A great philanthropist

Plenty of philanthropists like to think they make a palpable difference in the real world, but often that turns out to be wishful thinking. It’s even rarer that they make an important positive difference during their own lifetimes.

Donald George Fisher, who died on Sunday at age 81, was one of those exceptions. A staggeringly successful businessman--he and his partner/wife/helpmate/alter ego Doris built Gap Inc. over forty years from a single San Francisco store to 3000+ outlets in 25 countries--he was not content just to make money or add to his holdings. Starting a decade ago, he asked Scott Hamilton to help him locate worthy education projects that, like Gap itself, might be replicated and scaled rather than left, like so many education innovations, as one-offs or (like many other innovations) grown into a hodge-podge of good and not-so-good copies. He told Scott that he didn’t want to be another Walter Annenberg; he and Doris didn’t want to give away money just to be seen doing so and being thanked.

Scott hunted far and wide and came back to Don and Doris with several candidates. All had merit but not until they looked closely at KIPP--the “Knowledge Is Power Program”--did this opportunity really come into focus. Here were a couple of terrific fledgling schools that had assembled all the essential elements to help disadvantaged middle-schoolers undergo an educational renaissance and get themselves on track for college. Moreover, KIPP had a pair of remarkable young education reformer/entrepreneurs keen to leverage their work into something bigger. Their education know-how, combined with Scott’s theory of how to grow it--via systematic, hard-nosed leadership development--made sense to the Fishers, perhaps because it resembled their own business strategy.

The rest, as they say, is history. Over the past decade, Don and Doris donated more than $60 million to KIPP. Future school heads--the number of KIPP schools now exceeds 80--are known as “Fisher Fellows.” And KIPP is now a grown-up organization with a carefully designed strategy, an effective central operation and the wisdom to treat its schools more like licensees or franchisees than as “branches.” Though the central office, headed by Richard Barth, provides all sorts of standards, help and, when necessary, trouble-shooting, running successful schools is the responsibility of the local teams--leaders and boards alike--and, if they mess up badly, they know that KIPP may withdraw its coveted label from them.

Because KIPP is as close as American urban education generally, and charter schools in particular, get to a gold standard in 2009, being remembered as the guy who put KIPP on the map is not just a sure visa through the pearly gates but also an undisputed sidebar-with-photo in the history of modern education reform.

But Don Fisher did a lot more than write checks. Intellectually keen and lastingly curious, he lectured in the summer business-school-based programs (first at Berkeley, then Stanford) for new Fisher Fellows. He chaired the national KIPP board--and recruited Barth as CEO. He visited more than fifty of the schools, not so much to harvest applause as to engage in his own form of quality control. He had weekly consultations with Rich, whose own reflection I excerpt here:

After my first two months of these weekly calls, I began to relax a bit and came to realize that Don wasn’t looking for me to show him I had everything under control. Don was actually interested in listening to me discuss my challenges. He wanted to explore opportunities alongside me. He cared so deeply about KIPP, and he listened attentively. And, during these calls, he would share thoughts when he had them….Sometimes he only left me with a single thought. What I discovered over time, however, was that his instincts were simply exceptional. And perhaps most importantly, that his obsession was quality. In whatever we were doing, he wanted to make sure we were doing it well. Really well….Don never missed these calls. Ever. Even over the holidays in Hawaii. And even when he was under the weather. He always, always showed.

Among other traits that few philanthropists share, Don and Doris Fisher did not put out press releases when they made big gifts. They shunned media and limelight and wanted attention focused instead on the schools, teachers, and kids they were supporting. Scott reports that he had to talk them into calling the KIPP leaders-in-training “Fisher” Fellows.

Don and Doris did more than KIPP. They are responsible for the extraordinary growth of Teach For America and they created the Charter School Growth Fund. Don helped to found--and fund--California’s EdVoice, one of the most effective state-level education-reform advocacy/lobbying operations in the land. In California, he also spearheaded the re-creation of one of the nation’s best state charter school associations. Their small but sophisticated foundation--the Fisher Fund is its current name--invests strategically in a small number of worthy projects and ventures led by other organizations. (That list occasionally includes the Thomas B. Fordham Institute. Needless to say, we’re very grateful.) Don also served nobly for years in one of American education’s more exasperating roles, as a member of the California State Board of Education.

He and Doris did more than education, too. They helped keep the San Francisco Giants in the Bay area. Don was a major booster of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. They assembled a spectacular world-class collection of contemporary art--some 1,100 works, to be housed and displayed by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

But let me circle back to KIPP. It is probably the most recognizable “brand name” in contemporary American schooling. (Forget generic labels like “Catholic” and “magnet.”) It connotes quality, energy, dedication, effectiveness, and high standards. Though the schools aren’t identical--KIPP has avoided imposing a standard curriculum and they must conform to diverse state standards--they have far more in common than their famed “five pillars.” They have shared values and aspirations, shared norms and culture. Whether you walk into a KIPP school in Houston, Nashville, Philadelphia, or Oakland, the essence of the place will be much the same. The quality will be high. The aura will be serious and disciplined, yet energized and friendly. This, I think, is what Don and Doris Fisher hoped to accomplish. That they used a non-trivial portion of their fortune to accomplish it for poor, mostly minority youngsters across this broad nation attests to their keen eye, their compassion, their standards, their talent for scaling good ideas, and their hands-on commitment, as well as their generosity.

How many philanthropists leave such a legacy?

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