Ahead of Summit West 2020, NationSwell is profiling leaders and luminaries from a diverse array of fields to discover how they lead with purpose — and inspire others to do the same.
Educator and entrepreneur Charles Best was crowdsourcing before it was cool.
When he started DonorsChoose, a platform that connects underfunded public school teachers with donors, the entire company operated out of the tiny classroom in the Bronx where he was a teacher.
Best says he and his colleagues would spend lunch breaks discussing how much of their own salaries they spent on paper and pencils for their students, or on trips and projects their schools couldn’t support. He knew they weren’t alone in their passion for their students’ success, and soon envisioned a way to connect motivated citizens with classrooms in need.
What began almost twenty years ago as a scrappy classroom operation in the Bronx will soon be able to boast that it has raised over a billion dollars. They’ve helped fund half a million projects in 80% of our nation’s public schools. Best says purpose has been always core to DonorsChoose’s mission, and that acting with that core value in mind has been key to his success. But as they learned in 2003, and again in 2010, a little shine from Oprah never hurts, either.
NationSwell spoke to Best on Friday. Here’s what he had to say about putting purpose into action.
NationSwell: You were a teacher in the Bronx when you started DonorsChoose. Would you be willing to share the story with me about how that idea and that inspiration came to be?
DonorsChoose Founder and CEO Charles Best: Absolutely. I taught there for five years. During my first year of teaching, like teachers everywhere, my colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on copy paper and pencils, and then we would talk in the teacher’s lunch room about projects we wanted to do with our students that we couldn’t personally pay for — and that might’ve been a novel we wanted all our students to read, or a field trip we wanted to take them on or a science experiment that required a couple of microscopes.
And as we were talking in the teacher’s lunch room, I just figured that there were people out there who would want to help teachers like us if they could see exactly where their money was going. This is years and years before crowdfunding was a word or a thing, but it just made fundamental sense that there are people who want to support public school classrooms but don’t really see where their money’s going, and I thought we could connect teachers like us with donors or concerned citizens along the lines of what I described.
NS: Can you talk to me a little bit about where DonorsChoose was at the end of its first year versus where it is right now in terms of its growth?
CB: DonorsChoose launched in the spring of 2000, and we were operating out of my classroom. My students were our staff members. We even used my classroom as a mail sorting center after school because we were writing letters to people trying to get the first donations on our site. And we were actually hand-addressing and compiling physical letters because it was that far back in the day. And every desk in my classroom represented a different part of the country, so we could pile up letters going to different regions and get a cheaper postal rate. In any case, end of the first year, our nerve center, our headquarters is still my classroom and we had just expanded beyond the teachers at the school where I was teaching and there were a good number, let’s say 50 or so other teachers in other parts of the Bronx who were creating projects on our site. That’s status at end of year one.
And then we’re now in year 20 and in probably just a few months we’ll cross $1 billion of giving through the site to classroom projects. More than half a million public school teachers have gotten projects funded through the site. 80% of all the public schools in the country have had teachers who have posted projects.
So we’ve grown a lot since those more humble origins 20 years ago.
“We try and infuse purpose into our work without ever feeling overly virtuous. Humility is one of our core values.” — Charles Best, CEO and founder of DonorsChoose
NS: What are the key factors behind your success?
CB: Well, we got lucky in any number of ways. I’d like to think we worked hard for the luck, but there absolutely was serious luck involved. I’ll give you just one example. In 2001, I cold-called a whole lot of reporters, and I probably had to call 100 reporters before I found one who was willing to talk to me and hear me out as I described this nonprofit that my students were helping to get off the ground. And he wrote a one paragraph story about what we were up to for Newsweek, and Oprah Winfrey’s producers saw that little paragraph and reached out.
And so in 2003, Oprah Winfrey shines her spotlight on us and in the aftermath of her segment, and I had describe it as an aftermath only because she completely crashed our site, the moment she mentioned our website, I think there’s 20,000 people that simultaneously typed our URL into their browser and we just melted down. But when we got back up again, people started calling us from different parts of the country wanting to see DonorsChoose expand to their public schools. And so that really put in motion our national expansion, which culminated in 2007 when we opened our site to all the public schools in the country. But that national expansion wouldn’t have gotten moving when it did, if not for the pure stroke of luck of Oprah’s producers reading that one little paragraph.
So that’s a long way of saying that media coverage where, in any number of cases, we’ve just gotten really, really lucky has played a serious role. I think just the DonorsChoose experience itself has helped to spur growth because when a teacher creates a project on our site and gets funded — and more than 70% of teachers are successful at least once on our site — and when they are, the arrival of books or art supplies or science equipment tends to inspire other teachers to have a little bit of hope that if they were to share their best idea for helping students learn on DonorsChoose, that it might get funded. And then, of course, when a donor gives to a project and has this experience of finding a project that matches their passion or their background, and seeing where their money goes and hearing back from the classroom in a really vivid way, hopefully that inspires them to tell other people.
NS: What does acting or leading with purpose mean to you?
CB: I think folks who work at nonprofit organizations have a little bit of an easier time seeing how purpose is integral to their work and what they do during the daylight hours. And at DonorsChoose, I think we work hard to ensure that purpose that does infuse our work, and that purpose being to bring America a little bit closer to a place where students in every community have the materials and experiences they need to learn. We try and infuse purpose into our work without ever feeling overly virtuous. Humility is one of our core values. And if we’re going to pair humility with another attribute, it’d probably be hustle — because we think that hustle and humility are the two things that will enable you to create an organization that’s built to last, and one that continues to grow. The best situation is one where you feel like you don’t ever have to be thoughtful about purpose because it feels given, or it feels that have already evident in the work.
NS: What or who inspires you to keep committing to acting with purpose? How do you stay mission driven?
CB: One person who inspired me way back when and who I think of frequently is my high school English teacher and wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton. He really inspired me, and I figured if anybody ever looked up to me the way that I looked up to Mr. Buxton, I’d have done my share in life. And so it was thanks to Mr Buxton that I knew from sophomore year of high school that I wanted to be a teacher when I graduated. And it was only by virtue of being a teacher that I started DonorsChoose because DonorsChoose is of the breed of startup that comes from someone having an itch, and figuring out a way to scratch it — and it turning out that a lot more people have that same itch.
At a time of extreme tension and uncertainty, people are losing confidence in traditional institutions’ ability to solve bigger problems facing our communities and environment. To fill the vid, leaders and organizations are expected to make a commitment to a purpose that benefits all stakeholders.
NationSwell’s Summit West will bring together a diverse group of impactful leaders and organizations. Together, we will learn from the people practicing purpose every day.