San Diego Foundation gets $100 million gift from late Ocean Beach entrepreneur — no strings attached

Hal Fuson, Brandon Steppe, Steph Johnson and Dana Zimbric stand in front of a portrait of late donor Jay Kahn.
Steph Johnson, founder of Voices of Our City Choir, wipes a tear as she and other arts nonprofit leaders, from left, San Diego Symphony board member Hal Fuson, David’s Harp Foundation founder Brandon Steppe and Classics 4 Kids artistic director and conductor Dana Zimbric react to receiving surprise $150,000 unrestricted grants.
(Hayne Palmour IV)

The Point Loma-based foundation gives 10 nonprofits initial grants of $150,000 each from Jay Kahn’s bequest.


Late Ocean Beach clothing magnate and investor Jay Kahn donated $100 million to the San Diego Foundation — a stunning gift without restriction from a donor whom foundation executives say they never cultivated.

“Jay Kahn was a compassionate man who loved San Diego and wished for his legacy and estate to be used for the good of San Diego,” said Mark Stuart, president and chief executive of the Point Loma-based foundation.

“We had no existing relationship with Jay until we learned that he believed the San Diego Foundation would achieve his goal and honor his wishes,” Stuart added in a statement announcing the donation.

Perhaps even more extraordinary than the nine-figure bequest is the lack of strings tied to it.

Kahn gave the money to the charity to do with whatever it sees fit, foundation officials said. The unrestricted donation was the largest gift of its kind ever bestowed to a San Diego charity, they said.

“We are humbled by this incredible generosity and we will honor Jay by continuing to inspire enduring philanthropy and enable community solutions to improve the quality of life in the San Diego region,” Stuart said.

Kahn initially built his fortune in the San Diego/Tijuana-area clothing industry, the foundation said.

He met success quickly and began steering his personal wealth into a portfolio that included early investments in Apple and Price Club, the precursor to Costco.

The fortune grew and Kahn stepped away from his clothing business to focus on managing his investments. Also a classical musician, he played clarinet in symphonies at UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

Kahn moved to Ocean Beach in 1972 and remained a resident there until he died last year at age 90.

“We are humbled by this incredible generosity and we will honor Jay by continuing to inspire enduring philanthropy and enable community solutions to improve the quality of life in the San Diego region.”

— Mark Stuart, president and CEO of San Diego Foundation

San Diego Foundation officials learned of the bequest several weeks ago and set about finding a way to honor their newest benefactor.

They identified 10 nonprofit groups to receive initial grants of $150,000 each.

Weeks ago, the foundation invited those charities’ officials to a breakfast banquet to be held in Encinitas on Feb. 2 but did not disclose any details. The recipients had no idea they were in line for donations until the announcement.

“I couldn’t speak; my eyes were filled with tears,” said Jess Baron, founder of Guitars and Ukes in the Classroom, one of the charities that received a grant to support its mission of training teachers to engage students through music.

“I looked to my left and I looked to my right,” Baron said. “There wasn’t a dry eye in the house. We were all crying.”

Most of the charities selected for the initial $150,000 grants are music- and arts-related groups that serve young people, homeless people and other vulnerable populations.

The foundation board also has identified housing and strategic planning as key objectives that will receive a slice of the Kahn donation.

More specifically, the foundation said some of the proceeds will be directed to the organization’s regional housing impact fund, which works to develop affordable housing for lower- and middle-income families.

Some of the bequest also is earmarked for the foundation’s strategic initiatives fund, which is designated to advance racial and social justice by promoting equity across the community, officials said.

But foundation leaders have not yet determined how to designate the majority of the money.

They did say they will establish the Jay Kahn Endowment Fund with more than $86 million to help ensure the donor’s legacy will grow and transform San Diego County for years to come.

The $100 million gift instantly landed Kahn on the list of the largest donors in local history.

The bequest rivals those donated by well-known philanthropists like Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to UC San Diego, San Diego Symphony and Salk Institute for Biological Studies, among many other local causes and organizations.

Darlene Shiley, Ernest Rady, Robert Price and Conrad Prebys also have directed tens of millions of dollars to San Diego-area charities.

But some of the highest-profile charitable contributions ever given locally came from McDonald’s heiress Joan Kroc, who donated billions in the final years of her life.


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