Founded in 2000 to serve students in Charles Best’s New York City classroom, DonorsChoose has expanded to serve schools in six states, connecting enterprising teachers and discerning donors in an online marketplace.
The New Idea
DonorsChoose allows U.S. citizens to directly fund projects initiated by enterprising public school teachers. Currently the average public school teacher spends $500 per year out-of-pocket to acquire basic classroom materials, such as rulers. Luxuries such as field trips and more creative educational projects remain out of reach for their students. Traditional philanthropy has not reached into most American classrooms. DonorsChoose is a web-based charitable marketplace where teachers post their needs and where donors can choose to invest in those that appeal to them. For example, a donor may give $250 for a microscope or $50 for colored pencils. By creating a way for private citizens to directly underwrite these materials and projects, DonorsChoose rewards teachers’ creative initiative and channels the goodwill of the public toward deserving projects. Impact is reported on the website almost immediately, and the donor receives a report from the teacher and students. DonorsChoose also opens up philanthropy to a wider audience, as donors have the option of funding all or only a fraction of a project. In addition, donors may choose to have 15 percent of their donations applied to cover DonorsChoose’s administrative costs. To date, approximately 90 percent of donors have chosen this option. Unlike the school system it is trying to improve, DonorsChoose has virtually no bureaucracy—it is entirely transparent.DonorsChoose is also effectively bridging the gap between the simple act of donation and raising awareness about the state of education today. Merely browsing the site is an eye-opening experience, revealing the truly stricken state of affairs in America’s public schools. Seventy percent of donors say it was their first donation to a public school; 20 percent of donors say that their experience with DonorsChoose raised their commitment to voting as a way to improve public policy. In addition to having the materials they need, teachers and students also benefit from this psychological boost. Three times more students “feel that others care about them” after the DonorsChoose experience. To date nearly 10,000 teachers have submitted over 20,000 proposals, funded by donations of $7 million.
The 90 percent of U.S. students attending public school often lack even basic educational supplies such as dictionaries, maps, and resources for class projects or field trips. Most people are unaware of this because truly committed teachers often spend their personal money to supplement the shortages. As a result, teachers in low-income communities often give up teaching within 5 years of their first classroom experience. Even enterprising teachers cannot continually underwrite these much needed educational expenses for their students.Private citizens have not intervened to solve this problem because they have no confidence that their funds will ever reach students in need. Schools are seen as the government’s problem to fix. The U.S. spends more money on public education than any other country. Despite this, layers of deeply entrenched and politically encumbered bureaucracy make it nearly impossible for worthy needs and projects to get funding in real time. Private citizens are donating millions to education, but almost 100 percent of this charity goes to colleges and universities, out-of-school programs, and educational social organizations—not schools. For those interested in reaching classrooms, bureaucratic and cultural hurdles make well meaning citizens feel powerless to make a difference in the situations of low-income students. It also punishes passionate teachers by forcing them to use their own salaries to create educational opportunities for their students. Worst of all, it re-enforces to students that their education is not a priority. All of these systemic breakdowns create a situation where donors and their potential beneficiaries are trapped in inaction and disempowerment.
Charles started DonorsChoose as a small website for him and other teachers in his New York City school to gain access to new resources to fund their classroom needs. In 2006 it served over 10,000 teachers in six states and scaled nationwide in 2007. The cornerstone of the strategy is the online charitable marketplace that facilitates transparent connections between donor and beneficiary, as well as a democratization of philanthropy. The entire system functions far more efficiently and effectively than any other giving outlet for schools. The proposals, donations, purchasing of materials, and reporting are all done within the online system and are therefore almost instantaneous. Enterprising teachers submit their proposals for materials and a donor selects the project that appeals to him or her and the donation is deposited into that teacher’s DonorsChoose account. Teachers then use those funds to purchase the materials from DonorsChoose’s vending partners—offering their products at bulk rates. Because the actual money never changes hands, the system can track and report every step of the process. This eliminates concern about how the money is spent. Once the projects are completed, teachers are required to submit a report on the outcome. The reports typically include pictures of the students using the materials as well as thank you notes to the donor. In the scaling phase, Charles is focusing DonorsChoose on the classroom application of its model. There is recognized potential for serving other public servants and their community programs (for example, police officers). There is also the option to make DonorsChoose’s core software available to other citizen sector organizations to replicate the DonorsChoose community model. These new directions will be considered as the organization strengthens. For now, building on recent media and corporate attention as well as institutional building grants, Charles is establishing 13 regional offices to support work in 50 states.
As a young man, Charles was influenced by his wrestling coach and teacher, who instilled in him integrity and determination, but also tremendous sensitivity to others. Charles’ deep sense of respect and admiration for others across social boundaries continued as he followed a high achieving path. He graduated from St. Paul's School in New Hampshire, where he was one of the rare white presidents of a minority student organization, and Phi Beta Kappa from Yale University. Charles combined his love of building and woodworking with service work and continuing education in Mexico and Central America. When he joined the ranks of “green” American public school teachers in their early twenties, he experienced the common steep learning curve as he navigated the limited resources and extensive bureaucracy of the school system. His creative solution to the problems he faced as a teacher is now poised to change the field of philanthropy. When Charles was a 25 year-old public school teacher in New York City’s poor Bronx borough, he created a website where he and other teachers could post their needs to be supported by the public. When teachers clamored for the resource, and the initial public response was strong, Charles knew he had something worth sharing.