August 28, 2020; ProPublica

NPQ has written a lot around what nonprofits do when they find that a major donor has become tainted. This can be especially difficult when an institution or installation has been named for said donor. While we are not rushing to judgment, NPQ suspects a number of nonprofits are building scenario plans, just in case, because of an ongoing investigation of one large donor. Not only is the donor’s name on nonprofit buildings, but in at least a few cases, nonprofits have even named themselves after the donor.

T. Denny Sanford is the richest man in South Dakota, reports ProPublica, and a major philanthropist with a special interest in children’s charities and health charities. But now he’s drawn the attention of the state attorney general’s Division of Criminal Investigation, reportedly concerning allegations of possessing child pornography, and the case has since been referred to the US Department of Justice.

Sanford has an estimated $1.6 billion net worth; in 2019, he was named one of the country’s top 10 philanthropists. A 12,000-seat indoors sports arena in Sioux Falls is named for him, along with some of the city’s largest buildings. Sanford is also a generous political donor, having devoted $425,000 to Republican causes and candidates—including the president himself, albeit at low levels.

Sanford gave the Children’s Home Society of South Dakota $55 million in 2019 and donated almost $1 billion to Sanford Health, a large rural nonprofit health care system. Sanford Health’s CEO Kelby Krabbenhoft has already started a process of distancing, reports the Argus Leader:

Some of you may have already learned through a recent media report of an investigation related to Denny Sanford, a long-time donor to Sanford Health and many other nonprofit organizations across the country. Like you, I’m deeply concerned about these reports. There’s nothing more sacred than the innocence of children, and our dedication to their care remains at the very core of who we are as a family.

A $350 million pledge to National University in California led to its renaming as Sanford National University. Most immediately, the Sanford International golf tournament scheduled to begin on September 7th may find itself in the eye of a small hurricane as all involved try to consider what they must do to get clear.

It’s worth saying that none of these institutions can claim ignorance of a potential taint on the Sanford dollars. The integrity of taking his money, made primarily through his taking advantage of loose usury laws in South Dakota, has long been questioned. Once named the nation’s worst credit card by Consumers Union, Sanford’s First Premier Bank MasterCard was a vintage sub-prime scheme when it was written up in 2010 by the Daily Beast, carrying a 59.9 percent annual interest rate and costing $120 in first-year fees while limiting credit lines to $300.

The story remarks on the many images associated with his charities of Sanford with children—certainly not necessarily evidence of anything malicious. At the Sanford Children’s Hospital, reports ProPublica, “a statue named For the Love of Children depicts Sanford kneeling beside two small boys and a girl. Another statue, Chasing Dreams, at the Sanford Sports Complex portrays children running toward him with basketballs.” But there is always one standout detail with these stories, and in this report, it’s the line, “His golf shoes are inscribed with his nickname, WOLT, which stands for World’s Oldest Living Teenager.”—Ruth McCambridge