What major problem are you solving?
There are essentially 3 big, interrelated problems. The most central problem: kids in low income communities don’t have the same resources available to them in their public school classrooms that kids in upper income communities do.
And – related to that central problem – is the problem of teachers going into their own pockets to buy school supplies that their students lack. And finally, there’s a systems gap: folks who want to financially support public school classrooms, but don’t know quite how to do so.
So what do you think is most distinctive, innovative, or unusual about the approach that y'all are taking?
I think it’s that we tap the wisdom of the front lines.
Many organizations are specific prescriptions for particular problems. And donorschoose.org is not a prescription so much as we are a platform, through which classroom teachers – who know their students better than anybody else in the system – can propose micro-solutions.
And we think that these micro-solutions are often better targeted, more innovative, and more creative than what someone might come up with from on high, or from the ivory tower.
So rather than our team pushing a particular intervention, we’ve instead figured out how to tap into the front line wisdom of classroom teachers who will come up with better interventions than anyone.
What role has the NationSwell Council played in your work, and has it helped you generate any additional impact?
Absolutely. One shining example is our work with the Dalio Foundation. The Dalio Family Foundation has done any number of great things for Connecticut public school students through donorschoose.org.
In one great instant, they used our site to fully fund every single classroom project in the state of Connecticut in one surprise instant on #BestSchoolDay a couple years ago.
In that one instant, they funded 603 projects from teachers, at 202 schools, affecting 49,472 students.
And they’ve done much more since then. They’ve also used our platform to get Connecticut high school teachers and middle school teachers thinking really deeply and rigorously about how to engage students at risk of disengagement – basically, how to combat absenteeism – via the CT Opportunity Project. Through that initiative, they’ve funded 428 projects at 49 schools, affecting 29,370 students.
And their incredibly generous support, and the incredibly innovative things that they’ve done through our platform, all trace their roots back to NationSwell, and an introduction that came out of the Council.
How would you say your work cuts across traditional sectors or industries?
Well, we are half tech start-up, half charity. The way that we capture + measure performance probably more resembles a for-profit than a charity. So I’ll give you just one simple example.
We don’t have to have drawn out conversations about what our mission is and how to measure it. We can simply look at year-over-year growth in dollars contributed to classroom projects through our site, at schools where more than half of students qualify for free lunch.
Basically, year-over-year growth in dollars to classroom projects at high-need public schools. And that number is as clean as a stock price or a profit margin.
And then related to driving year-over-year growth in dollars to classroom projects on our site are a host of challenges that we think do cut across both charities and businesses. For example, figuring out how to set and authenticate hundreds of thousands of classroom project requests that are submitted every year; how to fulfill the classroom projects that are funded on our site; and how to enable teachers to provide really vivid feedback to their donors without incurring overhead costs.
If you were to pick another Council member’s organization and say, “I wish more people knew about the great work that they’re doing,” who might you point to?
Gosh, so many candidates. The one I just gravitate to immediately is iMentor, where I serve on the board of directors, and whose CEO, Mike O’Brien, is a Council member.
I think they don’t enough credit for their approach: taking a whole-grade or whole-school approach to pairing students with mentors. There are so many programs out there that enable students to self-select into a mentorship program – whereas, what iMentor does is work with the school and provide mentors to every single student throughout a grade – whether or not those students were self-selecting into the program.
As a result, their impact – the increases in college acceptance and college persistence – are much more cleanly attributable to the program itself, because they’re taking this whole-school, whole-grade approach. And I feel these programs that take a whole-grade or whole-school approach – and don’t allow for self-selection by beneficiaries – hold themselves to an even higher standard of impact in doing so.