VetFamily: Ken Fisher, Fisher House

Ken Fisher

For Ken Fisher, the extensive military family housing project that bears his name is more than a "thank you for your service." It's run like a business, and is a model for military and veteran philanthropy for the 21st Century.

"'Thank you for your service' is no longer enough,'" he told Veterans Advantage in an exclusive interview. "While we have become better as a nation in supporting them, they are owed a heck of a lot more than a thank you, especially if they are wounded," said Fisher, chairman of the Fisher House Charitable Foundation, and the son of a Korean War veteran.

Fisher's vision reflects a family commitment to thank the troops in significant and tangible ways, and a personal resolution not to allow a repeat of what previous generations of Vets have suffered.

"It was really growing up with a televised war (Vietnam) and what happened when they came home that shaped my thinking," he said, recalling how, as a youngster, he was struck by the lack of appreciation given to those returning from Vietnam and Korea.

"My father never really spoke much about his service - which is typical of Vets of that era - they are the forgotten generation of Vets - Korea (Dad) and ‘Nam," he added.

Now in its 20th year, Fisher House is a "home away from home" for those visiting an injured loved one. Protecting families from the crushing costs associated with visiting a service member who is receiving vital – and often lifesaving – treatment from service injuries, Fisher House makes sure our wounded and their families are not forgotten. It was the brainchild of his uncle Zachary Fisher, a prominent figure in New York real estate and a major benefactor for the men and women in the United States Armed Forces. Zachary Fisher was also the driving force to refurbish the USS Intrepid and transform it into the Sea-Air & Space Museum on the Hudson River in New York City, and the subsequent founding of the Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund, where Ken's father Arnold serves as honorary chairman.

Today, there are 43 Fisher Houses located on 18 military installations and 13 VA medical centers, ranging in size from 5,000 to 16,000 square feet.

The Fisher House Foundation is currently pursuing an aggressive growth strategy, with seven new houses under construction, and another 8-9 scheduled to break ground this summer.

One of those groundbreakings represents an important new initiative for Ken Fisher: Assisting in the repatriation of remains of those fallen in action. Soon the first house dedicated to surviving families will be commemorated, located near the mortuary at Dover Air Force Base.

"We are obviously going to fast track that one because the need is there," he said.

Further, and in conjunction with the "Intrepid Fallen Heroes Fund," there will be a large Fisher presence at the "National Intrepid Center for Excellence" at Bethesda, MD, dedicated to the treatment of TBI and PTSD and scheduled to open in mid-2010. The Foundation plans on building a 20-room Fisher House to support families visiting patients there, much as they did in San Antonio, where the two foundations joined forces for the "Center for the Intrepid" physical rehabilitation facility, opened in 2007. Combined, the San Antonio center and Fisher House was made possible by about $55 million raised by the two foundations, and the Bethesda projects are expected to be similar in scale.

Meeting construction goals requires ambition, persistence, hard work and an obsession with running a tight ship. As such, Ken Fisher brings strong views on how to run a successful charitable foundation. Run them like they are public for-profit companies, he says, and that means maximizing profits for maximum re-investment back into the core mission of charitable giving.

"I do bring a private sector mindset to running the foundation. 97 cents on the dollar goes to the program," he said, calling both donors and recipients "shareholders" who deserve updates on results. "We have learned how to run this foundation in a very streamlined fashion, and people sometimes do the work of two."

"People do not donate to me, so I can hire somebody else. They donate to me so they can see something tangible," he adds.
A key benchmark for Fisher remains the American Institute for Philanthropy's study which gave Fisher House its highest rating among Veteran and Military organizations. For Fisher, this rating demonstrates that Fisher House's activities produce tangible results in supporting those who serve. Some highlights include:

Providing 3.5 million nights of lodging, to 120,000 families. The Foundation estimates it has saved families over $105 million in travel, lodging, and other related expenses.

Its HeroMiles program, where travelers can donate frequent flier miles, so military families can travel for free. To date, the program has purchased an estimated 17,000 tickets.

Providing scholarships for children, and, through the help of another widely regarded charitable company, Newman's Own, issuing grants to smaller organizations that require assistance to generate their own support dollars.
"The program is now becoming part of the American consciousness," he said. "It's slowly but surely starting to gain a lot of momentum."

The private sector mindset that Fisher adheres to includes a focus on the family's core business in real estate, "without which there would be no philanthropy." He is busy with that by day, as he is with the foundation.

"It's a simple equation," he notes. "Fisher Brothers, which is our business, comes first. Because without Fisher Brothers, there is no philanthropy."

The legacy of the family business and its sense of purpose and charitable activities, is Fisher's primary professional focus.
"This is my passion. This is what my life has been," he says. "All I want to do is more."

Outside the office, family is number one with Fisher. Married and the proud father of three, spending time with them is his favorite activity.

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