Not many San Diegans have heard of Jay Kahn, a local entrepreneur and San Diego Foundation’s greatest benefactor.

In honor of the Day of the Dead, we decided to build an altar in our office to celebrate his life and the lives of other loved ones and colleagues who have passed away. I’d like to share a little about him and his impact on San Diego since he passed away nearly a year ago.

Jay Kahn was born on Feb. 23, 1932, in Benton Harbor, Michigan, to a recently immigrated German father and his American wife. He left Benton Harbor just out of high school after receiving a full scholarship to study clarinet at the University of Texas, Denton. Though he didn’t finish the program, classical music, specifically chamber music for winds, remained a lifelong passion of Jay’s and he played in several ensembles around San Diego, including orchestras at both UC San Diego and the University of San Diego.

Jay built his wealth through prudent investments. He befriended Sol Price and was an original investor in Price Club. His initial $25,000 investment became several million. When that happened, Jay retired. A later investment and purchase of $250,000 of Apple stock turned into $80 million. Jay hosted a weekly jam session at his Ocean Beach home for years where he and friends would gather to play chamber music, followed by drinks and dinner.

Jay was a risk taker who chose to be low profile in the San Diego community. He had regular dinners with friends and enjoyed discussing politics. He was a thinker who was progressive, open-minded and compassionate, though reclusive. Jay wanted his estate and legacy to be managed and used for the good of San Diego and believed that San Diego Foundation would achieve that goal and honor his wishes.

When he left his $110 million estate to San Diego Foundation earlier this year, it seemed like a dream. So many times, we as fundraisers often say “if I only had…” Now, San Diego Foundation — the largest community foundation serving our county — has the capacity and is in a position to do more than we ever could before.

Jay’s gift is the third-largest unrestricted gift — meaning there are no directives on using the funds — to a U.S. community foundation. It’s also the largest unrestricted cash gift to a San Diego nonprofit. We are beyond thankful for his love of San Diego and recognize our role as stewards of his legacy and estate.

Since receiving Jay’s gift, San Diego Foundation has built an endowment that will serve San Diego County for generations to come. With this funding, we can continue to innovate and support our region — forever.

The day we announced Jay’s gift, we had a joyful, surprise gift for 10 local music education nonprofits — A Reason to Survive (ARTS), Classics 4 Kids, David’s Harp Foundation, Guitars and Ukes in the Classroom, Heartbeat Music Academy, San Diego Symphony, San Diego Youth Symphony and Conservatory, San Diego Young Artists Music Academy, Voices of Our City and Young Lions Jazz Conservatory. Each organization received an unrestricted $150,000 grant to grow music appreciation in San Diego in memory of Jay.

With that funding, these 10 nonprofits have expanded their services to their clients, which include San Diegans experiencing homelessness, children and youth from historically under-resourced communities, youth with experiences in the criminal justice system, and young people aspiring to attend college, among others.

Jay’s gift also provided seed funding for the San Diego Housing Fund, which will invest in affordable housing developments throughout the county; supported the San Diego Foundation Strategic Plan and its vision for just, equitable and resilient communities; and created an internal innovations fund to conduct research on our region’s biggest challenges and explore the expansion of our existing programs.

Thanks to Jay and his legacy, we can dream bigger than ever before, and make that dream a reality for San Diegans so that all who call this region home can thrive, prosper and feel like they belong.

To learn more about Jay Kahn and his legacy, visit

This article originally appeared in The San Diego Union-Tribune.