Like all teachers, Charles Best wants to see his students succeed. Yet as a high school history teacher at Wings Academy in the Bronx, he saw firsthand the struggles his students faced: No dental care, no winter jackets, no lunch or school supplies.
As a result, Best was spending upward of $500 a year to give students the tools they needed to stay motivated to learn.
After five years of digging into his own pocket, Best came up with a solution: DonorsChoose.org, an online platform that empowers public school teachers across the United States to request funding for the materials and enrichment experiences their students need in order to progress — things like reading materials, whiteboards, audiobooks, math games and lap desks.
Donors can choose whatever project that appeals to them, and there is no required donation amount. When DonorsChoose.org launched in 2000, Best's colleagues posted the first 11 requests. The concept quickly spread.
That's no surprise. A recent study by the National Center for Education Statistics revealed that 1 in 5 students in the United States is living in poverty. The study further revealed that poverty and education are inextricably linked, as these students are seven times more likely to drop out of high school. As a result, educators are reaching into their own pockets to help out.
In a DonorsChoose.org survey of more than 2,000 educators from America's highest poverty classrooms, 84 percent of these teachers spent their own money to provide their students with basic needs such as clothing, food, shoes and personal hygiene items. Of these teachers, 63 percent report spending more than $100 of their own money each school year.
Now in its 17th year, DonorsChoose.org — operating under the tagline "Support a classroom. Build a future" — has raised more than $530 million and has funded over 935,000 projects. In all, more than 23 million students have benefited from Best's innovative approach to supporting America's classrooms.
In February, DonorsChoose.org expanded their original project model to include Student Life Essentials, a platform that goes beyond school supplies to provide students with critical life needs, like warm coats, clean clothes, personal hygiene items and food for outside of school. The concept, says DonorsChoose.org, is that having these materials means students can come to school with confidence, ready to learn, which will in turn set them up for better success.
SLE has caught the attention of notable philanthropists, including Twitter co-founder Biz Stone; co-owners of Townsend Press, Judy Nadell and John Langan; and Goldman Sachs executive Scott Rofey, among others. Together they have agreed to provide a $1 million fund that will be sourced to match any donation the projects in the SLE program receive.
Since its launch on February 9, SLE has raised more than $1,002,780 fully funding 2,025 projects to aid 241,226 students. These projects served 1,017 schools across America. Among the successful campaigns: footwear at Lincoln Elementary School in Utah, umbrellas at Frank Elementary School in Wisconsin and personal hygiene products for Muskegon Middle School in Michigan.
"My wife and I were smitten with this simple way to support students and teachers," Biz Stone says upon learning about DonorsChoose.org. The Twitter co-founder says that since discovering the organization, the couple has "enjoyed taking a broader role and being part of the big campaigns like #BestSchoolDay and Student Life Essentials, which often shine a light on the needs of teachers many people don't know about."
According to DonorsChoose.org, SLE garnered this level of support because of its popularity among tech founders and entrepreneurs, as well as through promotion from Stephen Colbert, a member of the organization's board of directors. On his show The Colbert Report, he gave his guests DonorsChoose.org gift cards.
Each campaign request is vetted by a team of 230 volunteers, mostly former teachers, who work out of the organization's New York and San Francisco offices. Every request posted on the site goes through a strict approval process, and each request must provide a breakdown of how the money will be used, right down to the penny.
DonorsChoose.org prides itself on total transparency. "I figured that if people could see where their money was going, they would want to help teachers like us," Best says.
At press time there were more than 190 requests posted on the Student Life Essentials platform, asking for funding for everything from warm jackets, wool socks and underwear to healthy snacks and water bottles. Donors can scroll through and decide which projects they would like to support. Once a project reaches its funding goal, DonorsChoose.org purchases the materials and distributes them to the students.
The Student Life Essentials program is the latest initiative for DonorsChoose.org, but their work is far from over, says Best, adding, "There's going to continue to be a need for things like this."
— By Ashley McHugh-Chiappone, special to CNBC.com