How One Overheard Conversation Is Boosting DonorsChoose’s Fundraising

Thanks to the organization’s new office layout, serendipitous moments are leading to real innovation.

A few years ago, Charles Best, the founder and CEO at realized that his offices were suffering from a bit more than poor ambiance. The crowdfunding platform, which lets public school teachers post requests for classroom projects, supplies, or trips that need charitable contributions, was operating out of a space that he calls “industrial, if we’re being charitable” in New York. It was cramped, divided, and frequented by “furry friends”–his preferred term for the resident rodent population.


“More importantly colleagues could not really interact with each other across the room,” he told a crowd gathered at the company’s newly designed HQ, during the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. “There were physical as well as figurative walls between the teams. I think it would be fair to say that we had a strong culture despite our office, not a strong culture as reflected by our work environment.”

Their first new location debuted in January 2014. A second one was unveiled in mid-2016 in San Francisco. Both were designed by Eight Inc., the firm that created the first Apple Store, which agreed to work pro bono. Best calls the result a “half-start-up, half-schoolhouse” vibe. There’s a digital big screen that acts like a stock ticker to track real time successes built into a long wall filled with hand-drawn thank you notes from kids. Rooms are divided by faux walls that resemble pass-through cubbies to create a communal vibe with ample personal space (and extra storage space). Hopscotch grids dot the halls. The place has lots of amazing chalkboard art.

Together, the aesthetic covers just about every type of constituent that might visit this home base, be it employees, donors, or even kids and teachers themselves. It’s chic but not posh; much of the goods and services that they ultimately used were donated. DonorsChoose solicits from individuals but also major foundations, so they wanted a place that was refined enough to not get scoffed at when they asked for seven figures without making people think they were “throwing donor money at a fancy office.”

The space accomplishes both, as you can see in the slide show above. It had two unexpected payoffs. The first was drawing some employees who previously chose to work form home back into the office. The second: Once everyone was all together and energized by their space, they began having unexpected moments of inspiration.

One of Best’s personal favorites, goes like this. “About a year and a half ago, our chief financial officer had read a book called Drunk Tank Pink by a professor at NYU who had pointed out that people are more likely to donate to hurricane relief if the hurricane has the same first letter as their own name,” he says.

“In fact, the effect was so pronounced that he concluded that the U.S. meteorological survey has left half a billion dollars of hurricane relief giving on the table by not optimizing the names of hurricanes to have common first letters when the hurricane is going to be really severe.”


The CFO was telling all that to someone on their tech team one day when Best and some other colleagues’ ears pricked up. “It wasn’t a brainstorming session about marketing or how to reach donors. It was just an overheard conversation.”

That oddity led the group to wonder what might happen if they began matching specific classroom project notices by the same method. Sure, they had hundreds of thousands of teacher’s names, but they also had a couple million donor names in their database. So they sent out a solicitation, trying to make sure the name of the teacher and name of the donor matched.

The technique has been one of their most successful fundraising tactics ever. “Even if that teacher is five states away and her project is for a subject area that is not an area of passion for you, you are even more likely to donate to that project just by nature of the teacher sharing your name than if you were given a hyper-targeted, super-algorithmic recommendation,” Best says.

In other words, that new floor plan is totally worth it. The group expects to deliver more than $100 million in support to teachers in mostly high-poverty areas this school year.


About the author

Ben Paynter is a senior writer at Fast Company covering social impact, the future of philanthropy, and innovative food companies. His work has appeared in Wired, Bloomberg Businessweek, and the New York Times, among other places.