Don Fisher founded the Gap, one of the most successful retail chains of the 20th century, and became the savviest education-reform philanthropist of his era. Born in 1928 to a middle-class family in San Francisco, Fisher always credited his parents with encouraging him to take risks but also to make practical, smart decisions. “Change or fail”—that, Fisher would often say, was the lesson he learned from his father, a cabinetmaker and businessman.
Fisher had the opportunity to go into the family business when he graduated from the University of California at Berkeley, but instead chose to branch off on his own. He went into real estate development for a while, but then noticed an unfilled niche in retail fashion. While leasing space to a Levi’s store in one of the properties he owned, Fisher found that he could not find a pair of jeans that fit him right. He had a 31-inch inseam, but the pants in the store only came in even numbers. He went to other stores and found a similar absence.
“What if,” he wondered, “someone put together in one store all the styles, colors, and sizes Levi Strauss had to offer?” In 1969, he secured space on Ocean Avenue in San Francisco. There, he opened up a clothing store that would be comprehensive, and geared specifically toward young people. His wife, Doris, suggested that they capitalize on the perceived generation gap. They called the store “The Gap.”
The Fishers learned the retail business as they went along. Within a few years, they had launched their own line of clothing. By the time Don Fisher passed away at age 81, he had expanded 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.
In 1995, when he stepped down as CEO, Fisher began to think strategically about ways to improve K–12 education in America. A graduate of San Francisco public schools, Fisher believed in strong public education as a moral imperative. But his father’s “change or fail” mandate needed to be applied.
Fisher approached Scott Hamilton, who was then working in Massachusetts as Associate Commissioner of Education for Charter Schools, to find education projects that had real quality and the potential for replication. “I want to do something that’s scalable, 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.”
Hamilton in turn found the “Knowledge Is Power Program,” or KIPP. At that point KIPP consisted of two fledgling charter schools, but it was clear that they were getting powerful results. What about KIPP was appealing to Fisher? According to Hamilton, it was the organization’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 impressively successful in urban public education.
Over the next decade and a half, the Fishers donated more than $80 million to KIPP, which included 141 schools as of 2014. While 87 percent of its students are eligible for subsidized school meals, and 95 percent are African American or Latino, more than 90 percent of KIPP middle-school students graduate from high school, and more than 80 percent of KIPP alumni go on to college—vastly higher numbers than in other urban schools.
Recognizing that schools like those in the KIPP network could succeed only if they were able to recruit talented educators, Fisher turned his attention to Teach For America, eventually donating more than $100 million to that organization—which recruits top students to take up the teaching of disadvantaged students as a calling. Thanks in no small part to Don Fisher’s generosity, the TFA corps grew to over 10,000 active instructors in classrooms during its peak years, most of them hailing from the nation’s most selective colleges and universities.
Just as in his business, Fisher was always concerned with both quality and scale in his philanthropy. To make sure that excellent charter schools grew beyond the occasional curiosity, he co-founded the Charter School Growth Fund with the late John Walton. The venture has made early-stage investments of over $100 million in high-promise charter-school networks that have shown the ability to grow. Today, CSGF is invested in 32 networks serving over 100,000 students. That’s four times the student population compared to when the schools entered the program. These networks operate the highest-performing schools in their cities, and many have completely closed the achievement gap between low-income and affluent students.
Fisher also helped found the California Charter School Association, whose membership is open only to those schools that meet exacting educational standards. “The movement in general needs to realize we mustn’t accept mediocre or poor charter schools,” Fisher explained, “because they’ll bring down the rest of the schools.”
Don and Doris Fisher were active donors outside of education too. They assembled a large collection of contemporary art—some 1,100 works, with pieces by Roy Lichtenstein, Gerhard Richter, and Andy Warhol—which will eventually be housed permanently at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. Fisher was a major booster of the Boys and 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.
Don Fisher was not the biggest funder of education reform in the last century. But he may have been the most consequential. Fisher was among the very first to find and fund almost all of the most promising ideas and programs of the last 20 years. He seemed to have an uncanny knack for discovering effective people, which was coupled to a fierce independent streak that encouraged him to back them long before anyone else.
~ Naomi Schaefer Riley