Pisces Foundation: Grants for Climate & Energy

OVERVIEW: Pisces is the family foundation of Bob Fisher, an heir to the Gap clothing company fortune, and his wife Randi. The funder is scaling up to become a national player, approaching $17 million in annual giving toward climate change, environmental education, and water resources.

IP TAKE: This funder has traditionally had a major interest in water, and still does, but is now about evenly split between its interests in climate change and environmental education. 

PROFILE: Pisces Foundation was co-founded in 2006 by Bob and Elizabeth “Randi” Fisher, who, along with Executive Director David Beckman, are the sole trustees. Bob Fisher is one of three sons to Donald and Doris Fisher, who cofounded Gap Inc. clothing company, and passed their assets to the sons in 2004 (Donald Fisher passed away 2009). Bob has held various roles in the company and currently serves on the Gap board; Forbes puts his net worth at $2.1 billion, and Pisces has assets of nearly $50 million.

Complicating matters somewhat, Pisces, Inc., is the Fisher family’s investment management company. And the name Pisces Foundation was used previously by Donald and Doris Fisher for their philanthropy, which gave several million dollars to the school reform movement and Teach for America. One of the three sons, John, carries on that cause as a major charter school advocate.

But Bob Fisher went in a different direction, himself a Democratic donor (Donald was active in Republican politics), and co-founder of his and his wife's incarnation of the Pisces Foundation, working solely on environmental issues. Got all that? 

The funder was mostly self-directed for years, with the core of the couple’s giving going to groups they served as board members. Bob Fisher was a longtime NRDC board member and has given the organization large sums over the years. But in 2012, the couple decided it was time to make their philanthropy more substantial and strategic, and hired Beckman to take the helm and help them build a proper foundation. 

After a few years of strategic planning and modest staffing up, Pisces is now embarking on its national environment giving, scaling up its grantmaking with an approximate $17 million anticipated next year. 

As far as issues go, there are three stated priorities—climate & energy, water resources, and environmental education. Aside from a good amount of support still going to big green groups like NRDC, grants are pretty diverse, including those for parks, city planning, and agriculture. 

The Climate & Energy program has a niche strategy in that it’s going after one particular category of emissions, so-called “short-lived climate pollutants,” comprising black carbon, methane, HFCs, and ground-level ozone. These are the elements that stay in the atmosphere for a relatively short amount of time, but are the worst contributors to human-caused global warming after CO2. They also have harmful effects on human health and agriculture. 

“This is up to 40 percent of the current warming problem, and yet it isn’t getting the attention that it deserves,” Executive Director David Beckman said. “So we think we can have an outsized impact on an important issue.”

Each program has a handful of large grantees, and for the climate program, one of those is the Energy Foundation, which has received $500,000 to $750,000 in past annual funding. This is one of the largest programmatic and philanthropic presences working in climate change today, spearheaded by the Hewlett Foundation and backed by the largest climate funders in the country. The organization acts as a conduit for hundreds of grants in this arena, and works on every major component of the problem, including buildings, power, transportation, and public outreach.

Other grantees include the Institute for Governance and Sustainable Development, the International Council for Clean Transportation, and the Clean Air Task Force. 

It’s important to note, as well, that the funder’s other programs have some major overlap with climate change work, which tends to bleed into just about any environmental work these days. Many grantees of the foundation’s Water Resources program (read IP profile here) are focusing on the impact climate change is having on our rivers, streams, and groundwater. 

Major water grantees include the NRDC (Fisher served on the board for more than 20 years, and Pisces ED David Beckman formerly worked with him at the NRDC to confound its national water program). The California Water Foundation is another huge recipient, working to restore river systems and increase efficiency in the state, and also cofounded by Fisher.

Pisces' third program, Environmental Education, also has one foot in the climate change arena. Beckman sees this program as “the long game. It’s creating a populace that is able to understand environmental issues better and make decisions based on the facts of the systems that support life on Earth.”

Aside from a bundle of large grantees, there are also many small grants made, and Beckman recently emphasized to Inside Philanthropy that they seek to be open-minded to new ideas and players in their space (they don’t accept unsolicited proposals at this point, but are always open to finding people they’ve not worked with before. 

The program officer in charge of Pisces' climate work is Jennifer Kurz, who comes from the Gates Foundation, the U.S. Climate Action Network Network before that, and a number of other national nonprofits. Pisces Foundation can be contacted by email or at (415) 738-1212. They are also active on Twitter.

PEOPLE:

  • Bob Fisher, Trustee
  • Randi Fisher, Trustee
  • David Beckman, Executive Director
  • Jennifer Kurz, Climate & Energy Program Officer

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