This Couple Just Won One of Conservative Philanthropy’s Top Prizes. What Are They Into?

The Sandefers founded the Acton Academy network of schools. Photo: BlurryMe/shutterstock

Each year, the Philanthropy Roundtable awards the Simon-DeVos Prize for Philanthropic Leadership to a living donor or donor couple seeking to “advance the principles of personal responsibility, resourcefulness, volunteerism, scholarship, individual freedom, faith in God and helping people to help themselves.”

Now backed by both the William E. Simon Foundation and the DeVos Family Foundation (initially, it was just the Simon Foundation), the prize has gone to some big names. Recipients range from the late Walton heir and school choice aficionado John Walton back in 2001 to such billionaire notables as Charles Koch, Home Depot cofounder Bernie Marcus and hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, as well as couples like Eli and Edythe Broad, and John and Susan Sobrato.

This year, the awardees were a couple readers may be less familiar with: Laura and Jeff Sandefer. Based out of Texas, the Sandefers derive their wealth from Jeff’s success as an oil entrepreneur via Sandefer Offshore, and later as an energy investor via Sandefer Capital Partners — although the serial entrepreneur has also founded a number of other for-profit ventures over the years.

On the nonprofit side, the Sandefers are best known for founding Acton Academy, initially one facility in Texas that the couple ran hands-on, pursuing a blended, project-based approach to learning. Acton Academy has since grown into a globe-spanning, highly decentralized network of affiliate “micro-schools.” Via their foundation, the couple also support the Acton School for Business, an MBA program Jeff founded that was located out of Texas for a while before recently moving to Madrid, Spain. (The name “Acton,” by the way, is a reference to Lord Acton, the 19th-century English writer best known for the saying, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.”)

Through their giving and what they’ve founded, the Sandefers have aligned themselves against a system of public education — and even some models of private education — that they view as overly restrictive, top-down and bureaucracy-laden. At a time of continued and evolving conservative broadsides against public education, the Sandefers’ do-it-yourself attitude toward school choice may be one to inspire other right-leaning funders with similar inclinations. It has the Philanthropy Roundtable’s vote, anyway.

Turning learning upside down

In a 2022 interview with the Philanthropy Roundtable, Jeff Sandefer spoke about his suspicion of philanthropy as a means to seek “systematic change in the world.” Attributing his view in part to the influence of former Roundtable President Adam Meyerson, Sandefer said, “The world’s the way it is for a reason, so this idea that I’m going to systematically change the world is a little bit grandiose… I learned from Adam this idea of thinking about not philanthropy, but charity, one person helping another.”

That sort of hands-off, bottom-up mentality is in full display at the Acton Academy network. Founded by the Sandefers in 2009 and now comprising 325 global affiliates, according to the Roundtable, Acton Academy has been characterized by right-leaning ed commentators as a popular solution for parents “fleeing government-run schools” in search of private education options. 

In this case, that means a nontraditional (or more traditional, some might say) model of “one-room” private schools, essentially run by parents themselves. As one such right-leaning commentator, the Foundation for Economic Education’s Kerry McDonald, put it in Forbes, “Each Acton affiliate is founded by entrepreneurial parents… for whom the network’s philosophy of highly personalized, self-paced, learner-driven education resonates.”

Such a decentralized style suits Jeff Sandefer, who spoke proudly to the Roundtable about Acton’s lack of overhead and bureaucracy. “We have a very lightweight network, meaning we’re not managing from top-down,” he said. “It’s more like Alcoholics Anonymous; it’s coming from the bottom up. So that means we’re not constantly monitoring things all the time. In fact, we run the entire network with one employee.”

For those interested, Laura Sandefer published a book about the Acton Academy model in 2017 titled “Courage to Grow: How Acton Academy Turns Learning Upside Down.”

“The entrepreneurial spirit”

Of course, such a lean operation might raise questions about where else these Roundtable-recognized philanthropists direct their charitable coin. While they don’t boast the billions deployed by some of the other Simon-DeVos Prize winners over the years, they do give through a foundation, appropriately named the Ed Foundation. With around $77.5 million in assets as of 2022, the foundation’s biggest grantee that year was the Acton School of Business, as has been the case for many years prior. 

As well as supporting the business school, the Sandefers have channeled smaller grants through the foundation to a variety of nonprofits, including churches and other Christian organizations as well as a few conservative and libertarian destinations. The Philanthropy Roundtable is one; another is the Texas Public Policy Foundation, a member of the right-wing State Policy Network of think tanks. Jeff Sandefer has served on the board of the Texas Public Policy Foundation, and he’s been on the board of the conservative magazine National Review. The Sandefers also back the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty (which they didn’t found).

In addition, Jeff Sandefer has been a trustee of the Lovett & Ruth Peters Foundation, a small, Ohio-based grantmaker that mainly supports charter school organizations and various conservative and libertarian groups. Meanwhile, the Roundtable says Laura Sandefer’s other charitable pursuits include “self-sustaining water projects in Burundi, local children’s theater and summer camps for children with incarcerated parents.”

Another of the Sandefers’ philanthropic projects is the Acton Children’s Business Fair, which has enjoyed a similar trajectory as Acton Academy — starting as an initial Austin-based project and expanding to “[help] over 87,000 young entrepreneurs in over 425 cities and 21 countries.” Playing host to businesses “created and launched by children,” the fairs are yet another expression of the couple’s help people help themselves attitude toward education and entrepreneurship.

While some may raise their eyebrows at the kinds of unstructured, laissez-faire methods the couple favor, the Sandefers appear to be firm believers. As Jeff Sandefer told the Roundtable, “The only way to destroy the entrepreneurial spirit in people is to have someone who doesn’t understand it try to teach it to you.” One can imagine him saying something similar about the “charitable spirit” and bureaucracy-heavy strategic philanthropy.