They asked. He answered! Charles Best, our founder and CEO, started DonorsChoose back in 2000 out of his Bronx classroom, and he’s guided the organization every step of the way since then.
In a recent newsletter, we opened up the floor for our incredible teachers to ask Charles anything—and they sent us a little bit of everything! We picked the most-asked questions, plus a few favorites, and sat down with Charles to get some answers. Here’s what he had to say.
Q. What inspired you to create a system that supports classrooms across the country?
Edwina Lawson (Detroit, MI)
A. I was a teacher for five years. I taught history and English and a class called virtual enterprise, and my colleagues and I would spend our own money on school supplies. I figured there were people out there who would want to help us if they could see where their money was going, and from that came the idea for DonorsChoose.
Do you miss the classroom?
Valerie McElroy (Florence, SC)
I do miss it. I miss teaching. My wrestling coach made me want to be a teacher, and I dreamed of coaching wrestling in addition to teaching. I never did that, so I miss it.
What do you feel are the most-needed resources, for Title I and low-income-serving schools, that will impact student lives most?
Mrs. Hughes (Riverside, CA)
Anything that makes learning tactile, whether it’s math manipulatives for kids in early grades—so they can touch and construct math concepts—or a robotics kit for kids in high school. Any resource that makes learning hands-on is vital.
As founder and CEO, I’m sure you have seen many projects come through DonorsChoose. What are some of the most memorable projects you’ve seen, as well as some of the most life-changing for teachers and students?
Kim Ludkiewicz (Agawam, MA)
It’s hard to pick, but I remember a project called Give Cindy a Voice. It was for a voice output device so that a student with spastic cerebral palsy could communicate with her friends and family—so the project title wasn’t figurative.
And I remember a North Carolina teacher whose student had died in a fire because the home didn’t have a smoke detector. She requested smoke detectors for each of her students to install in their homes and to use to teach their families about fire safety.
How would you describe the most rewarding experience you’ve had so far as the founder and CEO of the organization?
Analiza Maghanoy (Henderson, NC)
All of us here spend most of our days behind computer screens and we don’t get to interact in the flesh with the teachers we serve, so anytime I’m just listening to a teacher talk about how they’ve used our site it’s an inspiring moment.
At a past partner summit, we got to shout out a teacher who’s teaching in a juvenile detention facility. She’s gotten a huge number of projects funded and she spoke about how transformative DonorsChoose has been for her students. She told us about the garden they’ve built in the facility and other things she’s done. That was especially poignant.
What can we, as teachers, do to spread the word about DonorsChoose on a larger scale in our towns?
Suzanne Williams (Fayetteville, NC)
We’d be the first to say we haven’t fully equipped our teacher-users to spread the word about their projects or about our organization, but we’re working on that right now. Things like our new personalized flyers are a good start, but we have to enable teachers to score wider coverage. Teachers are are key to making DonorsChoose a household name.
Are you worried that organizations like DonorsChoose give legislators an excuse to underfund education?
Michael Schroeder (Tulsa, OK)
Great question! Our donors tell us that giving to a project on DonorsChoose is a politically energizing experience. So—rather than feeling like they’ve solved the problem because they’ve just funded a classroom’s request for dictionaries—the vast majority of our donors come out of that experience newly-awakened to inequity in our public school system. They’re charged-up to do something about it, or at least to demand change. 70% of our donors say they are more interested in systemic reform as a result of giving to projects on our site.
That’s the impact we have on our citizen donors, but we also think we can impact those very legislators that you’re asking about by opening up our data. That way, policy-makers can listen to classroom teachers and hear what they’re trying to tell the powers-that-be about what resources are most needed, what activities they think are most effective, what books are best at getting kids hooked on reading. By opening up that data, we hope to give teachers a seat at the budget-making table.
We think we’re building a groundswell of awareness and sensitivity to unmet needs in low-income classrooms. Our site is a means for officials and the general public to listen to teachers and do something about it.
How can we get people to see how education is the key to a better future for all when the privileged have access to resources and exposure—unlike the unprivileged?
Gigi Garbanzos (Waukegan, IL)
Teachers and the projects they create on DonorsChoose are part of the solution—though certainly not the only part—because stories are more impactful than statistics. The best way to show people the importance of education is through stories and personalities and vivid detail. The projects teachers create on DonorsChoose are probably some of the best stories and most vivid illustrations out there about the needs of students in low-income communities and all that teachers are doing and innovating to address those needs.
Thinking back on your [own time] as a student, what is something you wished your teacher had received [through] DonorsChoose? What would you have written in your thank-you note?
Lee Ann Mahoney (North Reading, MA)
I loved woodworking and I would’ve appreciated any teacher who requested woodworking materials for me. But, really, it was the availability of the resources I needed when I was in school, in contrast to the lack of resources in the Bronx high school where I later taught, which prompted me to start DonorsChoose.
As for my thank-you note for those woodworking materials, I would have said: “Thank you for giving me the singular delight of building something.” It’s the same delight I feel talking about the futures we’re going to build on DonorsChoose.