Intrigue surrounds Sanford's latest large gift

Associated Press

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — The latest $100 million gift from T. Denny Sanford helps redefine philanthropy in South Dakota while setting up a spring and summer of intrigue over the exact purpose of his donation.

Sanford, a 75-year-old retired Sioux Falls banker, said Monday that he already has delivered the full amount of his gift to Sanford Health for a project that officials will reveal in August.

Officials for the Sanford network declined Tuesday to expand on their statement Monday night that the gift would go for "an extraordinary new initiative."

Others said the arrangement with that kind of delay might be unusual but that Sanford has moved outside the norm in the world of fundraising.

"It is a huge gift. It just shows that T. Denny Sanford is the standard by which philanthropy is measured certainly in South Dakota, and I would argue across the U.S., when it comes to specific areas he's passionate about," said Bob Sutton, president of the South Dakota Community Foundation.

Sutton said Sanford has overwhelmed all comparisons, first with his $400 million gift to the health system in 2007, and with a series of other gifts leading up to this week's announcement.

Sanford's gift of $400 million in 2007 was to what then was Sioux Valley, a Sioux Falls-based health network. This newest gift to Sanford Health is to a system that has expanded with dual headquarters in North Dakota and South Dakota.

A silence of several months on the purpose of the gift is not unique in fundraising, Sutton said. Sanford's own history is a recent example. Part of his $400 million pledge in 2007 included a goal of curing a major disease. It was in June 2008, 16 months later, that Sanford Health announced that the objective was to cure Type 1 diabetes. And it was in June 2009, 28 months after the gift, that Sanford introduced its team of lead researchers.

Sanford said Monday night that both he and health system officials agreed that details would come out in August. A statement from Brian Mortenson, president of the Sanford Foundation, specified "the third week of August."

The philanthropist, who has homes in Sioux Falls, California and Arizona, said Monday night from Phoenix that the gift "could go to one of a number of diseases."

"That's a little unusual," Dr. Peter Eckman, heart failure and transplant cardiologist at the University of Minnesota, said Tuesday.

"Typically when somebody gives a gift, there's a clear intent," Eckman said. "But any institution would be grateful for such a generous gift. If I were getting the check, I'd say, 'Yes sir, whatever you like.' "

Sutton thinks the plans are more firm than that.

"Any nonprofit will say, 'Thanks very much, and we agree completely with your timeline,' " he said. "It's up to the discretion of the donor and the organization."

But he thinks the plans are well in hand, with timing a matter of nailing down every detail.

"When they decide what the program is, they'll roll it out in grand fashion and move forward," Sutton said.