help me out, because there’s a need for folks to learn fundraising skills. They don’t know how to make the ask,” he said, taking the campus leader by surprise.

Rather than stalling for time or subjecting Sanford’s idea to endless death-by-committee evaluations, Cunningham, also a former entrepreneur, was quick to engage the philanthropist as an equal partner.

“We talked a lot about it,” said Sanford of his ensuing discussions with Cunningham. “He recognized the need to create good fundraisers.” 

The result: a $1 million lead gift last year to establish the Sanford Institute of Philanthropy at National University, which quickly attracted another $9 million. The institute opened its doors this year with seminars, certificate programs, and a new master’s degree in Cause Leadership. The first cohort of graduate students will enter the master’s program early next year. 

There are plenty of master’s degrees in nonprofit management, Sanford told us, but very few concentrate on fundraising. “I’m good at identifying voids,” he added.

The Sanford Institute of Philanthropy also paid two authors to research and write Cause Selling: The Sanford Way, an exhaustive new fundraising textbook based partly on sales principles. The book, which costs $79.99, will be used throughout the 11-course (49.5 credit hours) master’s program. In addition, the institute is developing a 14-module fundraising training program to be offered nationwide to other colleges and universities. 

Beef up research on philanthropists

In all these new fundraising endeavors, Sanford told us, he hopes to eventually improve nonprofits’ ability to raise money—and see better solicitations targeting his own largesse, which has included multiple gifts of $100 million or more.

What’s the biggest thing Sanford thinks fundraisers need to improve? “The amount of research they do on funders,” he quickly replied. While there are some good fundraisers, he said, many others “have no clue.”

With a penchant for writing big checks from his personal checking account (rather than his foundation), Sandford receives about 50 solicitations every week. He told Inside Philanthropy he sees too many bad ones. 

He offered an example: “They say, ‘He’s got a lot of wealth, so let’s approach him’" about a large gift to, say, a performing arts center. “I love the arts, but I don’t touch arts. So don’t talk to me about the arts.” The fundraisers, he added, “have not done their basic research.”

Always connect to philanthropists’ interests

Sanford is not completely immune to appeals from causes outside his stated interests—but fundraisers must be smart enough to both find and convince him of a meaningful tie between their work and his issues.

For example, the San Diego Zoo announced a gift of $9 million from Sanford two years ago, after fundraisers came up with the idea of using their stockpiled reels of filmed animal antics and other zoo footage to help sick kids. The zoo created television programming for pediatric patients that takes their minds off their health problems at Rady Children’s Hospital and others that Sanford supports. 

Find creative ways to say "thank you"

In another lesson for fundraisers, the zoo subsequently found a meaningful way to thank Sanford—without spending any money, giving him a token gift, or adding his name to a donor wall.

To celebrate a momentous occasion, the birth of a male baby gorilla last year to a mother who needed surgical intervention afterward, the zoo named him Denny.