What Happens When Stephen Colbert Joins Your Board: Five Questions with DonorsChoose Founder Charles Best

Charles head shot square

There’s a reminder in my calendar several years from now which says “Write big donation check to DonorsChoose once Homebrew is making money.” DonorsChoose is an amazing organization helping teachers get their classroom needs crowdfunded versus having to go into their own pockets, or otherwise go without teaching materials that would benefit their classes. Charles Best, their founder, is a former teacher and one of the most talented leaders I know, non-profit or otherwise. So here we chat a bit about DC and their work.

Hunter Walk: DonorsChoose.org is now an amazing 16 years old! You’ve accomplished so much in that time but are fundamentally trying to solve a problem that’s almost impossible to declare “Mission Complete!” Is that motivating or is it a challenge to maintain morale and momentum among the team?

Charles Best: For years, we’ve been working toward a goal that we now *are* close to completing: Inspiring a million people to give $100 million to classroom projects every year, such that 100% of our country’s high-poverty public schools can point to a recently funded project.  It will likely take us 2-3 more years to get to a million people giving annually, and at least one more year to reach 100% of high-poverty public schools, but we’re about to hit $100 million in annual project funding!

That said, and to your point, we’re just nibbling away at the money teachers spend out of their own pockets on school supplies, which by one count totals $1.6 billion.  But that doesn’t hold back morale or momentum. I hope that it simply gives us a sense of humility. 

HW: How have teachers’ project requests changed over time? Are these projects a leading indicator of changes in education tools/philosophy? For example, do you see requests for technology purchases on DonorsChoose before school administration have necessarily even come to understand the need to wire the classroom?

CB: Projects on DonorsChoose.org illustrate the most pressing classroom needs in different communities, as well as emerging themes in education.  As one fun example, The Hunger Games trended on DonorsChoose.org before it trended on Google. (That is to say, we saw a spike in teachers requesting that book on DonorsChoose.org before searches for that book spiked on Google.)  

You’ll see projects on our site requesting 3D printers, stand-up desks, stools that let children wiggle out their energy–and any number of resources that could soon become commonplace.  

Which is why we’ve opened up all our data! http://data.donorschoose.org/

HW: You’ve got a pretty smart product and engineering team – I know you’re always testing different features, learning from other nonprofits. Were there any unintuitive changes you made to the DonorsChoose site that resulted from this iterating?

CB: Project discovery is an especially nettlesome but fun product challenge.  Half of donors give to a classroom project within 25 miles of their location, a use case that is pretty straightforward.  But the other half of donors are more motivated by a topic or affinity, such as Shakespeare, gardening, or autism.  That might not sound like a difficult use case to address either–except that many of these donors have never before thought about the educational topic that they’re most passionate about.  It’s in their subconscious, but they haven’t verbalized it before.  We suspect that Etsy and Kickstarter face similar discovery challenges, so those two sites give us a lot of product inspiration.

Here are two things we do know:

  1. Hearts are much better than stars as an icon for saving a project
  2. Affinity for a teacher who shares one’s name is even more powerful than loyalty to one’s community

HW: What role does a Board of Directors play for a nonprofit? How have you cultivated and built your Board over time and what do they expect of you?

CB: We have an awesome board. We keep it to twelve people so that our board can operate as an executive committee of the whole – in contrast to many nonprofit boards that have 25+ members, where decisions are mostly made by a small subset of directors.

One board member, Stephen Colbert, just sparked the best day in our 16-year history. Here’s the beginning and here’s the culmination.

HW: While all the teacher’s projects on DonorsChoose are meaningful, I have to assume that some stick with you as being particularly notable or interesting. Any examples of projects which opened your eyes to a category of needs that you didn’t anticipate?

CB: More and more teachers are using DonorsChoose.org to request materials that go beyond the classroom, what we call “life essentials.” Some of these projects request jackets for kids who are coming to school cold and others request nutritious snacks for kids who are coming to school hungry.

As one example, in February of 2015, months before the scandal was exposed, a teacher in Flint, Michigan requested bottled water for her students. One year later, a Flint teacher posted this project.

Those are the projects that make us feel so honored to serve our country’s hardest working teachers.