Most Innovative Companies: Charles Best of DonorsChoose.org on Fixing Education

Charles BestThis year DonorsChoose.Org made our list of The Most Innovative Companies. We speak to CEO Charles Best on how he applies a "best of breed e-commerce" approach to transforming public education.

Anya Kamenetz: It's been quite a year for DonorsChoose.org! Tell us about it.

Charles Best: We feel fortunate—it's been a great year on a number of dimensions. Whether you count citizen philanthropists, projects, or dollars, we've grown at more than 30% annually for each of the last 10 years. Continuing that would put us, this fiscal year ending June 30, at $30 million in funding, 250,000 citizen philanthropists, 60K funded classroom projects, and probably 50K teachers posting projects. So it's a little bit of a milestone.

Oprah announced us as one of her ultimate Favorite Things on her last Favorite Things show. And we've had this partnership with Waiting for Superman where DonorsChoose.org really represented the first simple step that moviegoers could make to help address the issues raised in the film.

Explain how that worked.

We raised a major fund from the founder of Yahoo [David Filo], founder of eBay [Pierre Omidyar], founder of Twitter [Biz Stone]

So that everyone who saw the movie could get a $15 DonorsChoose.org gift card, and go online and choose which project to support. So it sent about 70,000 people to our site who were inspired by Waiting for Superman, to take a first step.

Interesting. So as the number of donors has grown, and the amount of money pledged, how has that affected the number of projects that teachers post on the site that end up getting fulfilled?

As much as our volume has grown, the success rate of projects has held pretty constant. About 63% get fully funded before they hit the five-month expiration date.

So not very different from nine years ago when I was running it from my classroom in the Bronx.

In terms of donor outreach and marketing and media, we've managed to keep supply roughly on par with demand.

How do you spread the word to teachers?

It's word of mouth. A teacher will try the site, and there's a two-thirds chance their first project gets fully funded. Other teachers will see them and ask, how the heck they were able to do this or that.

And what are the characteristics that make a project more likely to be successfully funded? The teacher we talked to said he liked to post a nice picture and come up with a funny headline.

The only attribute we've figured out as being influential is cost. Projects costing $400 or less have a 75% success rate. With that one exception we're still figuring out what gets a project funded or leaves it unfunded.

In addition, there's an interesting split between our donors who find classroom projects through browsing or serendipity versus those who specifically want to look at Shakespeare or specifically want to see teachers in Boise, Idaho. So that too makes it even more challenging for us to figure out what attributes will lead to success.

This is a challenge that a number of sites face. Take Etsy: Every item is an item of one, a unique thing with its own personality where if it's purchased, it often doesn't reappear on its site. This presents user experience challenges.

You sound more like a CEO of a online business than a charity!

[Laughs] Yes! We live and breathe conversion rate and average donation size and basket size, and our board of directors is dominated by consumer web gurus.

The short of it is that also like a best of breed e-commerce site we capture the search that the donor performs as well as the project you end up selecting. So if you do a search for Nebraska music projects and you choose one that was posted by a Teach for America Corps member at a charter school, we know that "Teach for America" and "charter" are incidental to your choice, and "Nebraska" and "music" are intentional.

We can use that information, we hope, not just to show you other classroom projects that would interest you, but to speak to you in a much more personal way when asking you to take it a step further: joining a reform advocacy org or join a local Meetup or a volunteer opportunity.

These are the kinds of next steps you're experimenting with right now?

Yes. We don't know yet if we're going to make advocacy, volunteerism, or meeting up part of the universal experience. But the hypothesis is that we think we could make a contribution toward really engaging the public in our public schools if we make DonorsChoose.org about more than giving money, and not just convert web visitors into donors but donors into citizens.

We think we can contribute something toward the improvement of public education in our country.

How is the experiment going so far?

The initial data's promising. We had a pretty high click-through rate when we invited people who had seen Waiting for Supermen and donated money to join Stand for Children or Reform Education Now. We sent the same email to donors who hadn't seen Waiting for Superman and got an encouraging rate of response there too. We have to pore over the data some more. The Meetup and volunteer experiments take place next month.

We're concerned that we are sending our donors to what will still be a great user experience. If we encourage a donor to join an organization we don't want them to get spammed every two days by that organization and blame us.

Besides growing, and nudging your "citizen philanthropists" toward more involvement, how else do you hope DonorsChoose impacts public schools?

One thing that gets missed a lot is that DonorsChoose is merely a place where teachers post wish lists. That doesn't do justice to the level of innovation that we see taking place on our site. The teachers who post requests truly are posting project requests—these listings are not simply shopping carts of stuff I want, they are student learning experiences that teachers have envisioned for which they need particular resources. So I like to think about whether our site can liberates teachers to be innovators and think about projects that really bring learning to life.

I believe if we can crowdsource educational solutions to teachers on the front lines, who often know their kids better than anyone, we will unearth and generate better targeted smarter ideas.

We're taking that to the next level with a Gates Foundation grant. The idea is empowering local residents to be education grantmakers by giving DonorsChoose.org gift cards to residents of Memphis and Tampa.

So we'll find out what kinds of projects do Memphis residents think are most important. Technology? Art? Civics? Field Trips? Books? It'll be really interesting.

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