Herb Sandler, a banker and philanthropist who with his wife, Marion, provided the initial financing for ProPublica, the non-profit investigative-reporting organization that seeks to be an alternative model for sustaining vigorous journalism, died on Wednesday at his home in San Francisco. He was 87.
His family announced the death. The cause was not given.
Sandler and his wife, who died in 2012, made their fortune by building a small bank in Oakland, California, into Golden West Financial, a multibillion-dollar lender. They had long supported progressive causes when, in 2007, their Sandler Foundation provided almost all of ProPublica’s initial funding.
ProPublica, which often collaborates with traditional news organizations, including The New York Times, has since won five Pulitzer Prizes and numerous other awards.
Sandler was its board chairman from its beginning until 2016. In the last several decades, with print advertising evaporating, many newspapers have closed or cut staff, a worrisome development to Sandler.
“We all know the potential for corruption in city, state and federal government, as well as in major corporations,” he told the Bridgespan Group, which advises non-profit organizations, in a 2013 interview. “And somebody’s got to be watching. That’s the muckraker tradition.”
ProPublica, which is based in New York and now employs about 75 journalists, is being widely watched in the news business as a possible model for journalism in the future. In a tribute to Sandler posted on its website, ProPublica said that he had a simple explanation for why he supported such work: “I hate it when the bad guys win.”
The Sandler Foundation, which the Sandler family said has given away almost $1 billion, has also supported social justice organizations like the American Civil Liberties Union and Faith in Action. It helped start All Voting Is Local, which watches for voter suppression. And its support gave rise to a number of health-related programs at the University of California, San Francisco, including the Sandler Asthma Basic Research Center.
The Learning Policy Institute, which is devoted to education issues and has offices in Washington and Palo Alto, California, is another group that has benefited.
“Herb Sandler was deeply committed to social justice, which guided much of his philanthropy,” the institute’s president and chief executive, Linda Darling-Hammond, said by e-mail. “He was outraged by inequality in all forms and sought approaches to confront it.”
Herbert Martin Sandler was born on Nov. 16, 1931, in New York City to William and Hilda (Schatten) Sandler. He graduated from Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan at 15 and from City College of New York in 1951. He earned a law degree at Columbia University in 1954, then spent almost two years in the Army, after which he began practising law in Manhattan.
In 1960 he met Marion Osher, a banking and finance analyst on Wall Street. They married in 1961 and two years later bought the bank that they renamed Golden West Financial.
An extensive oral history project on the Sandlers at the University of California, Berkeley, notes that the bank made a point of offering mortgages in communities often denied services because of their racial or economic profile.
“The Sandlers played a role in opening up the dream of home ownership to more Americans,” a summary of the oral history says. “In the offices too, Herb and Marion made a point of opening positions to women, such as branch manager and loan officer, previously held only by men.”
When the couple finally sold the operation to Wachovia in 2006 – for a reported $25 billion – they plowed much of their share of proceeds, about $2.4 billion, into the Sandler Foundation, which they had created in 1991. The foundation’s philosophy is to invest in “strategic organizations and exceptional leaders to improve the rights, opportunities and well-being of others, especially the most vulnerable and disadvantaged,” its website says.
“When they believe in an idea, they’re willing to go the mat,” Kenneth Roth, executive director of Human Rights Watch, another recipient of the Sandlers’ aid, said in a video made by the University of California, San Francisco, in 2010, when the Sandlers received the UCSF Medal. “They’re willing to invest beyond what anyone else would. They do it with their generosity, with their contacts, with their business savvy and with their personal commitment.”
Sandler’s support of progressive causes drew criticism from the right, especially after some news outlets, including The New York Times, published articles suggesting that certain types of mortgage loans issued by Golden West had, after the Sandlers sold the business to Wachovia, contributed to the financial crisis of 2008. The Sandlers denied that their loans had played such a role.
“Sandler has the astonishing nerve to use his ill-gotten subprime billions to become a major political player,” Phil Kerpen, president of the conservative organization American Commitment, wrote in an opinion article published by a number of outlets in 2014, “funding a wide array of liberal organizations that purport to stand up for regular Americans.”
In 2008, “Saturday Night Live” broadcast a skit about the congressional bailout of the banks that labelled the Sandlers, portrayed by actors, as “people who should be shot.” After complaints, the show took the unusual step of editing the online version of the skit. Lorne Michaels, executive producer of the show, told the Los Angeles Times that he had not realized the Sandlers were real people.
Articles about the Sandlers in the heyday of Golden West sometimes described Herb as the strategist and Marion as handling anything to do with marketing and the consumer. “In reality, though,” The New York Times wrote in 2008, “they consulted on everything, and it was often impossible to know where Herb’s thoughts ended and hers began.”
Sandler is survived by a daughter, Susan Sandler; a son, James; and two grandchildren.
In its tribute to him, ProPublica noted that Sandler had read everything the site published but, aside from occasionally pointing out a typographical error, had kept a strict hands-off policy when it came to editorial control. His passion was the mission.
“When we won ProPublica’s first Pulitzer Prize in 2010,” the article said, “he congratulated us briefly by phone, and then quickly added, ‘This is not what’s important, you know.’”