Billionaire donates $100 million to compassion research after conversation with Dalai Lama

The research will explore how to cultivate empathy and compassion in medical professionals.

Lilly Greenblatt25 July 2019
Billionaire philanthropist Denny Sanford in 2018. Photo: Amy Sussman/AP Images for Long Island University and National University System.

Banking billionaire Denny Sanford has donated $100 million to UC San Diego (UCSD) for the scientific study of empathy and compassion. Sanford said that the donation was inspired by a private meeting he had with the Dalai Lama in 2017, when His Holiness gave a commencement address at UCSD.

“I have been inspired by the work and teachings of the Dalai Lama, whose interest in the intersection where science and faith meet is deep and profound,” Sanford said in a statement. “I have had the opportunity to see how grace, humanity and kindness can change people and the world. This gift extends that vision.”

Dr. David Brenner, the vice chancellor of health sciences at UCSD, told The San Diego Union-Tribune that Sanford’s gift was influenced by this meeting. “The Dalai Lama said that we must show that there is a scientific basis to empathy and compassion,” Brenner said. “That’s what Denny’s gift will help scientists do.”

The research funded by the gift will look at how to cultivate empathy and compassion in medical professionals. “Doctors work in a world where compassion is essential, but often lost in the harsh realities of modern medicine. If we can help medical professionals preserve and promote their compassion, based on the findings of hard science, the world can be a happier, healthier place,” said Sanford.

The gift will allow for research to help understand empathy and compassion and how to use these qualities effectively. So far, researchers have lacked the tools needed to undertake such research.

Most of the research will be conducted through the T. Denny Sanford Institute for Empathy and Compassion at UCSD, where researchers say they “will conduct innovative research into the neurological basis of compassion, establishing the empirical evidence required to design a compassion-focused curriculum for training new generations of medical professionals and developing new methods to protect and promote the well-being of current clinicians and their patients.”

Sanford, 83, made his fortune in banking and finance industries and is worth an estimated $2.6 billion. He aims to give away his fortune before his death. He has donated at least $459 million to San Diego-based institutions in the last 12 years. In 2013, he gave UCSD $100 million to create a center where researchers are working to speed the process of turning discoveries into new drugs and therapies. He also gave San Diego’s National University System $100 million in 2018 to teach civility and thoughtfulness to children.

Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt

Lilly Greenblatt is the digital editor of You can find more about her at