Philanthropy is strongest when donors with strongly held ideas pursue their passions. Sometimes these ideas are bad and sometimes they are brilliant, but one purpose of philanthropy is to try out new ideas and see how they work.
Jeff Sandefer is one of these passionate philanthropists. In his career as a donor, Sandefer has created three organizations. In 2003, he started the Acton School of Business in Austin. Just six years later, he and his wife Laura co-created the Acton Academy, a national system of private schools with over 200 branches. And three years ago, Sandefer created the Acton Children’s Business Fair which encourages people to set up Saturday afternoon fairs where kids can sell things they make and see if they want to have a career as an entrepreneur.
The Acton School of Business grew out of courses Sandefer taught at the University of Texas in 1991. Sandefer thought that MBA courses were too theoretical and the degree took too long. He and his associates—including former Dell Computer president Lee Walker and Lone Star Overnight co-founder Jack Long—developed classes where students learned entrepreneurship from people who had created successful enterprises. Students in these courses learned skills not normally taught in business schools, including how to cold call potential customers and how to close a sale.
Sandefer and others taught these classes part-time while continuing to run and create businesses—until the university decided to employ all full-time professors in 2001. Sandefer and his colleagues then decided to start their own school which became the Acton Business School. Students complete the program in one year, spending half of the time in online courses and half in Austin, Texas.
Sandefer explained his methods in a 2012 interview with Philanthropy. “We teach you to attract and satisfy customers,” Sandefer said, “to run real assembly lines and supply chains; to spot opportunity and to raise money; and to count the profits and free cash flows, one dollar at a time.”
An alumna of Acton, Valeri Tkeshelavilli, described life at Acton in a 2018 article. Students have to be prepared for 100-hour weeks, including one intensely rigorous stretch known as Hell Week. Despite its rigor, Acton lost its accreditation in 2018, and it now calls its program the “Next Great Adventure” instead of an MBA. This forces one to wonder whether an Acton “certification” is worth $50,000.
Acton won’t teach you to be a consultant or a manager. The school lacks “career services, deep alumni networks, [and] summer internships.” But it is laser-focused on creating new entrepreneurs. The idea is that after finishing at Acton, students know what steps they need to take to make the right decisions to make their enterprises grow. Is the program worth $50,000? For the right person, yes—but you’d certainly want to be clear on what you were getting out of it and why. And it is certainly disrupting the MBA-monopoly on business education.
As for Acton Academy, Jeff and Laura Sandefer said they started it so that their children would receive an education that did not stunt them through mindless conformity. “We chose to build Acton because we couldn’t imagine our two boys chained to a desk all day,” Sandefer told the Heartland Institute in 2019. “At Acton, they are free to discover their passion and learn to do the hard work it takes to change the world.”
It doesn’t take much to call your school an Acton Academy: simply pay the franchise fee and a small percentage of tuition and your school is an affiliate. This gets you access to course materials and the internal network of other Acton schools. The curriculum you acquire promises to help children become “independent, lifelong learners” and to value “economic, political, and religious freedoms.” The unique and sustainable model is attempting to disrupt the grade school educational environment.
The Acton Children’s Business Fair is a “project” of Acton Academy. It doesn’t cost anything to create a Children’s Business Fair, and the Acton Academy will even provide $500 for prizes. Today there have been 717 business fairs held in 239 cities, all teaching children about entrepreneurship firsthand. This is Sandefer’s youngest project, but it’s another example of his commitment to creatively advancing the projects that he is passionate about. Time will tell how successful his efforts are, but they demonstrate how a philanthropist can marry his passion and his philanthropy in valuable ways.
In the long run, I suspect that the Acton Academy and the Acton Children’s Business Fair will have more of an influence than the Acton Business School, although it is clear that the former two wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for the business school. Regardless, all three Sandefer enterprises enrich our country and show what one donor with interesting ideas can do.