Fifteen years ago, high school history teacher Charles Best was frustrated with the way school supplies were purchased for his classroom in the Bronx with funds out of his own pocket. While education professionals are used to paying for items that allows students to work on projects that would otherwise go unfunded, the money forked over for construction paper, reading materials, and computer software really adds up.
To improve the way his fellow New York instructors could bring resources and experiences to the classroom, Best founded DonorsChoose, one of the first crowdfunding sites on the Internet. Since 2000, over 1 million people have given hundreds of millions to classrooms across the country to fund projects like robotics, museum field trips, and libraries full of books.
“I just figured there must be people out there who would want to help if they could see exactly where their money was going. I didn’t have any data, but I could see the typical charitable giving experience was not very satisfying,” Best recalls. “The typical giving experience was one where you’re hit with an image and a plea that’s designed to make you feel really bad, and then you put a check in the mail and you hope that your $50 will be spent as designated. You don’t really feel that connection to your donation.
“I figured the Internet might help even the $1 donor and enable them to pick a project they want to support, see where their money was going, hear back from the people they chose to help.”
Best bribed his colleagues with cake to get them started on the site. Little did he know that 15 years later, his company would be one of the most popular crowdfunding sites on the Internet, a small piece of the Web that people regularly visit when they have change to spare and an eagerness to help schools in need.
The Kernel caught up with Best to discuss the state of crowdfunding in 2015.
You were among the first crowdfunding sites. How long was it before you saw this growing trend and phenomenon?
I don’t think we can claim to have invented crowdfunding. I think a music group in the ‘90s turned to its fans and circumvented a record label and asked fans to all make contributions to underwrite their next album. But we were hacking away at it a long time before “crowdfunding” was a word.
Now crowdfunding has reached sort of a critical mass of people turning to friends and the Internet. Was this something you saw in the evolution of crowdfunding, and what do you think of the current landscape of crowdfunding?
I was not then or now at all clairvoyant. Really DonorsChoose was just my fellow teachers and I were experiencing this pain and burden of spending our money on school supplies and seeing our kids go without experiences they needed and figuring out common sense that people would enjoy donating to specific projects that we were creating. I did not have any vision for crowdfunding as a concept.
In our first couple years, we were only open to public schools in New York City. It wasn’t until 2007 that we went national and opened our site to all the public schools in the country. But I definitely didn’t anticipate how the model might propagate in other sectors in other countries and other situations.
I love Kiva; I love Kickstarter. My wife works at Kickstarter. In terms of the “fund me” or “fund my life” stuff, I think there are a lot of situations where it’s really helpful and people want to support a friend of theirs and fund this discreet but transparent way of doing that.
One thing I’ll point out about crowdfunding is that you can actually count on one hand the number of crowdfunding sites that are destinations for people. Whether it’s GoFundMe, or any other crowdfunding site. Put it this way: I bet you that DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Kickstarter might be the only real websites that see traffic to their homepages. In other words, they’re the only three pages where someone would go to discover something. I think it’s fair to see most crowdfunding sites as payment processing commodities for you to hit up your own network—the friends and the people you already know.
“You can actually count on one hand the number of crowdfunding sites that are destinations for people.”
It’s only on a few sites that you can get discovered, where someone might support you not because they are in your first or second degree of Facebook friends but because on DonorsChoose they search for Shakespeare and found a Shakespeare project from a teacher that lives 10 states away and they just love that Shakespeare project because they’re passionate about Shakespeare.
What are some major challenges and milestones you’ve faced as you’ve grown into a company that’s a destination for crowdfunding?
A couple key points along the way: In 2000, we launched, and in 2003, Oprah Winfrey caught wind of this experiment growing out of my classroom and she did a great story about us and that of course really helped us expand and her story crashed our website. In 2007, we went national.
The main challenge has just been keeping up with classroom demand. A quarter million teachers at 63 percent of all the public schools in America have created projects on our site. Although 1.5 million people have given over $300 million to classroom projects on our site, we’re just chasing to keep up with the volume of classroom project requests.
How do you monitor the authenticity of the requests, and how do you deal with fraud or perhaps controversial teacher requests like asking for iPads for classrooms or other projects people might not think is needed?
One way DonorsChoose is different from almost every other crowdfunding site out there is we can’t pass through cash to the project creator. We fulfill the project. We purchase the resources and have them delivered. … If it’s therapeutic horseback riding for disabled students, we’re paying the stable to provide that service. If it’s a field trip, we’re paying the company and museum.
The [other] thing we do is we vet and authenticate each project request before posting it to the public site. For all 200,000 project requests submitted to our site just this school year, we are going to vet and review each one of them, and email follow-up questions to the teacher if any of it is unclear about what student learning is taking place. Our integration with the national schools database will confirm the school is really a school, and we have the principal’s fax number so we can alert them when a project is funded in their school.
Have you ever run into any of those controversial products? Has anyone lied or has it all been positive and straightforward?
We have had some wacky requests submitted. But they are tipped off by our vetting process. For instance, there was a $50,000 photography field trip to Cuba that involved a lot of expensive photography equipment and did not involve any students going along. That was a project that never saw the light of day. It was spotted by our vetters and was never posted.
Even after doing that vetting, there are some projects that donors would disagree with. There are donors out there that think that technology in general and iPads specifically are a luxury and are not projects they are going to donate to.
We often do spot-checks of technology projects on our site, and a huge amount of the time, it’s special education teachers who are using iPads or technology in really transformative ways that would bring a tear to your eye. But there are donors who aren’t aware of that and who do stay away from iPad requests.
Have you ever had any trolling incidents when a group of people are frustrated with a particular fundraiser and you deal with the negative backlash to projects on your site?
It has not happened with us because we do so much vetting and authentication work—up front, in the middle, and at the end—and it’s teachers seeking resources for their kids. That said, we were once blacklisted by PETA because of the science projects on our sites that involved dissection materials.
What would you say are some of the biggest or most impactful fundraisers you’ve seen?
One other difference between DonorsChoose and other crowdfunding sites is that at DonorsChoose, it’s all-or-nothing funding, and if it goes past its expiration date, we return those donations back to the donors as account credits.
But unlike other crowdfunding sites, you can’t overfund a project on DonorsChoose. If a teacher posts a project and has identified $500 worth of books as part of the classroom library, that project, even if it’s beautifully written and inspirational, it can’t accept more than the exact amount of money required to purchase those exact books. It’s not like breakout project that are like, “We’re only seeking $500 and raised a million.”
“I just figured there must be people out there who would want to help if they could see exactly where their money was going.”
But there are plenty of life-changing, tear-jerking and hilarious projects that teachers have created.
One that I just saw only two weeks ago; there’s a teacher in a low-income community of rural Michigan, and there’s a lake right by their school. A teacher has been hatching native lake trout with her students to restore a native species to the lake that had been terribly polluted by industry decades ago.
This teacher and her students are trying to restore a native species back into the lake by hatching this lake trout. The teacher’s project requested two underwater robots so that the students could see whether the lake trout that they were releasing into the lake were thriving on the artificial reef that had been installed in the lake. I always thought reefs were just in the ocean, but apparently baby lake trout need structure to hide from predators and who knows what else.
How much did they raise?
I think it was about a $1500 project.
That doesn’t seem like that much?
I’m going to look it up right now. Oh my gosh, $689.
Yeah. I presumed it was more. $689.
What is the average ask then on DonorsChoose?
The average ask for a project is about $750.
How many do you get each day?
We’ll probably get about a quarter-million project requests for the school year. So that’s about 500-600 per day that get submitted on our site.
What was the biggest ask anyone’s ever submitted?
There was a teacher in a low-income community in Hawaii whose playground was nothing but a broken concrete lot with a tetherball pole. That was the sum total of recess for these kids.
So she created a project request for a new playground, and it was around $105,000. We were shocked and delighted to see that it got fully funded.
Photo via DonorsChoose