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Straight Up Conversation: DonorsChoose.org CEO Charles Best

Charles Best leads DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit website on which teachers can post their specific classroom needs and receive crowdfunding. Starting in 1998, Charles spent five years teaching history in a high school in the Bronx. Noticing that limited classroom resources were available to his students was what moved him to launch DonorsChoose.org. To date, teachers at more than 80 percent of all the public schools in America have used DonorsChoose.org, and more than 3 million people have contributed. I recently talked with Charles about DonorsChoose.org and the role of philanthropy in education.

Rick Hess: So Charles, what exactly is DonorsChoose.org?

Charles Best: DonorsChoose.org is a simple, vivid, and personal way for anyone to help a classroom in need. Teachers from all over the country create classroom project requests—for a field trip, a classroom library, a pair of microscopes—and then donors choose the projects they want to support. To date, those 3 million donors have contributed $760 million to fund 1.2 million classroom projects created by 470,000 teachers at public and public charter schools, overwhelmingly in low-income communities.

RH: What prompted you to start it?

CB: During my first year of teaching, my colleagues and I—like so many other teachers—were spending a lot of our own money on school supplies for our students. Then we'd talk in the teachers' lunchroom about novels we'd assign to our students, a field trip we'd take them on, a science experiment we'd do ... if we had the funding. I figured there were people out there who'd help teachers like us, if they could see where their money was going and hear back from the classroom they chose to help. So using pencil and paper—because I was not a techie—I sketched out a website public school teachers could use to create classroom project requests, and donors could choose projects they wanted to support. A programmer who'd recently emigrated from Poland to N.Y.C. was able to turn my pencil-and-paper drawings into a rudimentary website, and my students volunteered after school to help get the site off the ground. We were off!

RH: Can you explain a bit more about the mechanics of how this all works?

CB: A teacher does not need any experience with grant writing to use DonorsChoose.org. They just need to explain, in plainspeak, what resource they want for their students, and how it will help them learn. We vet and authenticate the teacher's project before posting it to the public site. About 20 percent of project requests are returned to the draft stage with follow-up questions for the teacher. When a project is funded, we do not send cash to the teacher. Instead, we purchase the materials and have them shipped to the classroom—or in the case of a field trip, we pay the bus company, the museum, or some other provider. We also alert the school's principal and other registered teachers at that school in advance of every shipment via fax and email, so they know when to expect the materials. Finally, after materials arrive, teachers report on how those materials are being used in their classroom, and students write thank-you notes to their donors!

RH: Seems like this involves a slew of moving parts. What are the biggest challenges to making this work?

CB: It's a lot of moving parts! This school year alone, teachers will create over 300,000 classroom project requests, each of which has to be carefully vetted and authenticated. To make that work scalable, we've turned to some of our best teacher users. About 200 of them have volunteered to receive extensive training in how to screen project requests, which they now do at incredible scale. More than 200,000 of those projects will be funded. To make fulfillment of those projects scalable, we developed an electronic procurement system in which teachers specify the exact items they need, and DonorsChoose.org staff purchase those items with great efficiency. That's the same system which enables us to track how every dollar is spent and provide total accountability to donors and school district administrators. From the very beginning, when we were operating out of my classroom in the Bronx, we've had that high-touch, labor-intensive model for ensuring end-to-end integrity. What's changed is that we've found ways to make that work scalable—by crowdsourcing some labor to our best teacher users and by using technology to automate a lot of other labor.

RH: Speaking of trends, what changes have you seen with respect to what teachers are requesting? What are the constants?

CB: Books and basic supplies—pencils, paper, glue sticks—have always made up a majority of the projects on our site, but we've also seen interesting changes over time. Over the past two years, we've seen a huge surge in flexible-seating requests; these are things like bean bags, high-top tables, swivel stools, and standing desks that allow students to move around and be comfortable while they're learning. These requests have become so popular that Lakeshore Learning, one of our vendor partners, created their own line of flexible-seating products based on the projects they saw on our site. We've also seen a lot of interesting projects spring up around healthy eating and sustainability. These are often projects where students learn to grow their own produce in a school garden and then prepare it as a meal for their families. From a technology standpoint, tablets have become more popular with younger grades, while laptops have become more popular in the higher grades. And while digital cameras used to be one of our most popularly requested items, the ubiquity of cellphones and tablets have almost made stand-alone digital cameras obsolete.

RH: This all sounds cool, but how do you gauge the impact these efforts have had on participating teachers, students, or communities?

CB: Every teacher who has a funded project is asked to upload six photos of the resources in use, alongside a letter to donors describing the impact of the project on student learning. Those photos and impact letters form the baseline of how we share with donors the impact of their classroom support. I like to think of DonorsChoose.org as a platform, not a prescription. We trust the wisdom of the frontlines and ask teachers to develop their own micro-solutions that will help students learn. With every teacher posting such distinct projects, you can probably see that it would be hard for us to A/B test the effectiveness of DonorsChoose.org the way you could a one-size-fits-all curriculum or intervention. That said, we can point to any number of amazing ways DonorsChoose.org teachers are having an impact. One example is what we call an Innovation Challenge, when we put a call out to teachers to post projects addressing a particular educational question or topic, and then surface, celebrate, and propagate the most effective or inspiring ideas. The Dalio Foundation recently underwrote such a challenge in Connecticut, focused on teachers' ideas for combating student disengagement—for reducing chronic absenteeism and connecting with students at risk of dropping out. Five teachers with especially promising ideas, as backed by statewide research on strategies that work for this population, each won $10,000 in DonorsChoose.org funding for their schools, and right now, teachers across the state are adapting and replicating those best-in-class ideas for their own student populations.

RH: Do you worry at all that third-party donors are providing investments that districts themselves should be making? How do you guard against that?

CB: Fair question! When we surveyed our donors, 72 percent said they had never before made a donation to a public school, which means that giving to a project on DonorsChoose.org is often someone's first direct encounter with classroom needs in low-income communities. That experience is politically energizing: 60 percent of our donors said that they were more interested in systemic education reform after giving on our site. Far from letting government off the hook, we think DonorsChoose.org is casting sunlight on inequities in our public school system, in a uniquely vivid way. By engaging the public in our public schools, we contribute to the number of people who are fired up about improving the system itself. And to help improve that system, we've opened up all our data, so that school leaders and policymakers can hear what teachers are trying to tell us about the resources they most need, the instructional approaches that are most effective, and the issues they see emerging—broken down by city and grade level. In the end, though, we have a simple belief: Children should not go without books, art supplies, and science equipment so as to prove a point about the insufficiency of school system funding.

RH: Wait, you've opened up all your data? That's fascinating. What can that data tell us?

CB: With half a million teachers at 80 percent of all the public schools in America creating 1.7 million classroom project requests on our site, and 1.2 million of them having been funded, we've got statistical significance for a whole lot of queries! Not least because each of those 1.7 million projects contains a trove of data: the essay that the teacher wrote, which can be mined for keywords or recurring themes; all the NCES data about the school—free and reduced lunch rate, proportion of students from military families; and of course, every item requested by the teacher, from each book title and ISBN number, to the name of the museum where students are going on their field trip, and so forth. It's all available on our website. You might have to know how to do a regression analysis, which rules me out, but you don't have to be a programmer to access the data and answer questions such as: What books do middle school teachers in rural, low-income communities think are most effective? What technology hardware is most needed in Louisiana high school classrooms? How do the resource needs of classrooms in public charter schools differ from those in district-run public schools? We dream of helping government education spending to become better targeted and more responsive to needs identified by those on the frontlines.

RH: And how do you fund this vision?

CB: When someone gives to a classroom project, we encourage them—but we don't require them—to allocate 15 percent of their donation to support our organization. It's one-click easy to avoid that allocation, but more than 80 percent of our donors keep it included—and the income thus generated pays all our bills. All the details are on our website.

RH: How does this overhead compare with other prominent charities?

CB: That 15 percent optional allocation covers a lot of what an auditor would call "program," rather than "overhead," expenses: outreach to teachers in rural communities, matching donations to a teacher's first project on our site, giving DonorsChoose.org funding credits to teachers who accomplish specific objectives—for example, students acquiring computer science proficiency. Our independent audit puts our general and administrative expenses at 1 percent, and our fundraising expenses at 4 percent, for a total overhead of 5 percent. That level of efficiency makes DonorsChoose.org one of a small number of nonprofits to have earned Charity Navigator's 4-star rating for more than 10 years in a row!

RH: DonorsChoose.org has been around for quite a while, since well before crowdfunding was even a word. More recently, a lot of commercial crowdfunding sites have apparently seen the dollars involved and started targeting the K-12 space. How has that changed things for you all? And how do you all differentiate yourselves from ventures like GoFundMe?

CB: We have seen a jump in the number of for-profit crowdfunding sites increasingly marketing to educators. Over the last 18 years, DonorsChoose.org has established ourselves as the trusted source for crowdfunding in the K-12 public education space. Unlike most crowdfunding platforms that simply facilitate cash passing from one person to another, we ship materials directly to schools. We also provide clarity and transparency at every step of the process, from the moment a teacher's project is posted to the site to when donors receive their thank-you letters. In addition to our operational integrity, DonorsChoose.org helps teachers fundraise from outside their communities. Though most crowdfunding platforms only allow you to raise funds from your own network, 75 percent of donation dollars to classroom projects on our site aren't connected to that teacher, school, or community. We work hard to bring citizen donors and corporate partners to the table to support teachers they've never met.

RH: I've heard that all this activity has drawn the attention of some school boards and superintendents, and that they're starting to restrict the use of crowdfunding—or simply prohibit it. Can you talk a bit about what's happening and what you make of it?

CB: Because many for-profit crowdfunding sites just deposit cash in someone's bank account, teachers and districts may be placed in situations that can be a cause for concern. To mitigate risk, some districts have begun to treat all crowdfunding sites the same, prohibiting DonorsChoose.org alongside the other problematic sites. We're working to help district leaders understand that we offer the transparency, data reporting, and safety compliance that allow their teachers to crowdfund the right way, and they're often excited to learn that there is a safe alternative.

RH: While I get the desire to minimize risk, I can't help but wonder: Aren't there less Draconian ways to address concerns?

CB: We want to set districts up for success in how their educators use DonorsChoose.org. So, district leaders can now utilize resources we've developed just for them. We offer automated reports for district leaders and principals to have line of sight into materials being requested and shipped to their schools. Additionally, districts can now share their technology guidelines to ensure their teachers request compatible devices. All of these resources are available online.

RH: Final thought: There's a lot of talk nowadays, appropriately enough, about teacher professionalism. What role, if any, do you see DonorsChoose.org playing in those efforts?

CB: I think there are two roles we can play in celebrating and cultivating teachers as the professionals they are. The first is that we are providing a window into America's classrooms. Teachers who create DonorsChoose.org projects are sharing with the public their ideas for how to improve student learning, and in the process, they are showing people who might otherwise not interact with a local school how much innovation is happening there. The second way we're playing a role is new, so here's a sneak peek. After two pilots, we're permanently expanding to professional development projects. We'll now allow teachers to post projects requesting to go to conferences, to take online classes, to order instructional books. Knowing how much having a great teacher can impact a student's life, and recognizing that teachers who use DonorsChoose.org are going above and beyond for their students, I am incredibly inspired to think that this new type of project can help amazing teachers get even better as they further hone their craft in exactly the way their students need.

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