While working as a high school teacher in the Bronx in 2000, Charles Best grew frustrated about operating on a shoestring budget. He felt his students were being shortchanged because they lacked access to decent materials, supplies, and experiences. To counter that, he founded DonorsChoose, a crowdsourced funding platform primarily for teachers in high-poverty areas.
It was a test of humanity’s collective potential: If people outside the school better understood what projects teachers felt were most important, he reasoned, they’d probably chip in to fund them. And the public aced it. Over the past decade and a half, DonorsChoose has become a scholastic lifeline: Roughly 2.5 million donors—plus a handful of corporate and foundation partners–have given more than a half-billion toward classroom needs. That’s fulfilled over 860,000 teacher requests for things like books, art supplies and field trips at 72,000 schools.
Each year the group raises substantially more money than the one before it. In 2016, they cleared well over $100 million. In part, that’s because the group operates more like a Silicon Valley company than traditional nonprofit. When they needed a pro bono renovation, they sought out Eight Inc., the design firm behind the first Apple Store, to create something both hip but also thoughtful; those new digs are purposely constructed in several ways to teach the group more lessons about themselves.
To avoid entrenched ideas, Best says he tries to give the youngest or newest members of his team the chance to share as much as possible. The group hosts a monthly speaker series about obtuse obsessions that’s included Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (on applying lessons from Bruce Lee to both kung fu and ballroom dancing), Red Ventures co-founder Ric Elias (on surviving the plane that crashed into the Hudson), and actress and board member Yvette Nicole Brown (on the hidden wisdom within The Walking Dead). As Best puts it: “If you hear people like that talking on topics like that, you can’t help but be a more creative person.”
One guiding principle that’s emerged? “Share information,” he says. “We make friends with people we admire, including those you might consider competitors, like charity: water, Kiva, and Global Giving. We get on a call with them and exchange ideas.” It’s a “rising tide” notion rarely embraced in philanthropy. “If we can all help each other better inspire our respective donors, we will all be the better for it.
The group also obsessively tests the small stuff. “We A/B tested showing a star versus a heart for saving a classroom project you like,” Best says. “We were able to immediately see why Airbnb made the same switch from a star to a heart.” As a result, more saved projects become converted into donations.
When it comes to interviewing job candidates many tech companies are legendary for their abstract math and logic questions. DonorsChoose doesn’t do that but has developed its own internal formula. “One question we’ll ask is, ‘Who are you grateful for,’ and a surprising number of people can’t name anyone beyond their mother,” Best says. “We think the ability to rattle off people you are grateful to and thankful to is often sort of a proxy for openness to learning from others.” (The group has others, so memorizing that one won’t get you too far.)
Still, there’s one lesson Best wished he’d learned earlier. “Our name is not great. It doesn’t evoke anything about school or teachers. It doesn’t roll off the tongue or stick in your head,” he says. Once his platform went live, he felt stuck with it. That’s changed with the group’s success, but there wasn’t a sure-fire fix. “You can iterate on everything except your name,” he says.