NPS Blog

Teaching the values of transparency and integrity: How DonorsChoose became a world-class charity

In 2000, Charles Best, a young history teacher in the Bronx, came up with the idea for a fund-raising website as he photocopied pages from the classic children’s novel Little House on the Prairie for his class. He and his fellow teachers faced a common problem: The school system would not or could not fund the materials they needed to create a great education for their students. In some cases, teachers lacked funding for specific books. In other cases, they lacked art or other classroom supplies. To fill the gap, they paid for things from their own pockets or held little fund-raisers among the parents in their schools. But in some schools—like the one Charles was teaching in—the vast majority of families lived in such deep poverty that scraping together money for classroom supplies often meant giving up other essential items the family needed.

Charles-Best-headshotSo Charles set out to find a new way to raise money for his classroom. He found a freelance Web designer to build a very basic site for $2,000. The site enabled teachers to post a description of supplies they needed, and it gave parents and friends a way to donate toward the purchase of those supplies. He recruited his teacher friends to list their needs, and he recruited his friends and family to donate money. He developed this nonprofit organization during the scant free time he had from his full-time teaching job.

A few years later, Oprah was hailing his website, DonorsChoose.org, as a “revolutionary charity” on her show. And within just a day or so, she had inspired over $250,000 in contributions to the organization.  There was so much traffic on the website that it crashed under the crush of new visitors. Since those early days, the group has dramatically expanded. DonorsChoose aims to raise $90 million this school year, funding tens of thousands of classroom projects throughout the US. Long term, it hopes to serve 100% of the nation’s highest-poverty schools.

Katie-Bisbee-headshotRecently, Charles joined Katie Bisbee, the chief marketing officer of DonorsChoose, as guests on the Net Promoter System Podcast. Charles and Katie shared the story of the organization’s early days, its cultural ethos and the many ways it seeks and uses feedback from its constituents.

One of the organization’s key operating principles, a commitment to transparency, permeates every aspect of the donor and teacher experience. Donors not only get to select specific school projects to fund, but they can also explicitly choose whether their contributions will support the nonprofit. As it turns out, so many people have chosen to support the group’s operations that it hasn’t needed to raise additional operating funds—a rarity in philanthropy.

school-suppliesThe nonprofit also has strong systems for reinforcing one of its other operating principles: integrity. For example, it has a careful system to vet and monitor every funding request, to ensure quality. When a teacher proposes a project, not only does staff review the proposal, but another teacher must also review it. DonorsChoose also informs the teacher’s principal about the request. Moreover, when a project reaches full funding, DonorsChoose directly buys the art supplies, books or equipment for the classroom rather than sending the money. This method reduces fraud and helps reassure donors that their money is actually being used to meet students’ needs.

The success of DonorsChoose depends on creating a truly enjoyable experience for all involved. This means that it must focus not only on its website and technology, but also on the processes and operational interfaces it has in the real world with teachers, donors, school principals and even vendors. As a result, the nonprofit has put real focus on learning and improving. It has been using a variety of techniques to get feedback from its various constituents, and it is using the Net Promoter System to gauge sentiment across these groups to ensure that their needs are being served.

With an inspiring mission, a compelling solution to a pervasive problem and a maniacal focus on creating great experiences for all involved, it isn’t surprising that Oprah has championed the cause. I first found out about DonorsChoose through my kids, and I’ve donated money to several projects over the last few years. It is rewarding to know that I’m helping out great teachers who are dedicated to the success of their students. And it always makes my day when I receive a big package of handwritten thank-you notes the students send after receiving the project materials.

Transparency and integrity. I suspect there are very few organizations that say they don’t aspire to those values. But few have brought them to life as effectively as DonorsChoose has. On the podcast, Charles and Katie tell their inspiring story and also share some practical tips and tricks they’ve learned for running a world-class charity.

You can listen to my discussion with Charles and Katie on iTunes or through the player below. Click here to browse more episodes of the Net Promoter System Podcast.

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