Christopher Nelson, Doris & Donald Fisher Fund

TITLE: Managing Director

FUNDING AREAS: Charter schools; advocacy; United Way programs

CONTACT: (415) 391-3445

IP TAKE: Nelson uses a dialed-in focus, with major gifts going to longtime Fisher grantees.

PROFILE: In the two-man Donald & Doris Fisher Fund, Managing Director Christopher Nelson holds a lot of sway in the charter school funding space. Nelson is a businessman, albeit one with a bit different work portfolio than his fund's namesakes, who were the founders of The Gap. Nelson's previous experience includes six years as a San Francisco business litigator after receiving both his bachelor's degree and J.D. from Duke University.

The Doris & Donald Fisher Fund is a major philanthropy player, but they’ve been somewhat elusive, flying under the radar with their grant making strategy. For one, the fund has never been particularly showy about their giving, which goes back to founder Donald Fisher's approach (he died in 2009). Nor does the fund have a webpage or published grantmaking strategy, which can leave grantseekers in the dark. So it’s best to look at Nelson’s grant giving, which supports many of the same organizations Donald Fisher was a champion of, to get a sense of the foundation’s efforts in charter funding.

It’s a very focused approach. To put it in perspective, in 2011, the fund made only 33 grants, but they totaled more than $20 million. So the focus is giving big to a small number of organizations.

In 2010 and 2011, the fund wrote $6.6 million in checks to the KIPP Foundation; their biggest grant receiver both of those years. This makes sense too, as Donald Fisher himself was a co-founder of that very same KIPP Foundation. Fisher's journey with KIPP began after Donald stepped down as CEO of Gap in 1995, focusing his attention on philanthropy. According to a report 2010 report from Philanthropy Magazine, Fisher was looking for high-performing educational organizations that were scalable, and that search led him to KIPP, a network of charter schools that has become a leader in urban education reform.

In 2000, Fisher co-founded the KIPP Foundation, with an initial gift of $15 million, as a way to help expand the charter school. Now KIPP manages roughly 125 schools, and has grown from two teachers to more than 2,800. Fisher also sat on the board of the foundation for many years.  Since KIPP began expanding, regional KIPP organizations have also commanded a large portion of grants each year.

As Managing Director, it’s clear Nelson is carrying on the Fisher’s legacy of charitable giving of charter school networks, growth funds, and lobbying efforts. Aside from KIPP, other longtime Fisher projects have also nabbed large shares of the fund's grant dollars.

In 2011, Nelson also made a major gift of $4.5 million to the Charter School Growth Fund, an organization that provides grant funding and low-interest loans to charter management organizations. Donald helped found the organization with John Walton in 2005. 

Other Fisher projects that Nelson has continued to direct funds to include Teach for America, which received a $2.5 million grant from the fund in 2012. "Connectivities" also abound: the California Charter Schools Association, which was founded by Fisher and of which Nelson is now treasurer, took a $1.25 million grant from the foundation in 2011. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, for which Nelson serves on the board, received $1 million from the fund in 2012.

Although Nelson might make minor adjustments in Doris & Donald Fisher Fund's grant making activities, it's likely that Donald Fisher's original vision will continue play out for the foreseeable future.