Bruce Dayton was a man who saw his wealth both as a blessing and as a responsibility— and it’s a belief he instilled in others by example. Dayton, who died last Friday at the age of 97, was the last of the generation of Dayton brothers who inherited a single downtown Minneapolis department store and used it to launch the retailing giant that eventually become the Target Corporation.
While Dayton was born into the business and always knew great wealth by the standards of most Minnesotans, he recognized in his money the opportunity to make Minnesota a better place. It’s a family tradition that has made the Dayton name, and the Target Corporation they built, synonymous with philanthropy.
Bruce focused his giving on cultural amenities, particularly the Minneapolis Institute of Art, where he donated thousands of works of art, provided ongoing financial support, and served actively on the board of directors. In 2009, the New York Times described Bruce Dayton as a dean of corporate arts philanthropy.
Bruce was hardly alone among members of his family when it came to generosity. While much of the Daytons’ giving has focused on the arts, it has ranged widely, from helping schools to the protecting the environment. It is also reflected in public service in the case of Bruce’s son, Gov. Mark Dayton.
When the Dayton brothers created the Target brand in the 1960s, they committed their corporation to donating five percent of its pre-tax profits each year. It was a degree of generosity almost unheard of at the time, and it remains remarkable to this day.
Minnesota has been particularly fortunate to have attracted some extraordinarily generous business owners over the years, including men like Charles K. Blandin, who founded the Blandin Foundation after building his fortune from his Grand Rapids paper mill. Alfred Pillsbury, who recruited Bruce Dayton to join the MIA board nearly three-quarters of a century ago, is yet another example.
These were people of progressive vision who believed not only in building their companies, but in using their wealth to build stronger communities and to improve the lives of their fellow Minnesotans. They did so despite the fact that they paid far more in income taxes for most of their lives than wealthy Americans do today.
It’s worth noting that men like Bruce Dayton or Charles Blandin offer not just an example for others, but a sharp contrast to so many of the wealthy today, who collectively hoard trillions of dollars in offshore bank accounts or other tax shelters rather than put their money to more productive uses in their own communities.
Bruce Dayton could have done the same, and we would remember him today for the size of his bank account. Instead, we remember him for the great contributions he made to Minnesota. That’s a legacy of which the entire Dayton family can rightfully be proud.