Website directly connects teachers and donors

Charles Best came up with an idea for funding school projects while eating lunch in the teacher’s lounge at his high school in the Bronx, N.Y.

His “Big Idea” has collected millions and has supported innovative and creative classroom projects in the country.

Best is founder and executive director of DonorsChoose.org, an online portal where teachers can go straight to the public to find potential financial supporters.

“Nothing stands between a teacher’s idea and possible funding,” Best said. “No more gatekeepers.”

Best was the keynote speaker for Wednesday’s Ed Sessions luncheon sponsored by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation. About 140 people attended, including teachers and lawmakers.

DonorsChoose.org has collected $328 million from 1.7 million supporters and filtered funds to 64 percent of the country’s K-12 public schools.

Since 2007, $1.5 million has been given to 944 Idaho teachers and 2,200 classroom projects.

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“It’s a simple way to address education inequities,” Best said. “The public can choose what project to fund.”

The online collection portal has gained national notice as one of Oprah Winfrey’s “favorite things” and a donation tool promoted by First Lady Michelle Obama.

The site’s popularity wasn’t instantaneous.

Best launched DonorsChoose.org and asked 11 colleagues to post projects. They asked for simple items, such as books and paper and small pieces of technology.

Best’s aunt funded his request so he decided to personally fund the other 10.

“I donated anonymously so my colleagues thought the website actually worked,” he said.

Rumor spread of its success and teachers started posting hundreds of projects. Stymied, Best went to his students for help. They sent 2,000 letters to people all over the country with hand-written notes that said: “Just $10 could make you a classroom hero.”

The student letter-writing campaign generated $30,000 and the website’s popularity has been surging ever since.

To maintain integrity, every teacher’s request is vetted for authenticity before it’s posted. And everyone who donates receives photos or letters from students, verifying that their project was funded.

“Donors can see, feel and almost touch the impact,” Best said.

The site is most effective at collecting for small projects that cost less than $500; 84 percent of these projects are funded. When a project costs thousands of dollars, the success rate slips below 50 percent.

The average project on the site costs about $750. “That’s our sweet spot because a donor finds that $50 is making a real difference,” he said.

While DonorsChoose.org funds small projects, it also has potential to drive systemic change.

“We noticed math teachers asking for cooking utensils and discovered following recipes was a great way for kids to grasp math concepts,” Best said. “That’s insight only a frontline teacher would come up with.”

Requests must come from one teacher and can support classroom innovation or a school project. Best said he is next considering allowing students (with a faculty adviser) to submit funding ideas.

Everyone who attended Wednesday’s lunch was given a $250 gift card to donate on DonorsChoose.org. The website is searchable for Idaho projects or themes, such as music or math.

Note: The Ed Sessions lunches and Idaho Education News are funded by the J.A. and Kathryn Albertson Family Foundation.