Every chance he gets, Charles Best, the founder of DonorsChoose.org, leafs through the carefully lettered, colorfully illustrated thank-you notes from public school students that arrive daily at the loft office he shares with his staff in the garment district of Manhattan. The letters are like sunbeams for him, brimming with gratitude toward the 1.2 million citizen philanthropists who’ve provided classroom supplies through his pioneering crowdfunding site. For 13 years, Best has been opening letters that thank his donors for books, scissors, and glue; they now number more than 500 a day.
Instead of feeling satisfied, though, Best‘s appetite is only growing. “Teachers know how to improve education,” he says, “but they are a voice that is consistently overlooked or ignored.” This past year, DonorsChoose has launched several significant initiatives that build on its success, using its currency with teachers, high-profile donors and backers, and parts of the educational ecosystem such as the College Board to fund classes in science and programming, make technology available to students, and become a bigger player in improving public education.
Best doesn’t put it quite this way, but he is eager to start receiving notes that say, “Thank you for my classroom’s 3-D printer” and “Thank you for giving me the opportunity to take AP Chemistry.”
DonorsChoose, which Best founded in 2000 while he was a teacher at a small public school in the Bronx, has grown into an educational charity juggernaut.
It’s raised $225 million and helped more than 175,000 teachers fund over 400,000 projects that have aided the education of more than 10 million students. Best, 38, may have the sunny, humble manner of a small-town pastor, but he has an audacious vision: to harness the uncontrolled and sometimes anarchic power of the crowd to create sustained political pressure that will force systemic improvements. “We want to use our site to galvanize people to give,” Best says, “but also to take important steps toward real change.”
Best, with a wool sweater pulled over his white collared shirt and a hank of brown hair flopping over one eye, seems relaxed as he shows me around his second-floor headquarters that, but for the construction-paper cutouts on the wall, resemble a tech startup. And yet he knows he’s walking into a minefield. In the past decade, the debate over how to improve public education in the U.S. has grown brutally divisive and increasingly shrill. The system is under pressure: State education budgets are shrinking; the population of harder-to-teach poor children is growing; and at the same time, business leaders are demanding that schools prepare better-educated graduates for tomorrow’s workforce. Arguing for one set of remedies are the top-down reformers–largely wealthy businesspeople and deep-pocketed philanthropists who have championed charter schools, demonized teachers’ unions, and focused heavily on standardized test scores as a way to close the achievement gap between middle class and poor kids and get all kids learning more. On the other side is the education establishment–teachers, school administrators, teachers’ colleges, and public school labor leaders–who charge that corporate-style reform ignores a perennial truth, that the achievement gap is a by-product of economic inequity rather than failing schools, recalcitrant unions, or ineffectual teachers. For the past decade or so, wealthy reformers have dominated the agenda, but lately the educational professionals are gathering strength by pointing out the ways in which corporate reform is eroding, rather than strengthening, public schools.
Why does Best have confidence that DonorsChoose will be able to thread the needle between these two entrenched factions and effect real change? “We think we represent a third way,” he says. “We aren’t prescribing anything. We’re not claiming to be the experts. We aren’t advocating for or against any program. We are going to create a platform that says very explicitly what it is that teachers experience in their classrooms. And donors from either side of the debate–or any part of the political spectrum–can decide whether they want to fund it or agitate to change the underlying conditions that created it.” His plan, so simple it seems almost radical: Listen to the teachers.
Every entrepreneur experiences a moment when it becomes painfully clear that the status quo just isn’t good enough. For Best, that moment came in 2000 on a rainy January morning just before dawn, when, as a 25-year-old, first-year history teacher in a public school in the Bronx, he was stuck at a Kinko’s making photocopies of a chapter from the American classic Little House on the Prairie for his students. Best was the son of privilege: He had grown up in Manhattan and was educated at the exclusive St. Paul’s boarding school and later, Yale. As a teacher in a high-poverty neighborhood, he saw how pitifully few resources were made available to low-income students. At the same time, he says, “I’d listened to my colleagues in the teachers’ lunchroom. I could tell they were passionate, fired-up people who had great ideas for strategies and projects to help kids learn better. They just didn’t have the resources. I was frustrated, but I also knew it was a frustration felt by teachers all over the city.”
So Best launched DonorsChoose.org, applying what was then a brand-new concept–crowdfunding–to help teachers get basic classroom supplies. His first site was rudimentary. He sketched out the design for each page with pencil and paper and hired a programmer to build it for $2,200. His back office was so primitive that Best had to run every credit-card number by hand. “I wasn’t much of a techie,” he admits. “I’ve since gotten a wee bit more sophisticated about these things.” Unsure if his plan would work, Best secretly funded the first 10 projects all by himself.
Although word of the site quickly spread, DonorsChoose’s early trajectory is unlikely to become a business-school model. “Honestly, my dreams had a pretty small-bore aperture,” he says. “I wanted to help New York City teachers so they would never have to be in Kinko’s at 5 a.m. again.” By day, he taught history, and during his lunch hour, he telephoned journalists, foundations, and philanthropists. “I tried to talk to anyone who could help me,” he says. “Mostly, people just hung up. But I am very, very persistent.”
Outside the brick walls of his school, though, the debate about education reform was heating up. DonorsChoose, a novelty as a crowdsourcing charity, attracted some attention, which drew venture capitalists who were both interested in education and had a taste for tech. Soon, one tech titan was referring the new philanthropist to the next, and Best, who can easily discuss root causes of the Civil War and the impact of immigration in 1904, embarked on a crash course in raising money. “At first, it was superawkward and cringeworthy to ask a person for $5 million and get rejected,” he says. “I had to develop the gumption to do it.” But the slender, soulful teacher who can speak with a touching intensity about how his life was changed by his high school English teacher and wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton, turned out to be a sales powerhouse. In 2003, he raised $1.1 million. Later that year, after Oprah Winfrey touted DonorsChoose on her show, the site attracted so much traffic that it promptly crashed. The next year, Best and his team raised $2.4 million.
By 2006, DonorsChoose was bringing in about $6 million annually and Best had quit his teaching job to focus on the organization full time. During the early years, Best says, he was fueled “with hunger and almost constant anxiety. Would we make our goals? Could we keep growing?” In 2007, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, whom Best had enlisted as a supporter, appeared on The Colbert Report. After talking briefly about himself, he began lauding DonorsChoose. Almost immediately, comedian Stephen Colbert began asking his fan base to support the charity. Best used what he calls “humility and hustle”–and the tailwinds created by the proverbial Colbert bump–to raise money through what by now had become his formidable list of contacts. That year, he secured $14 million from a dream team of high-profile investors–including venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, Yahoo cofounder David Filo, and Netflix CEO Reed Hastings–and expanded nationwide.
“Best built a financial model that was very appealing,” says Union Square Ventures’ Fred Wilson, an early investor and now a member of the board. “Here are our costs. Here’s the money we can bring in. Here’s where those two lines cross. We were being asked to help him become self-sustaining.” As it grew, DonorsChoose began asking each microdonor to kick in an extra 15% to pay for operating expenses and overhead. By the time the Series A funding ran out, the organization no longer had to rely on philanthropy to pay for day-to-day operations.
Today, DonorsChoose has a staff of 64. It raised $58 million in donations in 2013, a 25% jump from the previous year, enabling it to fund 90,000 projects ranging from $5 for Post-its for a literacy lesson in Texas to a $90,000 playground for an elementary school in Hawaii.
Best, who was once so math-averse that he earned a C in college statistics, has learned to live by the numbers. He can tell you off the top of his head which states get their projects funded the most (California), which kinds of projects donors favor (anything that mentions Shakespeare), and what the sweet spot is for a project’s cost (under $400). Every search a donor makes–geographic location of a school, the type of project, the age of the students–is carefully stored, and when a donor logs in again, algorithms generate a landing page and specific solicitations tailored to meet his or her preferences. The organization, says Colbert, who is now a board member, “combines the efficiency of data mining with the intimacy of a neighborhood. You know exactly who you’re helping and how. It’s the friendliest site on the web.”
Six years into his grand experiment, Best had an experience that changed the way he thought about his work, convincing him he needed to think beyond just school supplies. In 2006, a teacher in the troubled Chicago public school system requested dictionaries for her middle school classroom. Her principal, enraged that she had disclosed to the world that her classroom lacked dictionaries, threatened to fire her. Best negotiated on her behalf–and she kept her job. “I saw that DonorsChoose.org could reveal where the system was falling short,” he says.
Best began looking for ways to leverage his site to do an end run around the education bureaucracy and directly help teachers reach their fullest potential. This year, DonorsChoose will expand a pilot program that allows entrepreneurs to market new devices directly to frontline educators. Google was the first to step up, offering $1 million worth of Chromebooks (laptops that run Google’s web-based operating system) for $100 apiece in crowd funds. “They were gone in 48 hours,” Best says. Microsoft cofounder Paul Allen, who is interested in environmental issues, began making low-cost underwater robots available to science teachers who could then add oceanography lessons to their earth-science courses. MakerBot founder Bre Pettis is providing 5,000 3-D printers to public high schools that are able to raise $98 from donors. “School districts are a closed market; that’s why so many entrepreneurs have stayed away,” Best says. “With DonorsChoose.org, you can reach out directly to the end user.” Giving companies a chance to feel good and crack open the $597 billion American education marketplace is extremely powerful.
Corporate partners are continually attracted to the site’s efficiency and reach. In 2011, for example, Starbucks added a tile on its landing page allowing Wi-Fi users in its cafés to easily donate library books to, say, a kindergarten class at the elementary school next door–all while sipping on their $5.45 venti caramel Frappuccinos.
Emboldened by these partnerships, Best began an even more ambitious play. For decades, education officials and union leaders have been at loggerheads over merit pay–rewarding great teachers by boosting their paychecks–and efforts to make the public school curriculum more rigorous. Last year, DonorsChoose did a graceful pirouette around the warring factions. First, Best teamed up with the College Board, which has long championed high school advanced placement courses in science, technology, engineering, and math as a first and crucial step for producing college graduates with those STEM degrees. Best first met with Trevor Packer, who runs AP at the College Board, in 2011.
“I wasn’t very hopeful,” says Packer. “Plenty of people come here and say they’d like to provide children with more opportunities to learn. I never hear from them again.” Packer showed Best a map of the U.S. dotted with the 300,000 or so low-income high school students whose PSAT score indicated they could be successful in an AP STEM course but who attended high schools where those AP courses were not offered. About a month later, Packer recalls, Best returned with a grant, which soon led to a $5 million donation from Google to fund some of those classes. Jacqueline Fuller, director of Google.org, says it was an easy check to write. “In general, Google has been looking at ways to get more young people involved in STEM. It’s important to our company, and it’s also important to our society.”
Then, with the blessing of one of the country’s main teachers’ unions, DonorsChoose made the principals of about 900 low- and middle-income schools an offer few refused: It would give teachers between $1,200 and $9,000 in DonorsChoose dollars–redeemable for school supplies or classroom projects–in exchange for teaching an AP STEM class. And as a bonus, teachers would get an extra $100 worth of supplies for every student who passed the final exam.
Jamie Gant, a computer-science teacher in Doral, Florida, says that his school, Ronald Reagan/Doral Senior High School, was one that jumped at the offer. “We weren’t sure how many students would sign up,” he recalls. The course was oversubscribed almost immediately. “We said, ‘Wow! These kids really want to learn this!’ ” With the $1,200 Gant received for teaching the course, he obtained a laptop computer for his classroom. Says Best: “We didn’t have to bust a union, break open a teacher’s contract, insult the professionalism of teachers, rework the school day, or fight anyone.” Since September 2013, the organization has brought AP STEM classes to more than 330 high schools, which in turn enrolled 11,000 students, a number that Best expects to triple over the next three years.
This month, DonorsChoose will roll out a similar program with Code.org. The goal: to improve basic knowledge of coding by incentivizing elementary and middle school teachers to offer a 20-hour basic coding class. DonorsChoose will offer teachers $750 in charity dollars to teach the class–and $250 extra if more than 40% of the junior coders are girls. “It’s not really an incentive as much as a thank-you for giving our 20-hour course a shot,” says Hadi Partovi, who runs Code.org. “DonorsChoose.org made it incredibly efficient. We did one deal with them. They conduct the administration and verification, and we reach schools across the nation.”
These curriculum hacks could have a lasting impact nationwide. But not everyone thinks they’re the ideal solutions to our public education woes. Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College, Columbia University, cautions that collective decision making is an important part of public school systems. “We have vested school boards, superintendents or mayors’ offices with authority to make decisions about schooling because we understand they will be made out in the open, where questions of conflicting values are negotiated and compromises are made,” he says. “It will be a collective process embedded with democratic procedures and discussion.” While Henig agrees that everyone should support classroom teachers, he believes that undercutting these democratic measures could ultimately hurt the very institutions DonorsChoose is trying to help.
Best disagrees. “We’ve heard people say that teachers have no business going rogue and trying to select their own books, technology, and classes–and citizens have no business deciding what is worthy. And yes, we have a position on that, and a response to people who raise that question,” says Best, evenly. “ ’Screw you. We believe in teachers. We believe in the wisdom of the crowd.’ ”
Most charitable organizations–especially those with big corporate backers–try to avoid controversy like mystery meat in the school cafeteria. And indeed, DonorsChoose’s first baby steps into the highly charged reform debate led to a rare stumble. In 2010, the organization offered to give anyone who sat through the film Waiting for Superman, an award-winning documentary about the failures of the public school system as seen through a handful of promising kids, a $10 DonorsChoose gift certificate for school supplies to be donated to the school of their choice. While the move paid for about $1 million worth of textbooks, class trips, and library books, the organization found itself allied with a movie that left many teachers feeling if not attacked, then blatantly disrespected. It’s a reminder of how even well-intentioned efforts can go wrong.
Best not only believes in teachers and the crowd but also in the data they generate. Last year, the number of teacher requests to DonorsChoose topped 140,000. He’s about to turn these numbers into ammunition. With financial support from LinkedIn founder Reid Hoffman and CEO Jeff Weiner, Best has hired a data scientist and, over the next few months, will launch a strategy that could be every bit as disruptive to education as crowdfunding has been.
Every classroom teacher who posts a request on DonorsChooose.org is also posting a tiny status report on the state of funding in his or her classroom. Aggregating and mapping those requests will create transparency surrounding what needs are trending where. These small, naked needs, bundled together, create a pointillist portrait of educational inequity in America. By making use of DonorsChoose data, Best hopes to shine a light on some of the most pivotal but frustratingly opaque questions in education: Just how much of the taxpayer money that is being spent on public education is directly benefiting students? And if it’s not reaching the classrooms, where is it going? “With so much data floating through our sites, we are hoping to give our donors the ability to spot the trends and connect the dots,” says Weiner, “and, with the power of that insight, do something about it–make clear to the folks who are making those decisions that they want something else.”
Over the next few months, DonorsChoose will begin generating infographics that compare, for instance, the per-pupil spending in a particular district with requests for basic materials from classroom teachers there. “If a district is getting a relatively high per-student spending rate and there are many requests from that district for basic supplies such as paper and pencils, that will tell us that too much of that money is never leaving the central office,” Best says. He expects to partner with organizations–advocacy groups concerned with improving schools–that will press the DonorsChoose message about educational inequity to state and federal legislators around the nation.
Best expects push back. University of Pennsylvania professor Richard Ingersoll, who has researched the extent to which teachers are now required to supplement their classrooms, says that more than 90% of teachers are forced to spend their own money on, or beg for, school supplies for their students. Transparency around this issue, he suggests, “will bring to the fore the extent to which classroom teachers lack support from those in a position of responsibility. That is bound to make a lot of people uncomfortable.” Could more district leaders and principals respond by barring teachers from using the site? Best stiffens; his smile fades. It’s clear he’s spoiling for this fight. “It would be politically fraught to ban teachers from using DonorsChoose.org,” he says, choosing his words carefully, like the skinny guy on the playground calling on the bully to put up his dukes. “We’ll defend any teacher who has that problem.”
Ultimately, he believes that education bureaucrats are no match for the energy of the crowd. “We think our reach is big enough,” he says. “Our volume of teachers is big enough. Our teachers are passionate enough. They can’t stop us now.”