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Our education system is so underfunded that the classroom donation industry is booming

Teachers need money for supplies, field trips, and amenities–and there are now multiple organizations competing to give it to them.

Our education system is so underfunded that the classroom donation industry is booming
[Photos: hongquang09/iStock, AnnBaldwin/iStock]

In early May, the New York Times reported that while public schools remain chronically underfunded and teachers woefully underpaid, there’s at least one online platform out there helping. Instead of teachers having to pony up their own (already meager) cash for basic classroom supplies, they can now turn to Classroom Giving, a service that allows them to publicly post their needs so that other people can offer to fund them.

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For anyone the least bit familiar with this sector, that might raise an obvious question (one not asked by the Times): Isn’t that what DonorsChoose.org does already? But Classroom Giving founder Ben Adam says he built his service to specifically combat the things he dislikes about leading crowdfunding platforms like DonorsChoose.org and GoFundMe.

[Photos: hongquang09/iStock, AnnBaldwin/iStock]

“The majority of classrooms that are on there, it’s like playing the lottery,” he says of participants on DonorsChoose. “I’m not saying that those sites don’t work, but they are still big. I mean, New York lottery works, too. But does that mean you’re going to win the New York lottery?”

As of mid-May, Adam estimated about 150 teachers were on Classroom Giving, with the largest clusters from Arizona, followed by New Jersey. He considers it an itemized “wish list” for teachers, who add desired goods to an Amazon cart for other donors to view and buy piecemeal. “It’s almost like secret Santa meets a wedding registry meets Tinder. There’s no commitment,” Adam says. “You just swoop in, send some supplies, and that’s it.”

[Photos: hongquang09/iStock, AnnBaldwin/iStock]

But Adam doesn’t call that a donation. Classroom Giving isn’t an incorporated nonprofit; it’s a website that he paid $12 to register, so any gifts are not tax deductible. The same is true for anyone giving to an individual campaign on GoFundMe, as opposed to one started by a school district program or nonprofit group. “If somebody’s buying something on Amazon and sending it to somebody [else]–maybe a friend of yours bought you a new sweatshirt–that wouldn’t be a donation. They would just buy you a sweatshirt,” he says.

Nonprofit DonorsChoose.org uses a different format, which requires teachers to make profile pages for specific projects they want funded, which can range from basic supplies for better in-class activities to more advanced ones (like butterfly cocoons for a science project) and field trips. The platform’s average project cost is about $700–Adam’s own rough estimate to fund one classroom’s supplies for a full year. However, if the project goal on DonorsChoose isn’t met, the entire project may not happen. Donors are then given the chance to redirect their money elsewhere.

As the Times reported, Adam started his effort after hearing about an elementary school teacher named Elisabeth Milich, who shared her salary on Facebook to demonstrate how hard it was for teachers to outfit their own classrooms:

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“Mr. Adam, a freelance audio producer who owns a real estate company, learned about Ms. Milich on the HBO show “Real Time With Bill Maher.” He said he was shocked that she was paying for cleaning supplies and paintbrushes on a salary of about $35,000.”

That situation, reported by AZ Central, prompted Adam to contact Milich over Facebook to see if her problem was resolved. “I said, ‘By now I’m sure that someone solved this problem for you and that your classroom is stocked to the brim with supplies now that you are very famous on social media.'” When he learned that no one had taken action, he asked her to send him a list of what was needed. In August 2018, Adam covered Milich’s costs for the fall semester, and then did the same thing in the spring. Adam eventually agreed to support six more classrooms in the same district before realizing that he could do more by publicly sharing teacher shopping lists.

Some of those lists go beyond the basics–there are items like ergonomic computer chairs and wireless door chimes. Adam is okay with that. “You look at the list and say, ‘Okay, I think they need a food processor,’ so you’re going to buy a couple of the food processors and you’re not going to buy them everything.” The biggest strength, as he sees it, is “it’s not the same old [services] asking you for your money.”

Charles Best, the founder and CEO of DonorsChoose, supports the idea of more variety in the sector: “Choice for teachers in crowdfunding platforms and places where they can get resources to their classrooms is only a good thing,” he says. “Teachers deserve a full range of choices.” By Best’s estimate, there are actually hundreds of different players in the ecosystem, including several already using Amazon-based registries.

[Photos: hongquang09/iStock, AnnBaldwin/iStock]

At the same time, the former Bronx-based high school teacher says his service is designed specifically to ensure people don’t get lost in the system. Since it was founded in 2000, DonorsChoose has funded over 1 million projects. For the 2018 school year alone, he estimates that the organization will have directed $140 million in donations to teachers needs. The site averages 20% year-over-year growth in teachers adding projects, but boasts what Best believes to be a standout average of 70% of all projects gaining complete funding. Roughly half of what’s posted are still traditional asks for resources like books for an English class, or art supplies, or even pencils and paper or chairs.

To fix the problem of it seeming like a lottery, DonorsChoose has a home page that’s searchable by teacher name or school, but also by a wide variety of general topics (Harry Potter theme lessons included) or zip code. The group also runs matching campaigns to encourage things like STEM education funding in impoverished areas. “Our hypothesis is that the 99% of crowdfunding sites are great fundraising tools to hit up the people you know are not going to be a force for combating inequity,” Best says, “because they’re kind of a proxy for, ‘Do you have a lot of friends with money to spare?'”

DonorsChoose actually calculates what giving originates from teacher’s own networks (people who click through straight to a dedicated campaign page) versus unrelated donor discoveries (those who find options through their home page). It’s a 25% to 75% split, partly because half of all donations come from corporate or foundation partners, who more often search by topic and fund large amounts of projects at once. When campaigns aren’t fully funded, that money doesn’t disappear–everything that came from the teacher’s network converts to credit that the teacher can apply to another idea. Unaffiliated donors can choose to do that too or redirect their funds elsewhere.

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Classroom Giving, on the other hand, enables teachers to add new wish lists each semester, and moves those that are totally fulfilled to a “Classrooms Accomplished” page, which includes at least 30 classrooms since its launch in March. Adam doesn’t track who is giving (his site isn’t high-tech enough to do that), although donors can contact him if they wish to identify themselves to the teachers they’ve assisted. Even if a list is only half-funded, each item is still shipped directly after each purchase.

Best appreciates that sense of immediacy. But by asking teachers to share more about each project, he believes they can better telegraph the potential impact on kids’ lives. That seems to be a crucial ingredient for compelling unknown contributors to give because “donors can see and get inspired by what’s going to happen from their donation,” Best says.

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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.

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