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$100 million surprise gift from Jay Kahn to San Diego Foundation
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$100 million surprise gift from Jay Kahn to San Diego Foundation

For anyone who ever questioned whether there is any good left in the world, or if strangers still hold an ounce of concern for their neighbors’ well-being, Ocean Beach entrepreneur and investor Jay Kahn has delivered a remarkable answer.

The former clothing magnate donated $100 million to the San Diego Foundation; charity officials announced — a stunning gift without restriction from a donor who foundation executives concede they never even 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, the foundation president and chief executive officer. “

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 the news release announcing the donation.

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

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 both Apple and Price Club, the precursor to what is now Costco.

The fortune grew, and Kahn stepped away from his clothing business to focus on managing his investments.

Also a classical musician, Kahn played the clarinet in symphonies at both UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

Kahn moved to Ocean Beach in 1972, just a few years after its concrete pier was christened and when the quirky neighborhood was known as the Haight-Ashbury of San Diego.

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

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

Several weeks ago, the foundation invited those charities’ officials to a breakfast banquet in Encinitas on Thursday 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, the 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 initial $150,000 grants are relatively modest music- and arts-related nonprofit groups that serve young people, unhoused 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 funds also is earmarked for the foundation’s strategic initiatives fund, a pot of money designated to advance racial and social justice by promoting equity across the community, officials said.

But the majority of the funds remain undesignated, meaning foundation leaders have not yet determined how to invest the money.

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

The $100 million gift instantly lands Kahn on the list of largest donors in San Diego history.

The gift rivals those donated by well-known philanthropists like Joan and Irwin Jacobs, who have given hundreds of millions of dollars to UCSD, San Diego Symphony and the Salk Institute, 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 in recent years.

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

In addition to the tens of millions of dollars she directed to the San Diego Hospice, KPBS and the Kroc Center in Rolando, among many other organizations, Kroc gave $1.5 billion to the Salvation Army in 2004.

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