We’ve long believed in the front-line wisdom of teachers. They’re best able to identify which resources will help their students thrive. Based on some recent research, we’re seeing that it’s making a difference! Three different studies using student performance metrics show that just one additional funded teacher project increases the proportion of students at the school who pass their end-of-year exams.
As part of my series about “individuals and organizations making an important social impact”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Charles Best.
Charles is the founder of DonorsChoose, a non-profit education crowdfunding platform. Since 2000, over 4.8 million people and partners have contributed $1 billion to support nearly 2 million teacher requests for classroom resources and experiences. Before he launched DonorsChoose, Charles was a history teacher in the Bronx, where he and his students launched the website that once served only New York City public school teachers and today is used by teachers in 85% of all the public schools in America. In 2022, Charles will step down from his role as CEO and transition to the DonorsChoose Board of Directors.
Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
It’s my pleasure!
DonorsChoose started when I was a high school history teacher in the Bronx. That’s when I first realized that not all schools are created equal. I would have conversations with my colleagues in the teachers’ lunchroom about resources and experiences we wanted for our students, like field trips, microscopes for science class, and books we wanted them to read. My colleagues and I spent a lot of our own money on basic supplies like copy paper and pencils. It was during those lunchroom conversations I figured that there must be people out there who’d want to help teachers like us if they could see where their money was going.
I launched DonorsChoose in 2000 while I was still teaching, and my students helped get the organization off the ground. My aunt and I anonymously funded the first few projects that my colleagues posted, and my students helped write thousands of letters to attract the first donors to the site. “Crowdfunding” wasn’t even a word when we started the organization, and my students and I had no idea that it would become such a sought after way of supporting teachers.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company or organization?
Back in 2018, I reached out to some of the senior leaders at Ripple, the global payments company behind the XRP cryptocurrency. I had a bold ask: would they be open to funding every single live teacher request on our site? I was at first really hesitant to hit that “send” button to the chief executive, Brad Garlinghouse. I wasn’t sure how he would receive it. After some deliberation, I sent the email. I had noted at the top of my message that I knew how “wildly ambitious” of a pitch this was. To my utter delight, Ripple invited me to make a case for this pitch in their San Francisco office, and the next month, they said yes.
Ripple donated $29 million dollars in XRP to fund 35,000 teacher requests on our site. It was the largest known gift of virtual currency ever donated to a single charity, and a million students, most of whom live in low-income communities, benefited from this generosity.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
I can think of the time our website was not prepared for a mention on The Oprah Winfrey Show! In our third year of being an organization available only to New York City public school teachers, Oprah Winfrey hosted me on her show to talk about DonorsChoose. On the day we filmed the episode, Oprah stepped into the green room and told me, “Because you are a teacher, I’m going to make an exception to our normal rules, the normal rules being that people should go to oprah.com and find the link. I’m not doing that. I’m going to call out your website address directly.”
While feeling beyond excited to hear this from Oprah, I also slightly panicked. In addition to our website’s front page needing a bit of an aesthetic lift, our platform couldn’t quite handle the slew of visitors we hoped to receive after Oprah mentioned us on-air. When the episode aired, wour website crashed and was down for several hours because Oprah had inspired a multitude of viewers to head to our site.
Shortly thereafter we started receiving calls from people all over the country asking if DonorsChoose could expand to public schools in their states. That’s what motivated us to expand beyond New York City and become a national organization. And it motivated us to upgrade our website platform!
Can you describe how you or your organization is making a significant social impact?
Since 2000, we’ve expanded from being open to just New York City teachers to serving all public schools in the U.S.. Now, 4 out of 5 public schools have a teacher who has posted a request on our site.
We’ve long believed in the front-line wisdom of teachers. They’re best able to identify which resources will help their students thrive. Based on some recent research, we’re seeing that it’s making a difference! Three different studies using student performance metrics show that just one additional funded teacher project increases the proportion of students at the school who pass their end-of-year exams. This research also discovered that funded DonorsChoose projects are effective because they tap teachers’ first-hand knowledge of students’ unique needs.
Can you tell us a story about a particular individual who was impacted or helped by your cause?
Yes! A colleague I had met several years ago shared that his passion was saving the salmon in the Pacific Northwest, and that he would be unlikely to give a lot of money on our site because education wasn’t so much his passion as was saving the salmon. Before our meeting ended, I decided to try a search for “salmon” on DonorsChoose, and up came five classroom project requests all relating to salmon in the Northwest. The top result was a teacher on an island off of Alaska teaching in a one-room schoolhouse with students who are Native Alaskans. The students had recorded their parents’ folktales about salmon and done research on the species. To share their work with folks outside of their schoolhouse, the teacher and students needed a printer and scanner.
I shared this find with my colleague. He realized that his cause of saving the salmon absolutely could be expressed through our platform. He ended up donating to one of the several related requests on our site. He was able to tap into his passion through helping a teacher, and because of it, a teacher and their students obtained resources to fulfill their project needs.
Are there three things the community/society/politicians can do to help you address the root of the problem you are trying to solve?
First, I invite school districts to partner with us. We have over 100 district partners that work closely with our platform and incorporate DonorsChoose into their national philanthropic engagement strategies. We ensure that every district partner and school principal is notified when a teacher posts a project and is aware of the resources their district is receiving.
Secondly, I hope leaders and community members will tap into the frontline wisdom of their local teachers. We’ve used our data to help illuminate topics like how teachers are coping with challenges of COVID-19, or the impact of technology in the classroom. Teachers are professionals, and far too often their insights and skills are overlooked when they could help address pressing issues.
Most importantly, I hope folks will browse through and donate to projects on our site. Whether it’s a school in your neighborhood, or a teacher from your hometown, or a project that speaks to a personal passion, I know there’s a teacher request that will inspire you on DonorsChoose.
Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂
I would be eager to grab a meal with Barack Obama. I just read his memoir A Promised Land. It was insightful to read not only details about his childhood, college years, and early career that prepared him to lead the country, but also first-hand perspective on his campaigns and pivotal moments of his presidency.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
You can find me on LinkedIn, and follow DonorsChoose and the work we do on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter with the handle @DonorsChoose.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!