“It inspires me that 625,000 public school teachers have brought classroom dreams to life through our site. ”
—Charles Best, DonorsChoose Founder & CEO
It’s such a simple, wonderful idea – “to connect the public to public schools. We make it easy for anyone to help a teacher in need, moving us closer to a nation where students in every community have the tools and experiences they need for a great education.”
So many teachers that we personally know have benefitted from being able to post their projects, missions, visions on DonorsChoose and then ask for the supplies to make those classroom initiatives come to fruition. They have helped facilitate the funding of over 1,800,000 projects, they have over 85,000 schools participating and they have over 4,500,000 supporters.
We are so incredibly grateful that DonorsChoose founder & CEO, Charles Best, spent some time answering our questions…. and a special shout-out to Christopher Pearsall for facilitating… You are our heroes!
Charles, can you tell us about the beginnings of DonorsChoose?
I started DonorsChoose as a history teacher in the Bronx, where I saw first-hand that all schools are not created equal. Where I attended high school, we went on field trips, we had graphing calculators for trigonometry, we had the supplies to do just about any project.
But as a teacher, my colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on copy paper and pencils, and often we couldn’t get the resources that would excite our students about learning. We’d talk in the teachers’ lunchroom about books our students should read, a field trip we wanted to take them on, a microscope that would bring science to life. I figured there must be people out there who’d want to help teachers like us if they could see where their money was going.
Crowdfunding wasn’t even a word when we started DonorsChoose, and my students and I had no idea that it would become a new form of supporting people and projects!
Who helped get DonorsChoose off the ground?
I launched DonorsChoose in 2000 while I was still teaching, and my students helped get the organization off the ground. I’d sketched out a vision for the site on paper, and found a developer who was willing to build the first version of the site. My aunt and I anonymously funded the first few projects that my colleagues posted, and my students helped write thousands of letters to attract the first donors to the site.
Passionate about Teachers
“The work our teachers are doing… goes beyond imparting skills and knowledge;
they’re truly shaping our future leaders and citizens as individuals.”
— Charles Best
Founder of DonorsChoose
Making A Daily Difference
Can you tell us a little about how DonorsChoose works?
It’s really simple! Teachers come to DonorsChoose, write a short description of their students and their project idea, and shop for the specific resources they need. Our teacher volunteers vet every project, and then donors can give to the projects that inspire them. Unlike traditional crowdfunding sites, we fulfill every project funded on our site, meaning we’ll buy the resources teachers requested and ship them to their school. Donors also hear directly from the teachers and students they’ve supported.
Since the early days, when we were just open to New York City teachers, we’ve expanded to serve all public schools in the United States. Eighty-five percent of public schools in the country have a teacher who has created a project on DonorsChoose, and donors have given over $1 billion to teacher requests on our site.
What do you personally spend most of your time doing for DonorsChoose?
As CEO, I touch a little bit of everything, but one area on which I spend some extra time is building relationships with corporations and foundations that support our teachers and students. Most crowdfunding sites are good ways to collect funding from people within the project creator’s personal network — friends, family, and perhaps a stranger now and then.
At DonorsChoose, 75 percent of the dollars given to the average project come from people and organizations who don’t personally know the teacher they’re helping. That’s so important if we want to meaningfully address education inequity; we can’t rely solely on teachers having wealthy personal networks to bring their projects to life. So our corporate and foundation partners give around half of our revenue every year, helping to fund projects directly or matching donations from citizen donors, for example.
Can you give us an example of the way you’ve seen the work DonorsChoose does make a difference?
We’ve been working on ways to support both teachers of color and students of all identities; for example, getting students and teachers access to books with diverse characters and authors, or crayons that reflect a full spectrum of skin colors. Over the summer, when racial justice issues were at the forefront of our national conversations, the most requested books on our site were all by authors of color or had main characters of color. That’s just one testament to the work our teachers are doing that goes beyond imparting skills and knowledge; they’re truly shaping our future leaders and citizens as individuals.
Looking to the Future
How has DonorsChoose improved or evolved over time?
We’re always evolving, and we look to our teachers to help guide those changes. For example, we heard that teachers in some communities were in need of personal items like hygiene products, food, coats, and other clothing for students struggling with poverty and homelessness. In response, we created a new project category called Food, Warmth, and Care to help teachers get these items. We’ve expanded into other areas like teacher professional development, social emotional learning, and mental health.
COVID-19 has also been a driver of innovation on our team, as we’ve adapted to make sure teachers are still able to access the resources they need most during such a challenging time.
What are your goals in terms of DonorsChoose for the next 5 years?
We’re always working hard to bring more dollars to classrooms in support of more teachers. This school year, we’ll hope to bring over $125 million to classrooms, and we hope to top that next year.
Right now, we’ve been focused on supporting the unique needs teachers have during the COVID-19 pandemic. We’ve added some more flexibility into our process to enable teachers to receive items at home if their schools are closed — all while maintaining the security and transparency our donors value. Teachers also have new needs right now, from hand sanitizer to web cameras, and we’re working hard to get these items for teachers amidst the global supply shortage of many of these items.
Looking beyond the pandemic, we want to do more to advance racial equity in the classroom. From day one, we’ve been focused on reaching classrooms with the greatest economic need: to date, 77 percent of funded projects are from schools where more than half of students come from low-income households. But we can more explicitly address racial inequity, and we look forward to doing so through a program we launched called #ISeeMe, which is a hint of what’s to come.
“Students love to imagine, explore, build, and create. As a teacher, we create opportunities for them to bring their imaginations to life.”
— Ms. Semana, Grades preK-2, Koala Hawaii, DonorsChoose website
You Can Help Make a Difference
What are some areas of opportunity for your organization? How can readers get involved?
It’s as simple as coming to our site and exploring! Whether you care about your hometown, or a favorite subject, or you have a hobby like gardening or knitting, there’s a project for every interest on our site. By investing in youth and education, you can create an impact in any number of issues like climate change and the environment, social justice, literacy, mental health, healthcare, the arts, and more.
Is there anything that you wish more people knew about DonorsChoose?
Most people don’t realize that teachers spend an average of $500 every year on school supplies — and for many, it’s so much more! That’s a lot when you consider that many teachers also have to work a second job just to make ends meet. On DonorsChoose, it doesn’t take a lot to make a big difference for a teacher and their students, and our teachers are wonderful about expressing their appreciation.
Charles, you must be so busy… how do you unwind or relax?
The pandemic has given me a lot more time to spend with our kids and the extended family in our “bubble”, and I’ve also gotten to do more work in my garden, which is always energizing.
Pie, Cake, or Ice cream?
There’s no question that parents are spending more and more time with their kids these days. Parents who are working from home and spending more time with their young children might be wondering what sorts of activities including a solid reading resource they can give their kids.
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By JEAN TREBEK
Jean is a Professional Religious Science Practitioner, Reiki Master and Sound Healer. She grew up on Long Island, NY, and now lives in Los Angeles. She has two wonderful adult children, Matthew and Emily, with her beloved late husband, Alex. Jean enjoys taking long walks, watching movies, and traveling. She is very grateful for her family, friends, Luna (the dog) and good coffee.
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