Ask a public school teacher what her principal frustrations are, and right up there with “dumb requirements from the principal,” “dumb requirements from headquarters,” and “kids more interested in their phones than in me,” is “I can’t get any money for ______.”

Teachers often have pet projects that they wish the school would fund, but that central offices won’t spend money on. Public schools of course have outside donors, but most of them give on a large scale. I imagine that the Gates Foundation, for example, would not be able to cut a check for $200 to support a project of a particular teacher if she was not affiliated with a 501(c)(3).

Happily, teachers now have a crowdfunding option to support their projects. Since 1998, Donors Choose has provided teachers with a simple way to seek funding for their projects. Charles Best, the founder of Donors Choose, discusses his ideas in an interview with American Enterprise Institute[1] fellow Frederick Hess in this post from Education Next.

In the interview, Best explains that he started Donors Choose in 1998 because he was a New York City public school teacher frustrated by the amount of his own money he regularly spent on school supplies. “We’d talk in the teachers’ lunchroom about novels we’d assign to our students, a field trip we’d take them on, a science experiment we’d do…if we had the funding.”

So he decided to start a website, and with the aid of “a programmer who recently emigrated from Poland to N.Y.C.” started Donors Choose. In 20 years, he says, three million people have donated $760 million through his website to support 1.2 million projects from 470,000 teachers at public schools and charter schools. Teachers write their own proposals, and, as Best notes, they don’t need to know the arcane craft of grantmaking to be successful. The submissions are vetted by over 200 volunteers, and nearly all the proposals end up on their website.

Of course, the basic problem of crowdfunding for charity is: how do you know that the people who are getting the money are who they say they are? [2] How do you know your donations are being used in the way you want?

Donors Choose solves this problem by making sure the teacher recipients get things instead of checks, so a recipient can’t use the money for a vacation or a casino. They also work with trusted vendors to make sure they’re offered products at good prices, and sometimes these vendors offer products as in-kind contributions.

If someone says she needs dry erasers for whiteboards, you can contribute the cost of four of them for $15.96 from Teachers’ School Supply. Donors Choose asks, but does not mandate, that teachers add a 15 percent surcharge to their requests, which provides the organization’s budget.

So what do teachers want? I did a search, and here are three cases from teachers who work at elementary schools near where I live.

  • A teacher of first and second grade says she needs two iPads to introduce her children to French through videos that teach language comprehension.
  • A teacher of fifth grade says she needs parts for songs her school’s chorus will sing at a concert.
  • A first-grade teacher, whose funding request has the catchy but probably questionable title, “I Like Big Books And I Cannot Lie,” says she needs multi-level books for her students who are able to read at different levels.

Ms. “Big Books” had attracted six donors when I visited. One donor says he’s a graduate of county schools and is happy to help deserving students. Another donor says she’s happy to give to teachers who have her students reading books instead of staring at screens.

Charles Best says that the small gifts donors make are often a way of getting people interested in school reform. A survey conducted by Donors Choose showed that 72 percent of donors surveyed made their first contact with schools serving low-income students through their website. The survey showed that 60 percent of donors “were more interested in systemic education reform” after making a Donors Choose gift than they were before discovering the Donors Choose website.

“Far from letting government off the hook,” Best says, “we think DonorsChoose.org is casting sunlight on inequities in our public school system, in a uniquely vivid way. By engaging the public in our public schools, we contribute to the number of people who are fired up about improving the system itself.”

Donors Choose has also been attracting major donors. In March, Ripple, a company that owns cryptocurrency and finance businesses, donated $29 million to Donors Choose to fund every project seeking funds on Donors Choose at the time. According to Donors Choose, Ripple’s gift paid for 79,000 books, 15,000 art supply projects, and 6,200 projects requiring lab equipment.

In August, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark, through the Craig Newmark Foundation, donated $1 million to Donors Choose. According to Education Week, $850,000 of this is supposed to go to grants for science and technology projects, with the remaining $150,000 directed towards science and technology projects for girls.

But the success of Donors Choose doesn’t stem from their big grants, but from their small ones. The people who donate $10 or $25 to Donors Choose may be making small grants, but collectively, over 20 years, Donors Choose has provided more money for public schools and charter schools than any other donor.

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[1] The American Enterprise Institute has been a client of mine since 1990.  Most recently, in 2016 and 2017, I provided education policy research under a contract with AEI.  I do not currently have any projects with the American Enterprise Institute.

[2] I discuss the problems with crowdfunding and medical charity in this post.