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Filling the Civic Gap 

Meet Donald Fisher, the private billionaire with unprecedented sway over ordinary San Franciscans' lives

Wednesday, Jun 21 2006
It's three hours into the last day of school at KIPP Bayview Academy, a nonprofit, 160-student, fifth-and-sixth-grade charter school run out of a former Catholic elementary just over the hill from Candlestick Park. But there's no noisy, school's-out scrum in the hallways. Instead, students are in class giving year-end presentations, finishing assignments, and otherwise exploiting every last minute of class time.

The silence makes it easy to hear the soft voice of 12-year-old Markia, who, like most of her classmates, comes from the poor, predominantly black neighborhood surrounding the school. She stands in the hallway pondering her future out loud.

"I'm thinking about Thacher," says Markia, referring to an exclusive Ojai, Calif., boarding school at which the horse-to-student ratio is three to five, "and Exeter," she adds, in reference to Phillips Exeter Academy, the elite New Hampshire boarding school traditionally associated with Harvard.

Considering Markia's milieu, her bold aspirations don't seem far-fetched. She recently got back from a class field trip to Thacher. KIPP Bayview's eight-hour school days and incessant pro-college message, and the whirlwind energy of Molly Wood, the school's 32-year-old Stanford MBA principal, are all geared toward getting kids to think, realistically, about places like Exeter.

KIPP Bayview is one of 52 such schools around the country (including six in the Bay Area) supported by $46 million in donations and organizational advice from retired Gap Inc. founder Donald Fisher — philanthropist, social idealist, and political campaign donor extraordinaire. Forbes magazine puts Fisher and his wife Doris' combined wealth at $2.6 billion, and the Gap-derived wealth of his three sons (who all went to Exeter) at another $4.6 billion, putting his combined family just outside the top 100 in the world of billionaires. According to an April Fortune magazine report, Fisher family members own at least 37 percent of Gap, Inc., stock. The company has been struggling for nearly a decade, having lost two-thirds of its market value due to declining store sales during the early 2000s, but the stock has rebounded to trade in the same range it did 10 years ago.

Fisher stepped down as CEO of the Gap in 1995, handing greater control of the business to his sons, he says, at a time when he began thinking about how he'd spend the next stage of his life. He had spent his business life identifying what he wanted, then going to whatever lengths it took to get it. And now he's applying the same ethos to his charitable and political enterprises.

"I'm the type of person who focuses, and I tried not to be all over the lot. I ended up picking KIPP" — which stands for Knowledge Is Power Program, a charter school chain focusing on long school hours, small classes, extra teacher attention, and, above all, getting kids into college — "as the best thing I saw out there," says the 77-year-old Fisher during a meeting in his 15th-story office at 2 Folsom St.

In terms of his presence in San Francisco and California public life, however, Fisher is all over the lot. He's spending portions of his vast fortune to change the way your kid goes to school, to influence the outcome of your local city hall or statehouse election, to alter the city's skyline, to refurbish your nearby park.

"I don't have anything to gain out of anything I do here. It's to improve the life of people that live here. I care a lot about that," Fisher says. "I like to be able to think that people's lives are better because of things that I think are appropriate. But to other people, they may think they are terrible ideas."

And that's the rub.

KIPP schools, in addition to Fisher's support, received in 2004 $7.9 million from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, part of some $2.3 billion the Gateses spent on education between 1999 and 2004. (In fact, Bill Gates just announced last week that over the next two years he will transition away from the day-to-day operations of Microsoft to focus full time on his philanthropic efforts.) It's an example of a trend in which the mega-rich are taking a greater role of institutions and programs once run by ordinary voters.

This impending social transformation hasn't received much public notice, aside from some hoopla over the giving habits of tycoons such as George Soros and Bill Gates. But if KIPP is any guide, these magnanimous magnates are at the vanguard of a trend that may shrink the portion of public life that's subject to public input.

Two decades of vast national wealth creation, along with plummeting income and capital tax rates at the highest levels, have spawned legions of very rich Americans. Many of them have transferred their wealth into personal tax-advantaged nonprofit foundations because, as Fisher notes in his 2002 memoir, Falling Into the GAP: The Story of Donald Fisher and the Apparel Icon He Created, "Philanthropy is a good investment, as far as taxes are concerned." Indeed, earlier this month the Senate failed to pass legislation that would have abolished the inheritance tax, thus helping to protect the tax sheltering role of private philanthropic foundations.

Meanwhile, in the area of politics, changes during the past few years in campaign finance laws have elevated the importance of rich, ideological donors, as opposed to interest-group donors. And "entrepreneurial philanthropist" business whizzes such as Fisher, who seek to achieve maximum social change for each dollar spent, have discovered a great synergy between supporting their philanthropic goals and financing the nonprofits that now dominate American politics.

There's much to like about this arrangement. Government social services have been declining for decades, especially in California, so it's comforting to see philanthropists fill some of the gaps. It's also hard to visit a KIPP school without leaving impressed by the dreams of Markia — or the hard work of her teachers, who spend their summers recruiting new students at parks, shopping centers, and anywhere else 10-year-olds congregate.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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