T. Denny Sanford’s name is associated with major philanthropic gifts throughout the U.S. With few exceptions, they are associated with the health and welfare of children and young people — such as the Sanford Children’s Hospital in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, built to resemble a fairy-tale castle. At Arizona State University, the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics is named for Sanford.
Sanford’s life has been called a rags-to-riches story, one that was appropriately recognized in 2016 when he received the Horatio Alger Award, named for the American author who became famous for inspirational tales.
Now Sanford is partnering with the Horatio Alger Association to benefit 12 universities in five states, providing scholarships to outstanding high school students who are committed to pursuing higher education and giving back to their communities. His $30 million gift, the largest in the association’s 71-year history, will provide $3 million per year in scholarship support to Horatio Alger Scholars choosing to attend any of a dozen universities selected by Sanford for the next 10 years.
One of those universities is ASU, where the Horatio Alger-Denny Sanford Scholarship Program will provide $250,000 in scholarship funds per year beginning in 2019–20.
“When I received the Horatio Alger Association Award, it was one of the greatest honors I could have imagined in my life,” Sanford said. “The association’s mission of transforming young lives through its scholarship programs perfectly aligns with my motto in life, which is ‘Aspire to inspire before you expire.’ I wanted to create a program that would remind students that if someone like me can overcome challenges to succeed, they can, too. I am proud to make this gift, and I hope it will not only allow these resilient young men and women to take that next step forward in their lives, but also inspire continued generosity toward all of our scholars.”
Born in St. Paul, Minnesota, Sanford overcame poverty and the early loss of his mother to graduate from the University of Minnesota in 1958. Building on a career in sales, marketing and materials distribution, he purchased United National Corporation in Sioux Falls, South Dakota (now First Premier Bank), and created the credit card company Premier Bankcard.
When he created his foundation for charitable giving, Sanford’s initial focus was to help sick, disadvantaged, abused and neglected children. In addition to the Sioux Falls hospital, Sanford has funded the Mayo Clinic Pediatric Center in Rochester, Minnesota, and the Pediatric Center at Florida Hospital for Children, both bearing his name. The Edith Sanford Breast Center, with 49 locations, is named for his mother, who died of breast cancer when Sanford was 4.
At ASU, Sanford’s name and values are found in multiple centers and initiatives. In 2008, he funded the creation of the Sanford Harmony Program, a pioneering effort to help teachers develop stronger social connections among students, and foster positive peer relationships that enable students to thrive at school, at home, and as they grow into adulthood. Sanford Harmony is now being implemented in thousands of American classrooms. His 2009 gift of $19 million created the Sanford Education Project, expanding the relationship between Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College and Teach For America.
In 2014, his gift of $5.9 million increased the reach of the Sanford Inspire Program at ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, providing educators with free, online tools and resources to inspire students from pre-kindergarten through high school.
“I wanted to create a program that would change the world,” Sanford said, acknowledging that he benefited greatly from having inspirational teachers in grade school. “I can think of no better return on investment than supporting a program that can change the lives of children.”
In recognition of Sanford’s exemplary support of community-centered initiatives at ASU, the T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics was named in 2012 and is ranked among the top 10 programs of its kind in the world. The school has become an important center of research, teaching and collaboration to improve the well-being of children, youth and families. His recent $1 million dollar gift to the school created courses for adult learners that enhance their capacity for empathy and compassion.
At the dedication of the school, ASU President Michael M. Crow said, “When you match Denny Sanford’s energy, drive and resources with what ASU is committed to do to find the solutions to the great challenges we as a society face, you have the perfect combination to create real change. Denny has helped put ASU at the forefront of social innovation — building what is needed to improve the health and welfare of families.”
“Denny Sanford’s steadfast support of ASU is inspiring for all of us.”
— Gretchen Buhlig, CEO, ASU Foundation
Gretchen Buhlig, chief executive officer of the ASU Foundation for a New American University, said, “Denny Sanford’s steadfast support of ASU is inspiring for all of us. His commitment to improving life for children and families across the nation allows us to fulfill our own commitment to meet the needs of 21st-century learners — learners who will then touch countless lives themselves, through careers that advance the communities where they live.”