Question: Why did you leave teaching to start DonorsChoose.org?
Charles Best: During my first year of teaching, I noticed that my colleagues and I were always having the same conversation in the teachers lunchroom about books that we wanted our students to read, we would talk about feel trip that we knew what really excite our students about the subject matter, we would talk about art project we wanted to do, if only we had certain arts supplies. Most of us would going to your pockets to buy copy paper and pencils, but all that really great ideas that we came up with for projects that would bring learning to life, never went beyond the teachers lunchroom, because we didn’t have any access to funding and at the same time that my colleagues and I where griping about that state affairs, I figured there were a lot of people who wanted to help and prove our public schools, but they were just getting skeptical about writing a $100 check to a big institution and not really knowing how their money was spent.So, I figured if we could match up teachers like us, who had these great ideas, for exactly the resources that their students most needed, along with donors who can come from all walks of life, and maybe somebody would only have $10 to give, but they would have a chance to really be a philanthropist and choose a project that spoke to them and see where there money was going. So it was in the teachers lunchroom that the idea came.
DonorsChoose.org is a website, where public school teachers can post classroom projects that need funding, it could be $200 classroom library, it could be $1000 field trip, it could be $400 set of butterfly cocoons and then donors can come to the website and choose the classroom project that they want to support, knowing that not only are they going to see exactly where their money's going, but they are going to hear back from the classroom, that they choose to help in the form of photographs and thank you letters.
Topic: Getting it off the ground.
Charles Best: Well I had the idea for DonorsChoose.org and my mom made desert for my colleagues, and I put this dessert in the teachers lunchroom, and I told my colleagues who ever eats this dessert has to go to this newly created website and ask for whatever it is most want for your students right now, and eleven of colleagues, ate my mom’s dessert, and they went on to the website and they submitted the first eleven projects to DonorsChoose.org and the health teacher, she wanted baby think it over dolls, which are life size, light weight dolls that cry 3 in the morning and show a teenager what it would like if they had a kid, and art teacher she wanted to do a quilt-making project, and I could see right there, that if you take this kind of open source approach, and enable people on the frontlines to come up with microsolutions, for the very people they serve, they are going to come up with smarter ideas than any kind of top-down program. We are still trying to figure out what compels donors to pick certain projects on our website. I was talking to a donor just the other day, who I was really interested in saving the salmon in specific Northwest and you'd never think there would be any project on DonorsChoose.org matching that area of interest, but he typed in keywords "salmon" and up came five projects on DonorChoose.org having to do with Samoan. The top one was from teacher of an island of Alaska who said that all of her students where native of Alaskans, and that she was 45 minutes away from the nearest store by airplane and that her native Alaskans students had recorded folk tales and written recipes and written stories about salmon, and her students needed to print their work in color, and for that they needed to color printer, that was a request on her site, and there was a second project from an Oregon teacher, a high school teacher who had created a salmon hatchery and he needed waders for his students to maintain that hatchery and here was a person who was coming to our site, saying that they wanted to find out about salmon projects and they are actually were results for that. That gives you an example of the long tail, of match-ups happening at our site. There are lot of parents of autistic kids who come to our site and they search for projects for autistic students. We know there are some donors who want to fund in their own hometown, a lot of our donors want to contribute, where the need is greatest. They want to support students who come from low-income communities. We are still struggling to figure out, what is going on in donors minds when they pick certain projects, some donors come because maybe a relative has died and they want to support a project that honors their relative, you know, maybe their relative was a painter and so they want fund a painting project, that really kind of fascinating seeing the match-ups and we’re trying to just figure out what the dynamics are.
Question: How much money have you raised?
Charles Best: People in all 50 states, we call a donors citizens philanthropist, because they come from all walks of life, and with $10 they can really be philanthropist and also they have given more than 20 million dollars to classroom projects at DonorChoose.org. They brought a life 44,000 classroom projects that have benefited million students from low income families and so to think that this website that my colleagues helped to get off the ground and my students helped to get off the ground that 7 years later that, we have delivered materials on experiences to a million kids. So, its really cool feeling.
We are starting the claim in terms of all impact on the whole picture. A million students is an actual percentage of all of the public school students in this country, but its certainly not the majority and we have a really long way to go, we won’t feel satisfied until we are driving a 100 million dollars a year through our website, because so many teachers are still going into their own pockets to by basic materials and so many classroom ideas are going unrealized, because teachers don’t a have way to innovate, don’t have to wait get funding for the project that we are really bring learning to life. So, even now I think we would probably still describe ourselves as just as starting the scratch surface of the problem.
To get DonorsChoose.org to scale, we first need to increase the viral appeal of our website. To give you an example right now all of the project proposals on DonorsChoose.org are entirely written, it’s all text, we want to have photographs of the classroom viewable for the donor and we just launched photo uploading technology. We want to extend that by digitizing the feedback that the donors receive from each classroom the thank you letters and the photographs that they would receive ought to be sharable via the web and that’s just sort of one slice of how we could make DonorsChoose.org much more viral beast than it already is. We need to make some improvements to our operations, we do a lot of work to ensure the integrity of our selling traffic market place, we validate each project before posting it, we fulfill the project, purchase some materials having shift to the classroom, rather than giving the teachers direct cash, we process these thank you letters with photographs and all of that work wants to be really labor intensive and threatens to make DonorsChoose.org un-scaleable because we spend all this time on each project, but by using technology we have managed to automate and streamline a lot of that work and enable a really small team, really small operations team, to fulfill tens of thousands of classroom projects.
Recorded on: 1/29/08