When Charles Best was a young high school history teacher in the Bronx, New York, he found himself and his fellow teachers having conversations in the lunchroom about what they’d love to do with their students – if they had the resources to do them.
Best came up with an idea to seek what he calls “citizen philanthropists.” He enlisted his students to write letters to members of his Yale alumni association, soliciting donations for school projects that the donors would have the ability to select and track. The response was large enough to tell him he was onto something.
Best’s brainchild became DonorsChoose, an online charity where individuals can connect with classrooms in need. The first website, back in 2000, reached only teachers at Best’s school.
“One of the secrets of the early days was he ended up funding some of the projects himself so the teachers would feel it was successful,” said Zach Walker, the charity’s Donor Relations Manager. “We still use that philosophy, in terms of it’s a really great way to spread the word. When a teacher gets funded we email other teachers from that school to let them know teachers are having success with it.”
The enterprise soon expanded to other schools in the Bronx, then the whole city of New York. With seed money from corporate donors and wealthy philanthropists, the organization was able to expand its reach in 2007 to every public school in the country.
Since then, DonorsChoose.org has funded over 205,000 classroom projects that have impacted over 5 million children, thanks to the help of over half a million citizen philanthropists.
Sabrina Adler teaches fourth grade at Knollwood Elementary school in Decatur, Georgia, where the majority of students qualify for free or reduced cost lunches. Adler has had eight grants funded by DonorsChoose in the last couple of years.
“I’ve gotten telescopes. I just got a set of encyclopedias. I’ve gotten Scrabble games for an after school Scrabble club I created,” Adler says. “I got books on tape and chapter books to go with them. Last Christmas, I got activity books for the children to do over winter break. I have a whole library in my classroom.”
Adler is now working on a “Friends and Family” matching grant proposal for a project she calls “Music is the Soul of Language” — a field trip for her students to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra’s spring children’s concert.
Once her proposal is on the DonorsChoose website, Adler will supply potential donors with a code they can use to make sure their donations will be matched from an available pool of $250,000. She can also connect them to her DonorsChoose teacher page through LinkedIn, Twitter and Facebook.
Then, after her field trip takes place, Adler will send a “thank you package” to DonorsChoose containing photos of the project, a thank you letter from her, and a cost report showing how each dollar was spent. Donors who gave over $50 will also receive handwritten thank you letters from the students. The charity is big on accountability.
DonorsChoose has other innovative ways to raise donations and tap into matching funds. One is gift cards. In Los Angeles, the Wasserman Foundation has pledged $4 million to help fund projects in the Los Angeles Unified School District by distributing prepaid $15 gift cards to every student and employee in the system. Recipients can go to the DonorsChoose website and apply their $15 gifts to the project of their choice.
Retailers like Starbucks, Land’s End and Crate and Barrel have found that giving customers gift cards to apply to school projects fosters brand loyalty and increases sales.
DonorsChoose cards can also be purchased like any other retail gift card. Instead of redeeming them for merchandise, recipients can go the site and choose a project to fund using filters that specify location, subject, urgency, age, teacher and school.
The “Double Your Impact” program invites corporations and foundations to donate at least $10,000 to fund 50% of selected school projects. The projects are then listed on the site as half funded, with donor company logos appearing on the project pages. The match is not applied until the remaining half of the cost is fully funded by individuals.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation partnered with DonorsChoose through a “Double Your Impact” offer to deliver $4.1 million to public school classrooms.
DonorsChoose also has an “Almost Home” program that Walker calls an “offer on steroids.” Under that program, the donor company provides a hefty contribution — 90% of the funding for a project, bringing the remaining cost to under $100. The project doesn’t get funded, though, until the rest of the money is raised.
“We’ve seen every offer that drops to $100 or less will almost always get funded by citizen donors,” Walker said.
The DonorsChoose website is deep and wide. Explanations and examples are provided for both teachers and donors. The charity also gives tips on how to word proposals to inspire maximum interest.
American Idol star Adam Lambert has engaged his fans in multiple DonorsChoose campaigns for art and music projects, raising half a million dollars. Comedian Stephen Colbert, a member of the charity’s board of directors, challenged his viewers to fund classroom projects for schools serving military families. More than $167,000 was raised.
“It’s such a simple wonderful idea,” Colbert says in a video posted on the DonorsChoose website. “It connects individual donors with individual classrooms and individual teachers and individual projects. You know exactly who you’re helping and how you’re helping them.”
“This is exactly the kind of social innovation we should be encouraging across this country,” First Lady Michelle Obama says in the same video. “Let’s not underestimate the power each of us has to change the world for someone.”