In the POP Seat: The Founding CEO of DonorsChoose Still Believes Teachers Know Best
Photo courtesy of DonorsChoose
“Hustle and humility” is Charles Best’s reply when I ask if he lives by a particular mantra. Two decades ago, while teaching history at a public high school in the Bronx, he got the idea to create a platform where educators could crowdfund for their classrooms. DonorsChoose has since raised over $1B and funded more than two million projects. That works out to a lot of books, instructional technology, and art supplies, among 11 other resource categories donors can choose to fund. As he prepares to transition from CEO to a new role on the DonorsChoose board of directors in 2022, Best remains as committed as ever to serving teachers (our “national treasure”), following the wisdom of the classroom front lines, and putting the nonprofit out of business.
Name: Charles Best
Role & organization: Founder and CEO, DonorsChoose
People from all walks of life support projects on DonorsChoose. Stephen Colbert serves on your board of directors, and the platform has been listed among “Oprah’s Ultimate Favorite Things.” What unites such an eclectic group of people behind your mission?
DonorsChoose was premised on the idea of someone giving just five dollars having the same experience as a major philanthropist. They’re able to choose a classroom project request that reflects their passion or their geographic loyalty, see exactly how their donation was spent, and hear back from the people they chose to help in a really vivid way. We wanted to extend the joy of giving to all donors. In fact, when we last surveyed our donor base, half had a household income under $100,000 a year. And yet, a model premised on enabling a donor who gives five dollars to experience the full joy of giving also happens to appeal to major givers, celebrities, and corporate and foundation partners. No matter the scale at which you’re giving, it’s about expressing a personal passion, finding teachers who share that passion and have requests that speak to that passion, and feeling the impact you’ve made.
How do you measure impact and success today compared to the early years?
We now have a huge repository of data, and millions of data points—school characteristics, teacher demographics, project details, donor giving behavior—all of which together could one day influence government education spending, teacher training, or even policy making. It reflects what teachers most want for their students in different grade levels, communities, and subject areas; which books teachers think are most effective, and which technology devices teachers believe are most needed in the classroom. We hope that our data can be a force for impact beyond the immediate donations people make on our site.
Our single most important success metric is year-over-year growth in the dollars given to classroom projects from what we call Equity Focus Schools, where half or more students identify as Black, Latinx, Native American, Pacific Islander, or multiracial, and where half or more students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch. Those public schools constitute just over a third of public schools in America. We will always be proudly open to all public schools in America, but those are the schools where we want to make sure we channel the most support. The second metric we keep our eye on is our teacher equity standard, which asserts that teachers of color should have every bit as much funding success on DonorsChoose as their white peers. Correspondingly, teachers at schools in low-income communities should have every bit as much funding success on DonorsChoose as their peers in higher-income communities.
You mentioned public policy. Do you envision a scenario where DonorsChoose no longer needs to exist as it does today—perhaps because another entity fills the gap? Is that something you’re aiming for?
Yes! We would love to be put out of business when it comes to the roughly 50% of projects on DonorsChoose that seek basic materials, that represent the injustice that students do not have access to those materials in their classrooms. In our dream world, we get to focus entirely on the other presently 50% of projects that seek enrichment resources: butterfly cocoons for students to experience the life cycle of a caterpillar, the funds to go on a field trip to a museum, therapeutic horseback riding for students with disabilities. There are so many outside-the-box examples, and you hesitate to even call them “enrichment” because we would never imply that such resources are superfluous. But to the extent that they aren’t necessarily what people expect the school system to pay for, they are resources where often private philanthropy is appropriate, and where we can be a fount of innovation for exploration and identifying new resources that have yet to propagate the K–12 system.
As a former classroom educator, reflecting on challenges and opportunities teachers face in the K–12 classroom, what keeps you up at night? What gets you excited to jump out of bed in the morning?
During the pandemic, teachers often do not know where they’ll be teaching four weeks from now—from home or from school, and in what physical setting—and they have a hard time anticipating what resources they will need. So, we’ve seen a dip in the number of teachers creating projects on DonorsChoose, not because the needs aren’t more urgent than ever, but because teachers don’t have any certainty or confidence as to where they are going to be. We’ve seen the teacher funding success rate jump upward for those teachers who are listing projects on our site because, at this moment, there are more donors for a slightly smaller number of projects. There’s actually never been a better time to create a project request on our site.
What gets us excited is getting those projects funded! Every time I see a teacher create a project on our site I feel grateful, but I also feel anticipatorily anxious. I feel personally bad if their project is not fully funded. So, what gets us out of bed is making sure those classroom dreams do come to life.
In a recent interview with The Wall Street Journal, you called DonorsChoose “a platform and not a prescription” that works because teachers are in the best position to know what their students need. What advice do you have for fellow educator-entrepreneurs who want to solve a problem they’re experiencing in their schools, classrooms, or communities?
As a platform rather than as a prescription, we tap the wisdom of the front lines, which is to say, classroom teachers’ expertise that comes from primary experience. It is a wellspring of innovation, energy, and great ideas. If your venture taps into that, you’re going to have tailwinds—a propulsion force behind you. Teachers’ proximity to their students uniquely equips them to identify what resources would make the most difference.
I also read that your students were involved with DonorsChoose during the early days. That’s quite an example of student agency in action.
DonorsChoose would have had a really hard time getting off the ground if not for my students volunteering after school to do all sorts of things, including hand addressing and compiling letters to prospective donors all over the country. That generated the first $30,000 of contributions to projects on our site, and they subsequently interned, helped out, and helped present DonorsChoose. I think any number of them rightly feel like co-founders of DonorsChoose, and the organization was more credible to potential donors, not just because I was a teacher, but because students were participating in the launch.
What is your message to educators across the country?
We want to help more people recognize that teachers are a national treasure, and we want to encourage them to get behind our country’s teachers.
BrainPOP is proud to support educators through DonorsChoose.
Ilana Kurizki is VP, communications and social impact at BrainPOP.