By Hope Katz Gibbs
Photos by DonorsChoose.org
Educator Charles Best came up with a very big idea one day back in 1999 while eating lunch with his fellow high-school teachers in the Bronx.
“My colleagues and I were talking about books that we wanted the students to read, field trips we wanted to take them on, and art supplies that we needed—but we all knew these ideas wouldn’t go beyond the teacher lunchroom because of funding issues,” explains the founder of www.DonorsChoose.org, one of the nation’s first peer-to-peer philanthropic websites, which he created in the year that followed.
Best spent $2,000 to get the beta site up and running—and several platters of his mom’s famous roasted pears with orange-rind dessert to bribe his colleagues to post those projects they had only dreamed of.
The determined man, who grew up in Greenwich Village and graduated from Yale with a degree in History, was on a mission.
“I knew there were people from all walks of life around the country who would want to help improve our public schools,” says Best, now 36, and the father of two.
Eleven teachers posted projects, and Best—with help from his aunt, Phoebe Devenish—anonymously funded them. It didn’t take long for the word to spread to the other boroughs of New York City, and within weeks, dozens of teachers began posting everything from requests for a library cart and dry-erase boards to clever programs that teach desktop publishing, metamorphosis, and Western expansion.
Determined to get more donors involved, Best’s students got in on the action and helped him address 2,000 letters to potential funders. “We explained that with only $5, they could be a philanthropist,” notes Best, who was elated when $30,000 in donations came rolling in.
In the 12 years since, about 800,000 citizen philanthropists have risen to the occasion.
So far, they have donated $120 million to fund 240,000 classroom projects posted by more than 230,000 public school teachers.
The average project costs about $500 to fund, Best shares. Many projects cost as little as $150, but requests for bigger ticket items—such as playground equipment or trips to study abroad—can hit $30,000.
This simple, yet powerful crowdsourcing tool has caught the attention of some of nation’s most famous celebrities—including TV talk show hosts Oprah Winfrey and Stephen Colbert, Newsweek editor and author Jonathan Alter, actor Zac Efron, and Craigslist founder Craig Newmark—who are all on the board or vocal endorsers of DonorsChoose.org.
Even First Lady Michelle Obama gave a thumbs up to Best’s organization at TIME magazine’s “100 Most Influential People Awards” in 2009.
“Never before in history would the saying, ‘We’re all in this together,’ be more applicable than right now,” Obama said in her speech. “Through DonorsChoose.org, ordinary citizens directly fund projects initiated by public school teachers. An art class in the Bronx had no paintbrushes, and now every single student has a set. This is exactly the kind of social innovation that we should be encouraging across this country.”
Part of the charm of the website is that it is so simple to use—and therefore, to participate.
Donors scan the projects posted, and then click on the ones they want to fund and check out with a credit card. At the end of the transaction, donors also have the option to choose to support the overhead of the organization with an optional 15 percent allocation.
Best is proud to say that for several years, donors have generously funded all of the organization’s overhead—including payroll and rent for the offices in New York and San Francisco.
Transparency, and integrity, are critical to the organization’s continued success.
The How it Works page of the site clearly states: “We vet every request submitted by teachers, process donor transactions using the most secure and trusted technology available, and purchase classroom materials and ship items directly to the school—alerting the principal when the materials are on their way.”
Plus, donors who contribute $50 or more receive thank-you notes from students, photographs of the project, and a letter of appreciation from the teacher.
While keeping in close touch with the donors is important, Best believes the real magic of the micro-funding process is helping dedicated classroom teachers release their innovative ideas into the marketplace.
“Our nation’s teachers know their kids better than anyone else in the system,” Best insists.
“The projects they ask us to help fund aren’t wish lists of stuff that they want—but from horseback riding lessons for disabled student to cooking equipment for middle schoolers to teach them the real-life benefits of understanding math—these are creative ideas that will clearly benefit the students.”
This article was written for and originally printed in the August 2012 issue of Costco’s Costco Connection.
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