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Meet and Greet: Promise Night Honoree T. Denny Sanford

T Denny SanfordIn anticipation of America’s Promise Alliance’s fifth annual Promise Night, we’re introducing you to each of the night’s honorees, who are all outstanding individuals helping young people across the country access their versions of the American dream.

In the hot seat this week: T. Denny Sanford, one of the country’s leading philanthropists who has dedicated his life to addressing some of our society’s greatest challenges. He has given approximately $2 billion to support educational programs, scientific research, and medical services that touch the lives of both adults and youth globally. Mr. Sanford is also the visionary behind Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire, two education-focused programs based out of the National University system, that support the academic and social and emotional development of children into adulthood, reaching more than 9 million youth.

From why he wants to “die broke” to his vision for Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire, Mr. Sanford reflects on why supporting young people is so critical and what keeps him doing this work.

As a philanthropist, you’ve given to programs, research, and services that touch the lives of young people. Why do you think supporting America’s youth is so vital?

Supporting children’s causes is something that I believe is very important to our nation’s future. Few things are as rewarding as having a chance to see a child live up to their greatest potential, whether that means beating the odds as a result of medical research, thriving in a happy home, or finding inspiration from teachers. Many of the programs and causes I have chosen to support come from my desire to help improve the lives of generations to come, and no other investment is as powerful and lasting as creating a better future for our children.

You’ve joked that you “want to die broke.” What specific causes that affect young people are you looking to support with your philanthropy? What keeps you doing this work?

I look for causes that can help children get a healthy start in life. That’s how I got interested in supporting the South Dakota Children’s Home Society for abused children who are legally removed from their families. I have also helped to fund research into Type 1 diabetes and some very rare children’s diseases. Being able to help save their lives and seeing the gratefulness of their parents is something that is deeply satisfying.

In the area of education, I supported the creation of two programs—Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire that are based on my desire to support a better future for children through classroom-based resources. These two research-based programs are being advanced nationally and globally through the San Diego—based National University System.

I am also very pleased and honored that National University plans on changing its name to Sanford National University. This is a recent development, and I could not be more proud of being able to inspire students at all levels to better themselves through education, and to aspire to give back to others and their community.

What’s your vision for Sanford Harmony and Sanford Inspire, the two education-focused programs you supported to develop?

With Sanford Harmony, I want to strengthen relationships between boys and girls, and children of all backgrounds, so that they can learn to get along and develop skills in collaboration and communication that can help decrease the divorce rate and make for stronger families and communities. With Sanford Inspire, my goal is to ensure that every student has access to an inspiring classroom and teachers through the development of resources and tools designed to inspire students to achieve their greatest academic potential.

I am committed to making these programs available to children throughout our nation and the world. My vision is that through these programs, youth from all walks of life will have equal access to academic and relationship-based skills that can help make them become better people, better students, and better citizens of this world. The two programs are reaching more than 9 million students in the U.S., and in more than 20 countries. Our goal is to reach 20 million students by 2023.

Was there one memorable moment for you in your life that forever changed its course?

I came from a family of modest means, and my mother died of breast cancer when I was very young. When I was eight, I started working at my dad’s company, in the warehouse, and my father died when I was still a young man. During my schooling, a few teachers saw something in me that I did not see at the time and their belief in me inspired me to keep going even though I didn’t yet know what the future would hold.

Describe yourself in three words:

Humble, fun-loving, lucky