What Khakis and Education Reform Have in Common: Scalability

Scalability. When the late Donald Fisher focused on education philanthropy, that was his goal. To help expand a small network of high-performing schools into a nationwide brand. It makes sense too; Fisher started The Gap from a single store in 1969 and grew it into a global retail empire.

A 2009 report from Philanthropy Roundtable — which was published after his passing that year — highlighted his vision for education reform and giving:

"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."

In the Knowledge is Power Program network of schools — or KIPP — Fisher saw that broad opportunity. And the Fishers initially invested $15 million in 2000, when KIPP was just two schools in Texas. Now, with support of more than $60 million from the Fisher Fund, KIPP operates 125 schools that serve primarily low-income students in 20 states and Washington, D.C.

The Fishers’ legacy at KIPP will likely live on into the future. In 2011 and 2010, the Fisher Fund gave the KIPP Foundation — which Donald and Doris co-founded in 2000 — more than $12 million (Read Managing Director Christopher Nelson's IP profile). In a lot of ways, Fisher Fund investments have defined charter school giving. It’s about growth, effective leadership, and most importantly, providing high-quality education for low-income students with results. Every other major foundation with an interest in charter school funding has fallen in line. Broad. Gates. Bradley. Dell.

"One way the KIPP network helps maintain quality is by functioning like a franchise operation," Fisher said during a 2005 interview with Philanthropy Roundtable.  "KIPP doesn’t run the schools, but it maintains a lot of control over them because they can’t use the KIPP name if they don’t perform."

In many ways, the Fishers have acted like venture capitalists in the charter funder space, and that’s been the trend at a number of charter management organizations across the country. Like KIPP, Yes Prep and Rocketship Education are both expanding quickly thanks to generous support from wealthy philanthropists.

The Doris & Donald Fisher Fund paved the way (See Doris and Donald Fisher Fund: Grants for Charter Schools). Almost every major charter funder employs this strategy now; for instance, Gates was a major funder of YES Prep's expansion in 2005. In other support for KIPP schools, the Fishers also provided support for the Fisher Fellowships, a program designed to train prinicipals for KIPP schools.