It all started with Little House on the Prairie.
As a young teacher working in a Bronx, N.Y., public high school in the late ’90s, Charles Best was eager for his students to read the series of American children’s novels written by Laura Ingalls Wilder, but found himself making photocopy after photocopy of the one edition he could get his hands on—all at his own expense. He knew that because of chronic budget cuts many of his fellow teachers were also supporting their classrooms and students with supplies paid for out of their own pockets.
This struck Best, a native New Yorker and a Phi Beta Kappa graduate from Yale, as unfair for the all-too-often-ignored teachers, and a broken and grim situation for students that most people, if they realized what was happening, would likely want to help address—especially if they could choose how they could help and follow their donations all the way into the classrooms and into students’ hands.
So in 2000, Best—working at night after teaching all day—roughed out a plan with pencil and paper to create a site on which teachers could post classroom project requests that donors could choose to support.
A pioneering effort in digital pro-social crowdfunding, Best paid a developer a couple thousand dollars to create the first iteration of the site, and DonorsChoose.org—with help from his fellow teachers as well as students who spread the word steadily across the Bronx—was born. For its efforts to help improve the quality of American classrooms, Adweek has named DonorsChoose.org the 2017 recipient of its annual Brand Genius Brand Save honor.
“Crowdfunding was years away from becoming a word,” recalls Best, “but I felt in my gut that a lot of people would want to support the ideas and needs of my teaching colleagues sitting across from me at the lunch table and that the internet might enable someone with just one dollar to give to experience the full joy of giving.”
The concept is simple, but with massive potential. Donors find a project that inspires them and can give as little as $1 in support. When a project is fully funded, DonorsChoose.org acquires the needed items and ships them directly to the school. To bring it back to the donor in vivid transparency and create an emotional connection with recipient classrooms and students, every donor gets a thank you letter from the teacher, photos from the classroom and a full accounting of how the donation was spent.
By early 2003, the site had raised $1.1 million, which jumped to $2.4 million in 2004, helped along in no small measure by a mention of DonorsChoose.org by Oprah Winfrey. The response to profiling Best and his project on Winfrey’s show as “a revolutionary charity” and a new way of giving crashed the site. But almost immediately, more and larger requests and donations began to roll in, and outreach for help was quickly heard from public schools across the county. By 2007, DonorsChoose.org was a nationwide organization. In 2013, DonorsChoose.org raised $58 million in donations, a 25 percent lift from the year prior and was supporting projects ranging from basic art supplies, music and athletic programs to submersible robotic cameras for science projects.
Today, 76 percent of public schools in the U.S. have posted a project on the site, which has mobilized 2.8 million citizen donors. The nonprofit charity has given a total of $586 million in classroom funding that has bolstered and enriched the education experience for 24 million classrooms across the country.
Best’s giving model has inspired individuals, celebrities like Winfrey, philanthropists like Bill and Melinda Gates, numerous foundations and more than 200 brands like PwC, 3M, Target, AT&T and Dick’s Sporting Goods to participate in a vision for better classroom and educational experiences for millions of students. These brands offer matching donations that are often in line with their own brand focus and values and are designed, says Best, “to engage the broader public in joining them that’s often in the form of a match offer.”
As a wrestler in high school, Best credits his coach and English teacher John Buxton as a central mentor figure. And indeed, Best, as most visionaries behind startups do, has had to grapple with myriad complexities ranging from technology and fulfillment to the financial challenges of fundraising and the dense, emotionally charged politics of the American education system in general.
But the persistence of going to the mat paid off with wins that have given Best and his organization a clear sense of purpose. “We like to say that we showed the world the wisdom that people have on the frontlines,” says Best. “We think that dedicated teachers know their students’ needs better than anyone else in the system, and if we can tap into their frontline expertise, we’ll unleash smarter, better targeted, more creative micro solutions than what people might come up with in the district central office or the ivory tower.”
When DonorsChoose.org was first up and running in the early aughts, Buxton and his wife funded a teachers wrestling project request in Best’s honor.
“I remembered getting the thank you letters from the students and how they referred to their coaches, and it was my teacher and coach that funded that project in my honor—and it all came full circle,” says Best.
For more information or to make a donation or donation request, visit DonorsChoose.org.
Check out the rest of Adweek’s Brand Genius 2017 coverage: