Last May, Stephen Colbert shocked teachers in his home state of South Carolina by “flash funding” all of their project requests made via the education crowdfunding platform DonorsChoose.org–a total of $800,000 worth of grants. A few days later, DonorsChoose.org CEO and founder Charles Best got an email from Twitter cofounder Biz Stone saying he wanted to do the same for all classroom projects in his hometown of Boston, and his wife Livia’s hometown of Richmond, California. Stone said he’d already spoken with Jack Dorsey, who agreed to fund all projects in Missouri, and by the way, Ev Williams was on board to cover San Francisco and Nebraska.
“It was like a behind-the-scenes philanthropic flash mob forming by one person telling another person,” Best told Fast Company. “I said, ‘Let’s keep it a secret and see if some other people would want to join you. Then let’s unleash all of these fundings in one crazy flash mob to create the most unforgettable school day for a lot of teachers.’ And that’s kind of what happened.”
Today, a group of more than 50 philanthropists, athletes, founders, and celebrities will “flash fund” more than $14 million worth of DonorsChoose.org projects. That’s enough to complete more than half of all the projects on the crowdfunding site, Best says. “Suffice to say we’ve not done anything even fractionally at this scale ever before. It’s definitely the biggest day in our organization’s history, other than the day we went national about eight years ago.”
The impressive list of donors includes celebrities like Gwyneth Paltrow, who is funding projects in Santa Monica, and Ashton Kutcher, who will bankroll all projects in Iowa. Bill and Melinda Gates are covering costs in the South Bronx; Serena Williams is taking care of Compton; Blake Mycoskie, the founder of TOMS, will flash fund all of Wyoming’s grants. One thing that makes this initiative unique is the geographical variety. “We did not want this to be a coastal philanthropic phenomenon,” Best says. “It was by desire, if not design, that states like Kansas, Nebraska, Louisiana, and others are being funded.” In addition, one anonymous donation will pay for all classroom projects in the 50 poorest counties in the U.S.
For many of the donors, the move feels incredibly personal. Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian is funding all projects in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, the neighborhood where he lived as an child. “It is so empowering for these teachers who are already sacrificing so much and working with too few resources and not enough time or compensation to have a really meaningful impact on a lot of kids,” Ohanian says. “It was a no-brainer for me when we got to talking about this Best School Day ever that I should write a check to help out the neighborhood.”
Intuit CEO Brad Smith and his wife Alys are funding projects in Brad’s home state of West Virginia, where he remembers creating makeshift telescopes out of cardboard in astronomy class because his school couldn’t afford a real one. “It breaks my heart that we’re in a situation where these passionate teachers and curious kids don’t have what they need,” he says. “This hopefully gives them more resources to do what they’re capable of doing.”
Almost as impressive as the donations themselves is the fact that DonorsChoose.org managed to keep this a secret from teachers until today. It would certainly be fun to be a fly on the wall in any of the classrooms receiving money when they get the news. Genein Letford, an elementary music teacher in California, is also a member of the DonorsChoose.org board of directors, so she was in on the surprise. She’s used DonorsChoose.org to get money for classroom supplies, and buses to take her kids on learning field trips. Letford doesn’t have any grants being paid for today, but remembers what it felt like to get her first flash funding. “I think I screamed out loud,” she says. “It was like an unexpected Christmas.”
Of course, the hope is that the flash funding will encourage donations from citizen philanthropists, all the non-millionaire, non-celebrity, everyday Joes that make up the majority of the country. Best says Colbert’s donation inspired more than $70,000 in additional donations to South Carolina schools. “Rather than thinking the job is done, people were like, That’s awesome, I’d like to join. We’re hopeful we’ll see the same dynamic this time. We want to emphasize that even someone with just $5 to give is urgently needed.”