Impact, Course Correction, Accepting Conflict, and the Responsibility that Has Been Handed to Us All – What We Can Learn from the Sunsetting of the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund

Good afternoon, CharterFolk.

Coming off the Thanksgiving week, I wanted to share a column that, by rights, I should have completed months ago. And it is one that I should be up front about my conflicts.

The Fisher Family has been very supportive of organizations that I have worked for, and I personally start from a standpoint of thankfulness and admiration for what the family has done for hundreds of thousands of kids and families, as well as for the charter school movement more broadly. Indeed, as I wrote on my first day here at CharterFolk, it was Chris Nelson from the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund who called me on behalf of the CCSA Board of Directors to tell me that I had been selected as the organization’s next CEO. And from that day forward, the fund and everyone connected to it were immensely supportive of what we were trying to do at CCSA and I can’t imagine having tried to tackle the job without having had the Fisher Fund as much at our back as it was.

With that said, wearing my biases on my sleeve, I feel not an iota of conflict positing that the Fisher Fund has been one of the most successful philanthropic efforts in public education in our lifetimes, and its cumulative impact over the decades has rivaled if not surpassed the impact of other even more greatly resourced philanthropic undertakings in public education. As such, it occurs to me that the fund’s official sunsetting this year represents a moment of unique opportunity to reflect and learn as a movement as we calibrate how best to refine our strategies and approaches for the years ahead.

This column will focus on four key recognitions that I believe our movement should focus on as we consider the lasting impact of the Doris and Donald Fisher Fund.

  • The Fisher Fund recognized that the highest impact approach to giving was to make large and sustained bets on high potential people working in contexts that allowed them to succeed. The Fishers were able to sustain that effort through a deep personal commitment to the work.
  • The Fisher Fund recognized that the organizations they funded and the fund itself were likely to make big mistakes along the way, and if they were going to prove successful over the long term, they would have to specialize in course-correction.
  • The Fishers came to recognize that there was a cost their family was going to be made to pay in order to help advance the work, and the family was willing to pay that cost.
  • Finally, the Fishers helped our movement arrive at a place where we now have the heft and the sophistication needed to advance our own interests. The question now, as I see it, is whether our movement will recognize as keenly as the Fishers did the key activities that we must now take on in order to keep charter schools on a path for even greater impact in the decades ahead.

Lastly, before turning to the post itself, I would be remiss if I didn’t stress that, though the Fisher Fund has now stopped operating, the Fisher Family is absolutely not exiting its support of charter schools and education reform in general. Far from it. Members of the family continue to sit on boards and fund various ventures in our movement generously, and I anticipate they will continue to do so for many decades to come. The challenge of this post will be to recognize that a big and important chapter of the Fisher Family’s efforts in public education has come to a close while also conveying a sense that the family remains as passionate as they ever have been about helping kids and families access improved educational opportunity. Whether I strike that balance correctly I will leave to CharterFolk to determine.

Smarts, Focus, Big Bets on Folk (Most of them CharterFolk) and Commitment

My contention is that the Fisher Fund was one of the most successful philanthropic ventures to have happened over the past quarter century. It leads to rather straightforward questions:

What made it so? What allowed the fund to be even higher impact than so many others that have attempted to make lasting change in public education, with many of the other ventures having a volume of resources even larger than what the Fisher Fund had?

In my view the Fisher Fund’s success resulted from:

  • Simply being very smart.
  • Focusing on the right stuff.
  • Betting big once they had found things they knew to be right.
  • Showing commitment over the long term.

What made them so smart from the beginning, I can’t really say. So often philanthropists have to learn the hard way that our traditional public school system is ultimately not fixable. That usually results in huge amounts of money being flushed down school district holes before funders finally figure out that, if they’re going to make a real difference in public education, they are going to need partners more reliable than school districts to work with. Some funders, sadly, never figure it out …

… but somehow the Fishers avoided that learning curve. They didn’t waste tens of millions on fantasy notions about the fixability of our traditional public schools but instead cut straight to high impact. They seemed to know intuitively that they needed to bet big on incredible people incredible folk working either outside the system, or in some way adjacent to it where they would have the autonomy they would need to sustain the effort and magnify impact over time. Scott Hamilton, the original head of the Fisher Fund, was charged with finding leaders around which massive strategies could be based. That mindset led to the Fishers famously finding Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin at KIPP through an early portrait that aired on 60 Minutes.

Within a few years, the scope of the bet the Fishers would make on Feinberg’s and Levin’s organization was breathtaking, not just in terms of raw dollars, but in personal time, board service, formation of strategy, and leveraging their own personal networks to recruit the national leaders needed to get high-power KIPP boards going in regions across the country.

It led to the creation of one of the most important organizations to be founded in charterland and indeed in all of public education over the past 25 years.

So it was also with the other most influential new nonprofit to have been built in public education in recent decades …

… Teach For America.

Before the Fisher Fund came along, Wendy Kopp’s new organization was off to a promising start, but, as Bellwether’s report on the history of TFA attests …

… it was the Fisher’s first enormous investment that was transformational.

In 2000, Gap, Inc. founder Donald Fisher, who had already made a significant investment to expand the KIPP charter school model, after seeing a 60 Minutes segment, offered Teach For America a three-year, $8.3 million grant to double in size over the next five years. This was a challenge grant, which meant that Teach For America would need to raise matching funds from other sources to secure Fisher’s funds. Fisher’s approach—a major, multiyear investment that was tied to specific growth and funding goals but placed few strings on how funds were used—stood in stark contrast to the smaller, project-oriented grants that most education foundations offered. Securing this type of funding enabled Teach For America to focus on its core mission, rather than chasing after project-based funding opportunities. And the matching requirements helped Teach For America secure similar unrestricted funds from other sources.

If the Fisher Fund had only made their two massive investments in KIPP and TFA, that alone would have placed the fund among the highest impact philanthropic endeavors to have happened in public education in recent decades. But on top of those two great decisions, the Fisher Fund played key catalytic roles launching and sustaining many other transformational organizations such as …

… the Charter School Growth Fund …

… The New Teacher Project …

… New Schools New Orleans …

… and the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, to name but a few.

It’s an amazing track record of successful investment, one born of an overarching philosophy articulated by John Fisher in this interview.

What has been rewarding and successful for us has been to develop a strong focus in what we do.  We are very focused on school reform, but we don’t do everything in school reform.  We really focus in this case on charter schools, which we think offers the best example of what we can achieve with, at the end of the day, a limited amount of money ….  We really need to take our money and do a few things really well.  That has been the perspective that we have taken in our own foundation …. We get really involved in trying to develop more high performing charter schools, whether its through KIPP or the Charter School Growth Fund.  We’ve been very involved in human capital trying to grow the number of highly motivated teachers and school leaders.  We’ve really focused those efforts through Teach For America.  And we’ve gotten really involved in the whole area of advocacy because you can do everything right, but if no one knows you’re doing everything right, you’re not going to have the success you need to have.

It was, in short, a massive bet on CharterFolk and on the other supports – human capital and advocacy – that CharterFolk need to maximize their potential and impact.

And it was anchored, finally, in a level of commitment that is uncommon in the world of philanthropy. It was a level of commitment that led Don Fisher at the age of 72 to accept an appointment to the California State Board of Education.

It was a level of commitment that led to Doris Fisher to report that not only had KIPP had an incredible impact on her life …

… but it had in fact become her life.

It’s the special mix of smarts, focus, generosity, and commitment that ultimately allowed the Fisher Fund to succeed at unprecedented levels in its quest to improve educational opportunity for millions of students in the United States.

A Bias Toward Course Correction

There are, though, trade-offs to making such enormous bets on a relatively small number of organizations. One of the risks is that a narrow investment strategy can leave highly capable people out of the mix. And when narrowness results in our bets not being as diverse as the movement we seek to serve, the consequences become even more grave.

And it’s not like there weren’t CharterFolk around at the time telling the Fishers and others that a too-narrow investment strategy was certain to lead to all sorts of problems. This is one of the themes that Howard Fuller and I talked about last summer during our CharterFolk Chat.

Here’s Howard talking about a meeting that happened in 2006.

So we went around the room and the question was what is wrong with the charter movement.  When it got to me I said look at this damn room! There were only two non-white people in that room …. In that meeting a decision was made that philanthropy needed to organize itself to support networks that they believed in, and I believe that when that decision was made it meant that the money flowed in a certain direction. And when that money flowed in a certain direction it cut out the possibility of Black and Brown people being significantly a part of that flow because at that moment in time Black and Brown people were not in charge of networks. We were dealing with small schools that got set up with the idea of serving a community. 

Howard’s comments, as is so often the case, turned out to be prescient. Here is Darryl Cobb of the Charter School Growth Fund talking about a gathering that the fund hosted six years later.

I had taken a break from the meeting … and as I looked down from the balcony … I noticed that the group of people down below who represented our portfolio were very different from the ninety percent of the students in our portfolio who are students of color, predominantly African-American and Latino.  The leadership was almost opposite of that down on the floor, and I said to myself this is an issue that I think we can attack at the Charter School Growth Fund because we know that there are high-quality leaders of color out there who are leading schools that are producing phenomenal student results just as much as the schools that were represented by the leaders there. All of the leaders there were doing tremendous things for kids and families and communities, but we knew there were more out there that we had not tapped and we needed a vehicle to tap into them.

So was born …

… Charter School Growth Fund’s Emerging CMO Fund.

Now, had the Charter School Growth Fund followed Howard’s advice more proactively, surely many of the problems that later emerged could have been avoided. Full stop. But to the Charter School Growth Fund’s credit, it demonstrated a real ability to course-correct. Look at the fund’s portfolio today and you see it populated by a large number of organizations led by people of color (as this slice from E-G in the alphabet attests) …

It’s an ability to course-correct that was demonstrated within many other organizations supported by the Fisher Fund, such as KIPP’s discovery that its graduates’ success rates in college weren’t good enough and required that something new and different be done. As KIPP CEO Richard Barth said in 2016:

It was around 2010-2011 when are our alums were getting old enough where we were actually seeing what’s playing out with all these young people first in their family.  They work so hard through high school.  They go to college and then we discovered that getting to college is not the same thing as getting through college, and it was a big wake-up call.  We had to step back and say what’s going on?  What are we not doing that we should be doing and how are we going to course-correct?

One of the proudest moments for me personally is that the organization collectively across the country – our board – decided that we were going to share this learning with the world and not keep it to ourselves.

In so doing, KIPP sparked a new discussion across the entire country.

The Fisher Fund’s ability to course-correct showed itself again and again, whether that was realizing that it needed to change the way it invested in state associations to emphasize the importance of building advocacy strength …

… or whether it was helping found a whole new organization to re-anchor the whole movement to the importance of innovation …

… perhaps as important as any other trait that the Fisher Fund brought to its work was the ability to recognize shortcomings and to move quickly to adjust.

Being Willing to Pay the Price to Help Advance the Work

This section I will not belabor. I do so out of respect for the Fishers themselves who have told me on various occasions to not to highlight this aspect of their contribution because they believe that any undue attention on themselves detracts from the more valuable personal contributions that are coming from so many others in our movement.

And all that is true.

But it is also true that, as the Fishers’ philanthropy grew to have massive positive impact pushing our entire public education system to change, protectors of the status quo were ruthless in their vilification of the Fishers. Those protectors did it, I believe, not because they thought they could change the Fishers’ level of commitment to the work, but because they thought that their vilification would dissuade other potential funders from joining the effort.

And there’s a reason that protectors of the status quo vilify.

It’s because it works.

It does scare away others who are less focused and less committed.

But it doesn’t scare away folk like the Fishers.

And we shouldn’t ever forget that.

I’ll leave it at that.

The Responsibility that Has Been Handed to Us

I finish re-emphasizing what I highlighted in the introduction: the Fisher Family isn’t ending their support of charter schools and the quest for improved public education for all. They are still supporting our work generously via other mechanisms. But the Fisher Fund’s sunsetting is a major milestone and should have us focused on many learnings that have emerged over its many years of work.

I’ll close focusing on three.

First, for philanthropists who are considering joining the space, or for existing philanthropists who would like to see the impact of their philanthropy grow, I would encourage all to look at the Fisher Fund as a proof point. Certainly the fund made some serious mistakes over its decades, but in the macro, the fund’s ability to make focused, committed big bets on CharterFolk, its ability to course correct, and its willingness to accept patently unfair vilification as an unavoidable part of the work should serve as an example for others with means ready to do the hard but essential work of helping to improve public education in our country.

Secondly, for those of us who want to help attract new funders to our space, we should think long and hard about what our over-arching narrative is. Here at CharterFolk I am a broken record about the fact that our lack of a compelling narrative hurts us in many domains, certainly with our advocacy efforts, but it hurts also our collective fundraising efforts. Ultimately, in my opinion, our philanthropy challenge is a narrative challenge. We owe it to the future funders of our movement to present a vision for how the continued growth and success of the charter school movement will allow our society to transcend the limits of its sadly unpublic public education system such that we finally prove able to provide the greatly improved learning opportunities our students deserve, especially those who need it most. In my view, if we are going to successfully recruit a new generation of funders to become CharterFolk beside us like the Fishers have been, we are going to have to be absolutely full-throated in our articulation of an overarching narrative that others up for the challenge want to be part of, including of course funders.

And finally, while I do believe that we will ultimately articulate the vision that we need to draw new funders to our work, I also know that the Fishers and others’ investments in our movement have gotten us to a place where we can do much more for ourselves from an advocacy perspective than we have ever been able to do before. And it is incumbent upon us that we do those things so that we can ask our new funders to direct their resources to the highest return activities, some of which are political. That means realizing and more deeply appreciating that, through funder support and through the efforts of countless thousands of people across the country who have come before us, we have a charter school movement that is on the cusp of serving four million students. And that heft, if everyone does their part, gives us the ability through membership dues and other contributions to protect ourselves in ways that, were it not for the Fishers’ and others’ support during our early decades, we would never be in the position that we are in today.

In that way, then, perhaps the best tribute we can offer to the Fishers and others who have generously supported our work over our first three decades is to turn to our next chapter fully embracing the responsibility that has now been rightly placed upon us all.