Nearly two decades in, Charles Best, a force for equity, is as generous as ever in his response to what teachers need.

INTERVIEW | by Victor Rivero

Teachers at more than 80 percent of U.S. public schools have created classroom project requests on DonorsChoose.org, and more than 3 million people have given to those projects. Charles Best leads the nonprofit website which enables anyone to help a classroom in need. He launched the organization in 2000 at a Bronx public high school where he taught history for five years. For EdTech Digest, Charles responds to questions about his organization’s origins nearly two decades ago when “crowdfunding” wasn’t even a word, and how supporting teachers is more relevant than ever these days.

What prompted you to start Donors Choose?

Charles: During my first year of teaching, I’ve taught for five years at a high school in The Bronx, taught history and English and a class called Virtual Enterprise which is a student-run simulated business. During my first year of teaching, my colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money, like teachers everywhere, on copy paper and pencils and other school supplies, and we would talk in the teacher’s lunch room about books we would want students to read and a field trip we wanted to take them on, and art supplies we needed for an art project.

What I wanted for my students was for them to read sections of Little House on the Prairie. The New York City Department of Education didn’t have a means for me to get each of my students physical copies of that book. It was when I was making photocopies of that section of Little House on the Prairie that I thought about all the resources my colleagues wanted for their students and just figured there were people out there who’d help teachers like us if they could see where their money was going.

That’s what prompted the idea.

Great book series and interesting TV show as well, back in the day.

Charles: I’m glad you know both, because I feel like people who are only familiar with the TV show might think I was just teaching a gaudy version of American history. But the books themselves are unsentimental.

What sets your organization apart from other crowdfunding platforms?

Charles: Three things come to mind. One, we’re a non-profit, 501c3. Secondly, we enable teachers to access funding from beyond their social network and beyond their state’s borders. In fact, 75% of all the dollars given to classroom project requests on our site come from people and partners who’ve never met the teacher they are supporting.

That makes Donors Choose a force for equity because, as a teacher, you can bring a classroom dream to life on Donors Choose, even if you do not have friends with money or student parents with money.

That would be the second, that force for equity by giving teachers access to funding outside their networks and outside their communities, that would be the second thing that distinguishes us from other crowdfunding sites.

Thirdly, all of the integrity controls that we have in place that we send materials to classrooms and do not deposit cash into teachers’ bank accounts, that we vet and authenticate each project, that we provide really vivid feedback to every donor so they can see and feel the impact that they’ve had. I guess if you were to just wrap that up in a couple words it would be the accountability and integrity that we provide, would be the third thing that makes us different.

As part of a panel speaking with educators at the Future of Education Technology Conference in January, I’ll be discussing technology tools for equity—your platform fits here; any words for the FETC audience about equity and edtech?

Charles Best:  That’s awesome that you’re going to be speaking to them, and thank you for even having us in the back of your mind. The other thing I would say is it’s precisely because we enable teachers to access funding from beyond their social networks that Donors Choose has become the magnet for teachers in low-income communities.

More than 75% of the projects funded on our site come from public schools where more than 50% of students qualify for free or reduced lunch.

I think people often don’t, I feel like there’s still legends of money that grows on the internet tree. Maybe people have caught wind of a particular crowdfunding campaign that Taylor Swift tweeted about, and then that person raised all this money from nooks and crannies of the world wide web.

But I think people don’t completely appreciate that most crowdfunding sites are really fundraising tools to hit up the people you already know, to reach out to your first and second-degree social network.

If you’re a teacher in an upper income community and your students’ parents have all the money that’s necessary to fund your needs, then those sites are actually very effective, streamlined ways to ask your friends and family and Facebook friends for money.

But if you’re a teacher at a low income community, and maybe you don’t have the funding all lined up, you need to find a community of, in our case, citizen philanthropists and corporate and foundation partners who love to support teachers that they’ve never met.

Great distinction. It’s another differentiator between your organization and some of the other opportunities, or platforms, out there.

Charles: It’s why I’m grateful you’re asking the question.

To be honest, it’s a little bit nuanced, this distinction between a fundraising tool versus a community of people where you as a teacher can be discovered and find funding that you’d never otherwise access. It’s a little bit crowdfunding inside baseball to even draw that distinction.

As I mentioned, I think a lot of people have fanciful notions of how money can rain down on your from the internet if you just put up a campaign. It’s been slow going for us, creating awareness around that vital distinction. Grateful that you’re asking about it.

It may have occurred to you 17 years ago when you started, that there’d be a flood of people saying, “Oh, me! I want money for my classroom!” How then, does a teacher rise up and get noticed, and not utterly buried under 10,000 similar requests?

Charles: Good question. I think right now there are more than 60,000 classroom project requests on our site, so you’re right to wonder about quality and about how projects bubble up.

The first thing we do is, when a teacher submits a classroom project request we vet and validate that project.

One of the core things we do is we read over the essay that the teacher has written, and we make sure that the teacher has explained the learning benefit that students will get if the resource is funded.

If the teacher submits a request to us simply saying “my current student laptop is decrepit and we need a new laptop because this is the 21st century,” that would not be posted.

We would send that request back to the teacher explaining to them that every request on Donors Choose has to involve an explicit, tangible student learning experience, that does in fact have to be a project, not simply a wish list.

In fact, we return 20% of the requests submitted to our site, 20% get returned to the draft stage with these follow up questions which ensure that every project on our site really is a project outlining a particular student benefit, a particular learning experience for which the resources are necessary.

Then we have a ranking algorithm which determines which project shows up at the top of those 60,000 and which shoes up at the bottom. The ranking algorithm favors projects from teachers who’ve never been funded before, who are working at especially high poverty public schools, whose projects have already been partially funded by some other donors, suggesting that these are really worth it, that it’s a worthwhile project, because 10 people have already partially funded it. Projects that are close to their expiration date, and projects that don’t need that much money to cross the finish line.

In other words, if you’re a teacher at a school with 100% free lunch, and you’ve never been funded before, and your project has already been supported by 20 people, and it only needs $20 to cross the finish line, and it’s one day away from expiring, you’re at the very top of those 60,000 projects.

You’ve thought of everything—pretty hard for a copycat to catch up, is that right?

Charles: I think so, yes. I think that is right.

You’ve partnered with a number of notable and prominent organizations and people, including most recently AASA, a remarkable partnership.

Charles: It does feel remarkable, to us at least. We’re thrilled, it’s a big deal for us. It came about, I think for two reasons. From the Donors Choose perspective, we were seeing a lot of confusion in this growing space that people now call crowdfunding, when DonorsChoose.org began 17, 18 years ago, crowdfunding wasn’t even a word.

Today there are hundreds of crowdfunding sites, most of them for profit. Virtually all of them, if not all of them, are fundraising tools to hit up the people you know and not sites that have the accountability and integrity measures that we take.

But a whole lot of school board members and superintendents don’t have time to do their own original research into the crowdfunding space and the differences between the crowdfunding sites.

From our perspective, form the Donors Choose perspective, we were really hoping that AASA would take a lead role in educating people about the promise and the potential, and also the challenges of teachers using crowdfunding sites, and would illuminate the differences between crowdfunding sites around transparency and accountability and equity.

From the perspective of the AASA, equity is actually in their mission statement. It’s not just to help school superintendents to grow and be supported, but it’s to provide and equitable educational experience for students everywhere.

The fact that Donors Choose is a force for equity, because of what we just discussed, that was really important to them.

Dan Domenech, Executive Director of the American Association of School Administrators (AASA), very kindly referred to us as “the PTA equalizer.” I think that was because he saw just how many teachers and low income and rural communities use our site, because it’s the one place where they can access funding from beyond their network.

When you say equity, it doesn’t translate into some kind of communistic thing. It’s more shining a spotlight on things that are of high quality, and then people choose to actually put their admiration flow of money toward that particular thing so that the best things will rise up and be recognized and forwarded or advanced.

Charles: That’s exactly right. It’s actually bringing market principles to bear, on education and philanthropy, that I think usually that would create a danger of upper income classrooms being advantaged, and low-income classrooms being disadvantaged. Donors Choose has the opposite effect; I think was compelling to the AASA.

Anything else about the intended purpose behind creating this toolkit for district leaders?

Charles: Yes. The toolkit, in some respects, offers capabilities that are new on the scene. AASA helped us realize that we need to make school district leaders a valued stakeholder on DonorsChoose.org, that it can’t just, we cannot just have paths and features and tools for classroom teachers and for donors. We need to treat school district leaders as a cherished constituency.

So we’ve built reporting tools so that a district administrator can say, “I want to know exactly which projects in my district are being funded to DonorsChoose.org and I want to be able to see down to the line item exactly what books are getting delivered, exactly which technology devices have just been funded for which schools and which classrooms in my district.”

District administrators can even be alerted every time one of their teachers posts a project on our site.

Most critically, we’ve now created the ability for a school district to share guidance as to the kinds of tech hardware that they best support. If a school district favors Android devices and Chromebooks, and those are the devices that their IT department is best able to support and fix, that district can say as much in DonorsChoose.org.

Whatever one of their teachers is creating a project request for tech hardware, for laptops, for tablets within Donors Choose, our system now shows that teacher their school district’s IT guidance, which can include even a suggested vendor as well as a suggested operating system.

Brilliant.

Charles: Yes, and you can imagine—embarrassingly, it took us 17 years to realize that if you’re a school district and you are committed to being an Android, it’s not very helpful when, if lots of teachers get funding for Apple devices that you cannot support. To create that capability was really important. It’s the kind of thing that we’re launching as a reverberation of this partnership with AASA.

Your platform is a great example of the transformative power of crowdfunding. What dangers are you aware of and working to ensure never materialize?

Charles: I am worried that there will be misuse of funds on some crowdfunding site involving a teacher or a school.

I am worried that in the media coverage of that misuse of funds, which I think is only a matter of time, that people won’t draw the distinctions that you and I have just been talking about, and that they’ll just think that all crowdfunding sites are prone to misuse of funding, and won’t realize that Donors Choose never deposits cash in a teacher’s personal bank account.

So that’s one, but then—

By the way, sorry Charles; recently there was a huge incident about this. It wasn’t a school crowdfunding thing, but it was in the news and I’m sure you’ve seen it. Did that really get your attention or was it like, well good, we don’t do it quite that way?

Charles: I’ll be much more concerned when it involves a school’s crowdfunding campaign or a teacher’s crowdfunding campaign. Then honestly we’re just going to keep our fingers crossed that the reporter covering it is as inquisitive and savvy as you are. Then we’ll be [very transparent] and they’ll draw the distinction.

But they have 15 minutes to write the article, they could just say, “this is what happens if teachers use a crowdfunding site,” which of course would be the wrong conclusion to draw.

That’s on that front.

To be a little more self critical, I think one danger that we work hard to avoid is anyone ever thinking that the school system doesn’t need to provide full funding for student resources, because a teacher could always get something on Donors Choose. That is never a conclusion that we want anyone to have.

Thankfully, we have avoided anyone thinking that.

In fact, we’ve had the opposite effect.

We’ve opened up all of our data so that people can, policy makers, budget makers, forward thinking superintendents can now see and hear what classroom teachers are trying to tell us about:

  • which books are most effective at getting kids hooked on reading,
  • which technology devices are most needed in which grade levels, and in which cities, and
  • what topics are trending in teachers’ minds?

Hopefully, this data can help to make school system budgets even more responsive to needs as they emerge in real time, and help make government education spending even smarter.

In any case, it’s important to us that we be a voice for classroom teachers, and help give teachers a seat at the budget making, policy-making table. It’s important that we never become an excuse for insufficient funding of resources. I think we’ve been successful so far, but we want to make sure we’re always successful in that effort.

Why do you think it worked out that way, as a positive? It could’ve very easily gone the other way.

Charles: Because sunlight is a disinfectant, an inherently good thing. Teachers creating projects on our site that show to the whole world what the needs of their students are and what their best ideas are for helping those students learn, that’s a form of sunlight. It’s a form of openness and transparency and awareness that might not have existed before. I hope that that’s a fundamentally healthy thing.

I don’t know if you could survive for so long if you didn’t have such a high level of transparency—and that might be part of the formula to your success, is that right?

Charles: I think so. As you know, when a project is funded on our site, we purchase the stuff and have it delivered, even if it’s therapeutic horseback riding for disabled students, we’re paying the horseback riding stable to provide that service. If it’s a field trip, we’re paying the bus company, paying the museum.

If it’s a classroom library, we’re getting it drop shipped to the classroom. Because we’re doing the purchasing, that’s why we’re able to expose to the world line item, unit cost, ISBN number transparency and granularity about what’s happening on our site and exactly how dollars are being spent.

Before, 18 years ago, it was you and a couple others. How many now, and what sort of team did you put together to make that granularity happen?

Charles: We are 100 full time, about 40 part time, and we have a couple hundred volunteers.

The powerful influence of tech giants Google, Amazon, Facebook, and Apple over the last several years in our society, our world, is well known and felt. On a smaller scale, Donors Choose has a power to influence education. The upside seems clear. Is there a downside to protect against? After all, your funding mechanism is comparable to the education budget of entire regions, states even, and could impact school budgets.

Charles: In terms of the influence of Alphabet and Facebook and Amazon and the like, I would defer to experts on that. I consider, I’m a reader and a consumer rather than any kind of authority on the subject of the internet giants. But in terms of the effect that Donors Choose could have as much as we’ve grown, as much as we can say that 80% of all the public schools in America have at least one teacher who has created a project on our site.

Nevertheless, if you drill down to an individual district, classroom funding from donorschoose.org does not even equal 1 percent of that district budget. We have a wide impact, but I’d be the first to acknowledge that we’re not fractionally big enough to be making a systemic, deep impact on a per district basis.

We are still just bigger than grains of sand, if you’re looking at the individual school district and looking at their overall budget.

What I do think is powerful is classroom teachers now feeling like they have a cheering squad. It’s a cheering squad of people who they’ve never met, but it’s a cheering squad that has invested in that teacher’s best ideas.

I think it’s powerful that the teacher feels like they are no longer constrained by not having a particular book or not having a particular resource, not being able to take the students on a particular field trip. To know that you can bring to life your best idea for helping your students learn, you can equip your students with a particular resource that you think is vital. That is really energizing to a lot of teachers, and for those teachers to feel like they have a cheering squad, I think, helps at least keep some of our teacher users in the classroom longer.

The kind of teacher who creates a project on our site is the entrepreneurial, passionate teacher who’s frustrated with the status quo and is willing to spend an hour outside of their working hours, telling the world about a great learning experience they want their kids to have.

Given those teachers cheering squad, and an ability to innovate, I think that it is actually a really important impact, even if the total dollars flowing through Donors Choose don’t equal even one percent of a school system’s budget.

To be at the helm of an organization that does so much good for teachers and their students, a platform of such societal benefit—really advancing our future—must be very fulfilling work. Kudos for that! Any final thoughts?

Charles: It’s really generous of you to say that, I really appreciate it.

We stay grateful and we stay humble for a number of reasons, but one of them is just how modest our origins were, and my students were really co-founders of the organization.

We never dreamed that the website would grow beyond New York City public schools, and heck, our first three years we were only open to public schools in New York.

We don’t feel any less grateful or in awe of what’s been happening on our site today as we did back in 2003 when Oprah Winfrey caught wind of what we were up to.

It’s a thrill but also, to be honest, it’s sometimes stressful. Because when you think that there are 60,000 projects live on our site right now, 60,000 times where a teacher put one out on a limb to tell the world about what they want for their students, it gives us heavy responsibility to work our tails off to get those projects funded.

So that’s both exhilarating and a little stressful at the same time.

Victor Rivero is the Editor-in-Chief of EdTech Digest. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com