The education-themed crowdfunding platform DonorsChoose allows teachers to post requests online for classroom supplies, projects, or even field trips, which contributors review and fund. As the well-shared origin story goes, Charles Best wasn’t just the site’s founder, he was an early test case: The former Bronx public high school teacher started the nonprofit in 2000 to be able to buy copies of Little House on the Prairie for his classroom.
That was before the term “crowdfunding” had even been coined. This month, though, the site reached a serious milestone: Donors have funded more than 1 million projects total. That represents a combined $627 million from 3 million individuals and institutions to public schools in all 50 states. The resources that were funded have reached tens of millions of students.
Along the way, DonorsChoose has become a huge resource for teachers in low-income school districts where neither the institution nor parents may be able to equip kids with basic things like books, paper, and art supplies. According to the organization, about 80% of teachers who use the service are from schools within that demographic.
It’s an uncommon example of a web-based service aiding people on the disconnected side of the digital divide. “DonorsChoose.org is the one crowdfunding site where a teacher who does not have friends with money can still bring an idea to life because their classroom project is compelling,” says Best. “There are all these people who the teachers have never met who will support their project, and that in turn has made us a magnet for teachers in low-income communities.”
In fact, 75% of gifts are from donors who don’t share ties to those making the request. Within the last two years, the site expanded ways for contributors to help, including new categories like “student life essentials” for teachers to ensure their kids can arrive clean, warm, and well-fed enough to be able to learn in the first place. That includes quality-of-life items like jackets, nutritional snacks, and hygiene products. There’s also room for student-led projects that are done in collaboration with teachers, so kids think up cool ways for their peers to stay engaged.
There have been plenty of requests from educators in both urban and rural areas, the majority with elementary schools. But, ironically, most of the asks for better technology tend to come from teachers already associated with wealthier areas. Those in impoverished places are more worried about covering the old school basics first.
But since Trump has been elected, there’s been another sort of push to instill more fundamental values in school children. Google cofounder Sergey Brin, whose family fled the former U.S.S.R to escape anti-Semitism, offered to match donations to thousands of projects supporting the success of immigrant students. LinkedIn CEO Jeff Weiner made a similar deal for exercises supporting compassion. Donors have given more than $5 million toward diversity-themed lessons since the election, a 66% increase compared to previous years.
“The theme is just that people are now using [the platform] to pursue strategies and express the values that kind of go beyond classroom teaching,” Best adds. “And we’re seeing that especially over the last year for reasons you can imagine.”
At the same time, Best and his team have tried to keep the platform accessible to non-digital natives. Any teacher with an email address and the ability to take pictures on their camera phone can upload a request. The site encourages donors to message recipients with questions, avoiding the sort of click-and-share format of GoFundMe, which is designed in a way that allows users to quickly promote campaigns on social media and make funding requests go viral.
Best thinks the DonorsChoose dynamic encourages would-be contributors to engage more with those in need, a virtual equivalent to the personal-connection making that often drives people to give more often.
It’s proving out. Last year, the organization had 5,500 “power donors” or people who have given more than $1,000 dollars across the board to various projects; it’s on pace to beat that number this year. In fact, donors who give more than once are more likely to fund more projects when they don’t have a personal connection to a teacher in the service.
“The vast majority of crowdfunding sites are share tools and payment processing to fundraise from the people you already know from your social network,” he adds. “And that is to say that the majority of crowdfunding sites are going to reflect income disparities, right? Because if you’re in an upper-income community your social network will probably have more money to give and you’ll, therefore, raise more and be more successful on 99% of crowdfunding sites that are really proxies for the money that your social network is willing to provide to you.”
Best is pleased his platform remains different. People are showing up to explore projects that can help people they’ve never met. “That is what makes DonorsChoose.org actually favor low-income communities.”