In 2000, he launched DonorsChoose.org to do just that for New York City public schools. Teachers could post projects or classroom needs, like headphones for music students, a laptop to replace an obsolete computer, or gardening equipment for an indoor classroom planting project. Visitors to the site could choose what they want to support and how much to give, with contributions as low as a dollar.
The idea took off. As DonorsChoose.org enters its second decade, the success of this venture is astounding. The number of donors exceeds 520,000 and the donations have topped $82 million, supporting close to 200,000 classroom projects around the country. This year, DonorsChoose.org became the first nonprofit to be included in Fast Company’s “World’s 50 Most Innovative Companies’ list. Good Magazine included the organization in its most recent “30 Places We Want to Work” roster. DonorsChoose.org has been featured in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, The Oprah Winfrey Show, Fortune Magazine, CNNMoney.com, ABC World News Tonight, and USA Network, to name just a few, and is a regularly mentioned on Stephen Colbert’s nightly show, the Colbert Report. According to Charles, “Stephen Colbert learned about DonorsChoose.org three years ago when the founder of craigslist, Craig Newmark, appeared on The Colbert Report and spoke more about DonorsChoose.org than about his own website. It was so generous of Craig and that got Stephen intrigued.” Stephen Colbert is now on the Board of DonorsChoose.org and this past spring held a high profile celebrity auction of a “self” portrait, embellished by various artists, which ultimately raised $52,000 for art projects on DonorsChoose.org.
At the beginning, Charles focused his efforts on New York City public schools to help local classroom teachers innovate for their students. In 2003, Oprah Winfrey featured the site on her show, which prompted calls from people around the country interested in getting DonorsChoose.org open to public schools in their states. When hurricanes Katrina and Rita hit, they opened to all public schools along the Gulf Coast. And in 2007, DonorsChoose.org went national. According to Charles, “That’s been the last ten years and it doesn’t feel any less fresh today. I’m learning just as much and having as much fun as I did at the start of this.”
The concept driving this site was new in 1999, but in the intervening years it has proven effective in multiple arenas. Opportunities to give micro loans are readily available online, and their success stories are as easy to find. Political organizations like MoveOn.org and later the Obama campaign, took the idea of collecting small amounts from many people to finance ambitious projects to new highs. Additionally, education has landed at the center of the national conversation. Charles and his team have been out in front of all of these trends, So what’s next for DonorsChoose.org?
Charles says, “We’re experimenting with additional ways to engage people with under-served classrooms, ways that go beyond opening your wallet. We are meeting up donors and teachers using meetup.com actually, to talk about the schools in their community and education.”
One idea to emerge is to make available the ten years worth of data they’ve collected to help others implement change. By scrubbing identifying details of the project participants, organizations, municipalities, reformers, and others can use this enormous volume of information to identify trends in classroom needs that might be useful. For example, noting that a number of teachers in a particular region request funding for environment field trips, that provides information about a trend in curriculum, which is useful for administrators creating curriculum to know about. Charles commented, “Teachers on the frontline know their children better than anyone. They’ve got pent up expertise and imagination. If you could tap into that, you can unleash and unearth better targeted, smarter, more innovative micro-solutions for education than a superintendent on a large bureaucracy would come up with.”
A recent innovation could further revolutionize the way donors can identify projects to support—since last spring, DonorsChoose.org has invited web developers* to create applications to navigate and display postings on its site. There are as many as 25,000 classroom projects in need of funding on the website at any given time. A developer might create a mobile phone application which would present classroom project requests within the neighborhood where the donor happens to be at the moment, or a host of other applications not yet imagined.
Charles notes, “Donors are now empowered to be ‘citizen philanthropists’ to make the decisions about which projects should be brought to life. We think that certainly the people who come to our sites spend a lot more time thinking about and evaluating the projects, more so than a paid staff could.”
Charles and his wife, Bridget, have two children, three-year-old George and one-year-old Hannah. When asked about keeping up with GCS friends he says, “It’s easy on Facebook.” He shared his memories of being a student at Grace. “The earliest memory I have, would be my first day at Grace, in PreK with Mrs. Reid, I knew how to tie my shoe and I got this little certificate because I knew how to tie my shoe. So that was my earliest, but there were lots of amazing teachers and projects at Grace.” He remembered fondly Mrs. Henry, Mr. Diveki, Dr. Wheeler and his 7th and 8th grade English teacher, Mr. Hecksher. “But outside of Grace I would say it was my high school wrestling coach who made me want to be a teacher. I really looked up to him and I figured if anybody ever looked up to me the way that I looked up to him I would’ve done my share. So since then I wanted to be a teacher.”