In 2000, Charles Best, a seventh grade history teacher in the Bronx, was struggling to make Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass feel relevant for his students. He read a profile of Moctar Teyeb, a man who escaped slavery in Mauritania in 1978, and thought: What if he could come speak to my students?
For Best, as for many public school teachers, this kind of special project in the classroom was a pipe dream. But with his company, DonorsChoose, Best brought Teyeb to his classroom--and over the past 15 years, has helped over 228,000 teachers raise funding to pursue their own school projects.
On March 9, Best, dressed in the startup uniform of jeans, blazer and t-shirt, kicked off SXSWedu with the story of how DonorsChoose came to be--and the role he believes crowd-funding can play in the classroom.
To raucous laughter from the grand ballroom at the Austin Convention Center, Best related the story of the first 11 projects on the site; one was funded by his aunt, the other 10 by “anonymous donors”--who all were actually Best himself. “I was living with my parents at the time…so I could afford to use some of my teacher salary to make the website work,” he shared.
Best also described some of his first fervent investors (of their time, at least): his students. In a four-month effort, students wrote, addressed, sorted and mailed thousands of letters in an effort to draw more donors to DonorsChoose’s projects. The result was a major uptick in giving, and a sense of accomplishment among his students for contributing to the creation of the site.
Since 2000, DonorsChoose has grown from a small, 11-project site, to a behemoth that features projects from 63% of public schools in the country. According to Best, the site has received over $313 million in donations from 1.6 million donors. This money has been used to provide materials for 14 million students across the country.
Despite the charitable numbers, Best’s critics maintain that DonorsChoose is just a series of “individual points of light,” helping single classrooms, but not the system as a whole. Some also suggest that by providing money for classrooms, the site lets both state and federal government ignore its responsibility to fund public schools.
Best countered that DonorsChoose helps not only individual classrooms but also the US education system, in three main ways:
1. Shortcut to Buying Technology: Best sees DonorsChoose as a method for teachers to avoid red tape around procuring edtech tools. If individual classroom teachers successfully raises fundings for a piece of technology, then administration should have less objections toward the individual tool. He cited examples of expensive 3-D printers and underwater robots being funded and used in the classroom.
This route into schools could be enticing for edtech app developers as well--if DonorsChoose allows teachers to request donors to underwrite software licenses. One developer of a paid edtech app told EdSurge that, due to DonorsChoose’s requirement that all requested materials be shipped directly, only a major rework of her company’s IT systems will allow her company to distribute online licenses through DonorsChoose.
2. Opening DonorsChoose Data: The immense amount of data generated by DonorsChoose’s more than 700,000 project requests gives the company “statistical significance for the types of resources teachers need most,” according to Best. The company can calculate, for instance, the most-requested books or craft material in a particular area, and can share this data with local districts for planning purposes. The company has a blog dedicated to sharing these insights.
3. Alternative to Teacher Performance Pay: Finally, Best suggested that DonorsChoose could lead to a new method of teacher performance pay. In the past, the company has given away DonorsChoose gift cards to teachers based on the number of students who cleared a given hurdle (for example, passing an AP exam). Teachers can use these gift cards to fund projects in their own classroom, or those of their colleagues. The rewards also give students a sense of pride for helping to earn the materials supporting them in school.
Although Best admits the this system “looks and smells like merit pay,” he claimed that teachers and teacher unions have backed the idea. “If your students do something awesome, we want to reinvest in your classroom.”
Educators across the Twitterverse applauded the impact that DonorsChoose has had on their lives; one even called it “the evolution of social media and philanthropy.”