For people reaching out for philanthropic support, crowdfunding sites can be a great way to connect with first- and second-degree connections to reach a specific goal. Often, donors outside of one’s immediate network would be just as willing to give, but reaching them becomes more of a challenge. In this episode of Mastering Innovation on Sirius XM Channel 132, Business Radio Powered by The Wharton School, Charles Best, Founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org, describes how the nonprofit connects public school teachers to donors across the country, and how their model is structured to ensure integrity, accountability, and ultimately, more donations.
Although ideally schools would receive enough funding to provide all the necessary supplies for a classroom, many teachers, particularly in low-income areas, are left purchasing materials out-of-pocket. As a social studies teacher in the Bronx, Best imagined a website that could bring donors and classrooms together to provide supplies and experiences that would otherwise be unattainable. In 2000, with the help of his students, he created the first version of DonorsChoose.org. To date, the organization has funded over 1 million individual projects across the country. Best elaborates on the impact each donor has, their connection to the projects they’re sponsoring, and innovative, research-based strategies the nonprofit is using to encourage participation.
An excerpt of the interview is transcribed below. Listen to more episodes here.
Nicolaj Siggelkow: In some sense the teacher is your customer, but that raises the broader question: why do we need DonorsChoose.org? Funding should come from other sources to go into public schools. This tremendous need is a sad indication of the current state of education. Have you started working with school districts and one level up, or is it still mainly at the teacher level?
Charles Best: We are increasingly working with school district officials who realize that they can use DonorsChoose.org to help their teachers access funding from well beyond their network. This points to the second big difference between DonorsChoose.org and other crowdfunding sites: if the first difference is that we ensure integrity, accountability, and transparency by vetting and validating each project by fulfilling them, the second big difference between DonorsChoose and other crowdfunding sites is that we are not primarily a mechanism for someone to solicit their friends, family, and social network.
The vast majority of crowdfunding sites are great ways for you to hit up the people you already know, to reach out to your first and second degree connections on Facebook, LinkedIn, etc. and ask for help. That’s very different from what happens at DonorsChoose.org, where 75% of the dollars given to classroom projects come from donors who have never met the teacher they’re supporting. These are donors who we’ve built up over time and who love to support teachers, especially in high-need communities, based on a shared passion or affinity. It’s a donor coming to our site; searching for Shakespeare, gardening, yoga, knitting, or the city where they grew up; and discovering a classroom project request from a teacher they’ve never met.
25% of the donations given on our site are from teachers fundraising from their social networks and posting project requests on Facebook, but 75% is being discovered by people all over the country whom a teacher would never have access to otherwise. That’s true from the district perspective as well. 84% of the dollars given to classroom projects on our site come from donors who live outside the city or district whose classroom they are supporting.
To come back to your question about how it’s a shame teachers have to use DonorsChoose.org and how the system should better provide for them, in many respects the answer is yes. Many of the projects on our site are testament to our school system not providing all the materials that students need to learn. About half the projects on our site do request essential materials like paper, pencils, books, dictionaries, etc.
“One day, we would love to be put out of business when it comes to essential requests, and be able to focus exclusively on projects where the teacher is innovating.” – Charles Best
Another half of the project requests on our site go beyond what you might expect the school system to provide. It’s a teacher requesting butterfly cocoons, therapeutic horseback riding for disabled students, or taking their students on an incredible field trip. One day, we would love to be put out of business when it comes to essential requests, and be able to focus exclusively on projects where the teacher is innovating, going outside what you would expect the system to provide. However, we do believe that in the interim, we don’t think that children should go without books so that someone can prove a point about the insufficiency of school funding.
Siggelkow: Absolutely. Let’s talk a bit more about the donor side. You already gave us some information about where they’re coming from and that they’re not necessarily coming from social networks or the same geography. What’s the size distribution of donations?
Best: The average donation on our site is about $50. Three million people have given to classroom project requests on our site, and much of our work is focused on further tapping people’s spirits of generosity. As just one example, Professor Adam Alter at Stern Business School recently cited research showing that people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief if the first letter of the hurricane is the same first letter as their own name. We thought, what does that mean for DonorsChoose.org and our efforts to help donors give to even more classroom projects?
We thought, “Well, we’ve got 3 million donors, and we’ve got half a million teachers who’ve created projects on our site. They’ve got names, maybe we could match them up.” On Valentine’s Day, we ran a test where we came up with three different Valentine’s Day poems. One poem said, “Roses are red, violets are blue. Give to a teacher in a classroom near you.” We would then show a geo-targeted classroom project request close to where you were sitting. Another poem said, “Roses are red, violets are blue. Give to a teacher with the same name as you.” We would then show you a classroom project request from a teacher whose first name is Nicolaj. We found that name matching was more powerful than hyper local geo targeting, which is supposed to be the holy grail of personalization. You can get more personal and spark a stronger sense of connection by matching up teachers and donors based on a shared name.
Siggelkow: It’s that personal relationship, that you have (or feel you have) something shared. The average donation is $50, but once in a while you have big events happening on your site. One day you received a phone call and an email from Ripple that said, “We would like to fund everything that’s on your site.” Tell us a little bit about that day, and then tell me about the mayhem of fulfilling all of those project requests the next day.
“We found that name matching was more powerful than hyper local geo targeting, which is supposed to be the holy grail of personalization.” – Charles Best
Best: Mayhem is the right word to use. We had read in the news about the growth of Ripple as a company, and XRP as a cryptocurrency. We were especially fascinated by Ripple’s approach to blockchain technology. I realized I had met the CEO of Ripple, Brad Garlinghouse, and sent him a cold email that laid out a story of how a number of interesting people a couple years prior had stepped up to fund all the classroom project requests in their hometowns and cities. This included Serena Williams, who funded all the classroom project requests in Compton, where she grew up; Samuel L. Jackson, who funded all the classroom project requests in Chattanooga; and Elon Musk, who funded all the classroom project requests surrounding SpaceX and Tesla facilities. I told that story of the emergence of what we call a “best school day,” because we were able to announce all those gifts on one single day. As incredible as it was, it only covered half the country. Another half of the country was left on the sidelines because they didn’t have a hometown hero stepping up on that day to fund all the classroom projects.
I told that story in this email to the CEO of Ripple and said that if Ripple ever wanted to take the promise and the potential of “best school day” to its very apex, they could give $29 million to fund all 36,000 classroom project requests that were live on our site at that moment. I ended by saying “I know this is an absolutely absurd pitch that you probably cannot even consider, but I just know that a million students and teachers would want me to go for it,” because there were a million students and teachers behind those 36,000 classroom project requests. Brad and the founder of Ripple, Chris Larson, wrote back saying that they were open to a conversation. One thing led to another and to our own shock, it came to be.
To answer your question, it was a logistical feat unprecedented within our organization to, on one single day, bring to life 36,000 classroom project requests. We knew it was coming, that this ought to be our finest moment operationally, and that we owed it to Ripple to nail it in our execution. We planned weeks and weeks in advance. We timed when we would let our vendors know to stock up on their inventory, in exact quantities, and we were able to pull it off. Within two weeks, the vast majority of those 36,000 classroom projects were physically in the classroom.
About Our Guest
Charles Best leads DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit website which enables anyone to help a classroom in need. Charles launched the organization in 2000 at a Bronx public high school where he taught history for five years. To date, teachers at more than 80% of all the public schools in America have created classroom project requests on DonorsChoose.org, and more than 3 million people have given to those projects.
DonorsChoose.org is one of Oprah Winfrey’s “ultimate favorite things” and made the cover of Fast Company as one of the “50 Most Innovative Companies in the World,” the first time a charity has received such recognition.
Mastering Innovation is live on Thursdays at 4:00 p.m. ET. Listen to more episodes here.