Tony Sanneh, a former national and international soccer star, created The Sanneh Foundation (TSF) in 2003. Seven years after he retired as a player in 2010, the St. Paul native took on the full-time job of running his foundation, as president and CEO, in order to create positive social change for youth.
“Our brand is [that] we step up,” declared Sannah as we spoke recently at his headquarters on University Avenue in St. Paul. “That might not sound sexy. But it means that we’re willing to be there for the community. It means that we don’t give up and we’re not going to say no… So, I think our brand, other than working hard, stepping up is also creating a culture of enjoyment.”
Almost from the beginning, TSF has been involved in youth programming, such as sports camps and other after-school and summertime programs. Since 2010, TSF has grown in five years from one program and a $60,000 annual budget to six programs and a $3.5 million yearly budget.
This past May, the foundation closed on its sixth house on St. Paul’s East Side and now offers affordable housing for 14 employees who pay modest rent and expenses. These workers are all entry-level workers or AmeriCorps members who are making around $17,000 a year in living expenses.
The foundation is also proposing a $35 million Innovation Center to be located off University Avenue with 100 units for nonprofit, education, and healthcare workers, along with offering training programs and housing for the Sanneh Foundation’s offices.
It was recently named one of 42 local organizations that are part of a $7 million economic revitalization grant from the Saint Paul and Minnesota Foundation.
The organization has served nearly 200,000 meals to children in the Twin Cities metro area, six days a week to help support families. They signed a three-year management agreement with the City of Saint Paul, to run Conway Community Center, to provide free youth programming, as well as a safe space for local youth.
“To empower youth, improve lives and unite communities,” said Sanneh, of the foundation’s overall mission. Asked if he had envisioned all of this, he said he didn’t, but others had.
“My mom would tell me I could do whatever I want to do,” he said. “But she also tells me that I’m afraid to fail. So, I don’t announce a plan. I just do a plan.
“I never said I was going to be a soccer player. But you could read my seventh-grade journal… I was going to be a soccer player. I just didn’t tell the world,” continued Sanneh. “I talked to my college coach years later and he said, ‘You remember what we talked about when you left school? I asked you what you were gonna do.’ He told me I could play soccer for five to seven years, save $100,000, buy a house, and then find a way to work with some kids.
“Everybody around me said…all the signs were there that I would do [this]. I just never announced it,” he said. “I’m a down-to-earth person. I have a saying, ‘There’s no room for complacency when it comes to helping others.’
“We built the organization to respond to the needs of the community. I tell people this is a choice that we’ve made. We’re dedicated to doing the right thing. We don’t always get it right. But eventually, we do more good than anything else.”
As head of the eponymously named organization, in addition to helping the community, especially youth, Sanneh is committed to leading a diverse nonprofit operation, having a workforce that reflects the community it serves. People of color make up 70 percent of its employees.
“We get a lot of opportunities that most people wouldn’t when you first start your entry-level career,” said Sophia Hayden, who is working at TSF in marketing and content strategy. “They listen to us even though we’re younger. They take into account our ideas. And it just helps us grow.”
Sarai Hernandez, who is working in event planning, added, “I think that Tony and everyone here does a good job of showing us how we need to present ourselves to be able to continue growing.”
Both Hayden and Hernandez came to the foundation through AmeriCorps VISTA, a national program in which members serve one year at a nonprofit organization.
“We’ve built an organization with a lot of really talented people that do some good stuff,” said Sanneh of the two women.
He announced that TSF is looking to expand in other areas: “We expanded into workforce development. But we call it human development,” explained Sanneh. “My goal isn’t for you to graduate here and get a job. My goal is to educate you, give you the tools and the essential supports like housing, transportation, food, so that you can make a choice to do what you want to do that makes you happy.
“And hopefully that’s making the community stronger because we’re developing stronger employees,” concluded Sanneh. “It’s exciting when you see the positive effects it is having on communities.”