In September 2009, America lost three great leaders in philanthropy: Norman Borlaug, who died September 12; Irving Kristol, who died six days later; and Don Fisher, who passed away on September 27. Together, these three individuals represent the highest aspirations of philanthropy, and we salute them in this special section on “Adventurers in Philanthropy.”
Don Fisher had a 31-inch inseam.
Not 30 inches. Not 32 inches. 31 inches. Fisher’s irregular inseam made it hard for him to buy pants off the rack. That frustrated him. One day, at the age of 40, he tried to buy a pair of Levi’s blue jeans. He went to a salesman who leased space in a property Fisher owned. No luck. Not a single pair of 31-inch inseam Levi’s. Next he tried all the department stores in town. Nothing.
Fisher was fed up. His frustration, however, led to inspiration. He decided to open his own store, with all the styles, colors, and sizes Levi Strauss had to offer. To attract younger customers, he also planned to sell music—tapes and records. He secured a property on San Francisco’s Ocean Avenue, and was set to open his store, Pants and Discs, when his wife, Doris, intervened. It’s 1969, she pointed out, and we’re in the Bay area. Maybe the name should reflect the growing generation gap? Thus renamed, the store Fisher opened was called the Gap.
By the time Don Fisher passed away on September 27, 2009, at age 81, he had scaled that single store into a worldwide chain with more than 3,100 outlets, nearly $15 billion in global business, and more than 134,000 employees. Over 40 years, he had built a world-class brand and created an iconic American look.
“Something That’s Scaleable”
Fisher never grew complacent. He was a varsity swimmer and water polo player at the University of California, Berkeley, and always had an athlete’s natural determination. “I look at running a store and running a business as playing a game,” he told Gap store leaders in January 2009. “And what do you do when you want to play a game? You want to win.” Such relentless drive would characterize one of Fisher’s great philanthropic legacies: education reform.
In 1995, having stepped down as CEO of the Gap, Fisher began to think more seriously about ways he could help improve K–12 education. A graduate of San Francisco public schools, he believed in strong public education as a moral imperative.
Fisher found Scott Hamilton, a tall, curly-haired young man who was then working as Massachusetts’ Associate Commissioner of Education for Charter Schools. He asked Hamilton to find education projects that, like the Gap, had real potential for replication. “I want to do something that’s scaleable, where we can touch a lot of kids,” Fisher told Hamilton. “I don’t want to support just one school; I want to support something that has a broad opportunity around the country. I don’t care how long it takes you to find the right thing, but I want you to find it. When we find it, we’ll know.”
“It took him [Hamilton] a year, and when we found KIPP, we loved it,” Fisher reflected in a 2005 interview with Philanthropy. “A 60 Minutes piece on KIPP brought tears to our eyes. These kids were graduating and getting four-year scholarships to top high schools.” At the time, KIPP consisted of two fledgling middle schools with a relentless determination to get disadvantaged kids on track for college.
KIPP was led by a pair of remarkable young education entrepreneurs keen to leverage their work into something bigger. Their hands-on savvy, combined with Hamilton’s growth strategy—built around systematic, hard-nosed leadership development—made sense to the Fishers, perhaps because it resembled their own business strategy.
“Don told me many times that he didn’t want to start anything new,” Hamilton recalls. “He just wanted to find an organization that worked and help it grow. With the help of the KIPP school founders, I needed to develop a sound, compelling plan for how and why these two little schools were worth the huge effort and resources to replicate by creating a new organization.”
What about KIPP was uniquely appealing to Fisher? As Hamilton remembers, it was KIPP’s track record of success, its central belief that skin color or family income should not limit a child’s ability to learn, its focus on college as the goal for all students—and its realization that there were painfully few examples of anything in urban public education working.
Fisher started with a $15 million commitment for the KIPP Foundation’s first three years. Over the past decade, the Fishers donated more than $70 million to KIPP, which is now a mature organization with more than 80 schools, a carefully designed strategy, a well-functioning central operation, and the wisdom to give a good measure of independence to its school leaders.
KIPP has become the gold standard for American urban education, a brand its schools strive to uphold, every bit as well known and respected as the Gap. “Don treated KIPP and his philanthropic efforts the same creative and rigorous way he did his clothing business,” Hamilton says. “And during our years of working together, KIPP in particular became like his second Gap.”
But Don Fisher did more than write checks to KIPP. Intellectually keen and lastingly curious, he lectured in the summer business school–based programs for new Fisher Fellows—KIPP’s principals-in-training. It was only fitting that he chaired the national KIPP board.
Indeed, Fisher visited more than 50 of the schools, never to harvest applause but rather to engage in his own form of quality control. Don and Doris did not put out press releases when they made big gifts. They shunned the limelight, and wanted attention directed instead to the schools, teachers, and students they were supporting. Fisher said many times that he and Doris didn’t want to give away money just to be seen doing so. Hamilton had to talk them into putting their names on the Fisher Fellowship.
A Philanthropist in Full
Fisher’s philanthropic legacy goes beyond KIPP. Recognizing that KIPP would only work if it were staffed with a stable supply of talented and committed educators, he and Doris helped fund the dramatic nationwide expansion of Teach For America (TFA). Recognizing also that the charter school sector would benefit from the creation of more networks like KIPP, he co-pioneered, with the late John Walton, the Charter School Growth Fund (CSGF), a venture philanthropy that makes early-stage investments in high-performing, high-promise charter school networks. Both TFA and CSGF are today recognized as among the most innovative and exciting education reform organizations in America.
The incubator of KIPP, a critical funder of TFA’s growth, and the co-founder of CSGF: any one of those investments would be remarkable in itself. And yet the Fishers accomplished much more. They were leading philanthropic supporters of charter schools, and they launched the California Charter School Association, providing a voice for the state’s charter school operators.
Here, too, Fisher insisted on quality. “To be a member of the state association, schools have to meet quality requirements,” he told Philanthropy. “The movement in general needs to realize we mustn’t accept mediocre or poor charter schools because they’ll bring down the rest of the schools. In California we’re pushing to get rid of the bad schools.”
Fisher also helped to found—and fund—California’s EdVoice, one of the country’s most effective state-level education-reform advocacy operations. Don and Doris’ small but sophisticated foundation—currently called the Fisher Fund—invests strategically in a small number of worthy projects and ventures led by other organizations. Fisher also served nobly for years in one of American education’s more frustrating roles—a member of the California State Board of Education.
He and Doris were active donors outside of education, too. With Doris, he assembled a spectacular world-class collection of contemporary art—some 1,100 works, with pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol. Their art will eventually be permanently housed and displayed by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Fisher was a major booster of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, for which he served as governor. He endowed the Fisher Center of Real Estate and Urban Economics, as well as the Fisher Center for the Strategic Use of Information Technology, both at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business.
Nonetheless, KIPP stands out as Don Fisher’s signature philanthropic achievement. It is probably the most recognizable brand name in contemporary American schooling. It connotes quality, energy, dedication, effectiveness, and high standards. KIPP has avoided imposing a standard curriculum, and, in any case, its schools must conform to diverse state standards. Even though the schools are not identical, they have a lot more in common than their famed “five pillars” (high expectations, student and parental commitment, more time in school, empowered school leaders, and a focus on results). They have shared values and aspirations, shared norms and culture. Whether you walk into a KIPP school in Houston, Nashville, Philadelphia, or Oakland, the spirit of the place is much the same. The atmosphere is serious and energetic, disciplined but friendly. Quality is always and everywhere high.
Don Fisher seized the opportunity afforded him by a 31-inch inseam. He created hundreds of thousands of jobs, clothed a generation of young professionals, and generated billions of dollars in profits. He and Doris built a fortune—and decided to give much of it away. That they did so for the benefit of poor, mostly minority youngsters across the country attests to their keen eye, their compassion, their standards, their talent for scaling good ideas, and their hands-on commitment. And, of course, to their immense generosity.
Christopher Levenick is editor-in-chief of Philanthropy.