Kiplinger's spoke with Charles Best, 38, of New York City, about what inspired him to start his Web site DonorsChoose.org in 2000. The site helps teachers fund classroom projects for their students. Here are excerpts from our interview:
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What inspired you to create DonorsChoose? I taught history and English at a public high school in the Bronx. One morning before school, as I was making copies of Little House on the Prairie for my students, I thought about all the resources my colleagues wanted—books, field trips, art supplies. We spent a lot of our own money to get what we needed. I figured there were people out there who would help us if they could see where their money was going.
How does it work? Teachers post project requests that showcase their imagination and passion. Donors can choose a project and see in real time how much funding it has received. We vet each proposal, and once a project is fully funded, we purchase and ship the requested items directly to the school.
How did you launch the site? I used pencil and paper to draw what each Web page should look like. Then I hired a programmer to build a very rudimentary site for $2,000. I invited the teachers at my school to propose projects, and 11 of them did. My aunt, who’s a nurse, and I funded them anonymously to get things started. To get the word out, my students volunteered after school to address and compile 2,000 letters. In the first year, that produced about 300 donors, who gave $30,000 to fund 60 classroom projects. In 2003, Oprah did a segment on us. Since then, we’ve opened to all public schools in the U.S., and 1.4 million donors have contributed over $238 million to support 451,000 classroom projects. Nearly 17,000 requests are pending—and, incidentally, nine of them feature the Little House books.
How do you pay the rent? We invite donors to allocate 15% of their donations to support our organization, and well over three-fourths of them do. As a result, we’re one of the few charities that doesn’t have to seek operating support. You can see staff salaries, including mine [$241,303 in 2013], on our Web site.
What’s your biggest challenge? Getting enough donors. Every year we must figure out how we’ll continue to grow at the same rate or better. We focus on giving donors an experience that’s so memorable, vivid and fun that they tell all their friends. Teachers and students give donors feedback, including a description of what the kids are learning, thank-you letters and photographs.
Would you have done anything differently? I wish we had come up with a different name. “DonorsChoose” doesn’t indicate anything about helping teachers, and the syllables don’t roll off the tongue. But with the press we’ve received, we don’t think we can change it.
What’s next? Our primary goal is to inspire one million people to give a total of $100 million to classroom projects at 100% of our country’s high-poverty public schools in one school year. So far in the 2014 school year, we’re a little more than halfway there.
Have a success story you want to share? Write us at firstname.lastname@example.org.