DURHAM — These days, when so much attention in the media is paid to how scam artists use the web and Internet to steal everything from identities to cash intended for disaster relief, it’s gratifying to hear a story about the upside of technology.
Charles Best, a former New York City public school teacher, is proof that the Internet can be used for the good of others. He also freely admits his philanthropic efforts at DonorsChoose would not be possible without the Net and web that we all now take for granted.
“We wouldn’t have ever considered doing this without the Internet,” Best said firmly during a visit to Durham on Tuesday for a fundraiser. “This type of giving can only be done in real time.
“You see a request from a teacher in Raleigh and you react directly to it. You can see your action reflected immediately.”
With all the talk about the web being used for one-to-one marketing and customer relationship management, DonorsChoose sets an example for other philanthropic efforts, charities and businesses that want to improve their service.
The DonorsChoose web site is all about giving the individual donor options, assurances and feedback about their donations. The site also enables its “customers” — teachers — to go online and post specific requests for needs to be met in their classrooms.
“My colleagues and I would sit around the teacher’s lunchroom and talk about the books, the art supplies, the microscopes and the science labs that our students needed to learn but didn’t have,” Best, a graduate of Yale who taught history and English before going to work full time for DonorsChoose, recalled. “There was no funding for teachers’ best ideas.”
The group also was very astute in thinking through possible fundraising ideas. If they did launch some sort of effort to raise cash, how could they convince donors that the money would be spent on specific needs?
“People are skeptical when they give $100 to charity. Where does the money go,” Best said. “We just hatched the idea of using the web so teachers like us could post ideas. People would wanted to donate $10 could be philanthropists, and we would use the web to provide feedback to those donors so they could see their funds at work.
“We give very specific menus of selections.”
Teachers must fill out specific requests and agree to provide feedback about donations received. DonorsChoose uses its collective buying power to purchase supplies, hardware and such at discounts then delivers the requested package to teachers. They also send along a disposable camera and stipulate that students write thank you notes. These, an expenditure report and photos are then sent to the donors.
North Carolina Is ‘Setting the Standards’
The response to DonorsChoose has far exceeded Best’s expectations. The effort has received overwhelmingly positive press from national TV, magazines and newspapers to Oprah. Best’s appearances on her show triggered North Carolina entrepreneur and philanthropist Michael Brader-Araje to establish DonorsChooseNC last year.
Since DonorsChoose was launched in 2000, the group has raised more than $4 million and provided assistance to 228,000 students across 45 states. In North Carolina, some 48,000 students have already received $575,000 in support.
“This is one of the most innovative charities in America,” said former North Carolina Governor Jim Hunt, who attended the fundraiser and is an avid DonorsChoose backer. “This is just getting started. The potential to find out exactly what teacher’s needs are and literally to choose how to spend the money will help teachers and students. This will generate a whole new level of support for North Carolina’s schools and help improve them.”
Best could do nothing but smile in wonder as he worked the crowd that turned out at the American Tobacco complex. The North Carolina group, which is led by director Missy Sherburne, raised $24,000 for relief efforts related to Hurricane Katrina. And that total doesn’t include corporate contributions that went toward the fundraiser’s costs.
“North Carolina has just been phenomenal,” Best said. “They honestly are setting standards for other regions to follow. They were the first community to take DonorsChoose outside of New York City, and we are getting as many requests from North Carolina teachers as we are from New York.”
Success Triggers More Demand
The funds donated Tuesday will also count toward money being raised by DonorsChoose in a competition with nine other charities selected by Amazon.com. The winner gets a $1 million grant.
The more money the better, Best said. As successful as DonorsChoose has been in raising money, the needs are great.
“Just barely,” Best replied when asked if DonorsChoose is able to satisfy teacher quests. “As we generate more success, the work is getting out to more teachers, and that generates a greater urgency.”
Dealing with the touchy subject of charity administrative costs is one DonorsChoose decided to meet head on. Givers are given the option to direct 15 percent of their gift or increase it so money can be applied toward overhead, such as fulfillment costs, the cameras and development.
The choices have encouraged donors to be quite generous, Best said. “More than 90 percent of the givers are choosing to include the administrative costs,” he explained. “They obviously appreciate our being honest and transparent with them.”
Encouraged by its success thus far, DonorsChoose has set aggressive goals.
“We want to be working with all public schools in the United States,” best said, “and we want other states to follow North Carolina’s lead.”