Teachers at 50% of the schools in the United States rely on DonorsChoose.org to solicit donations for materials they need in their classrooms. In just over 10 years, Charles Best has gone from inspired insight to being one of the most celebrated social entrepreneurs in the country. From the very beginning, pro bono service has been a critical part of his success, accounting for 20% of their budget. We recently spoke about the role pro bono service has had in the development of DonorsChoose.org.
For the three people in the country who don't know about DonorsChoose.org, what do you do?
Sure. I was a history teacher at a high school in the Bronx for 5 years and my colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on copy paper and pencils and we would come up with all these ideas for projects that would bring the subject matter to life, but those ideas would never go beyond the teacher's lunchroom because we didn't have a place where we could go to get the kind of micro-funding that we needed to get our students a particular book, take them on a field trip, get the materials needed for a biology experiment.
And then I figured that there were people from all walks of life who WANTED to help improve our public schools but were getting more and more skeptical about writing a $100 check and throwing it over a wall and giving it to a large bureaucracy and wondering how their money was spent. So that was the impetus to start the site.
It's a place where public school teachers post classroom project requests and donors can choose a project they want to support, and then get really rich feedback in the form of photographs and thank you letters and a cost report showing the impact of their donation.
How well is it working?
Half of all the public schools in America have at least one teacher who has posted a project request on our site over the past few years. It's almost 800,000 citizen philanthropists who along with our corporate partners and foundation partners have given over $130 million to classroom projects reaching 6 million students overwhelmingly from low income families and yeah, those would be the top line stats.
What was the first pro bono resource you used where you had a professional donate their time to help you with the early days?
It was a lot of donated time in the beginning. Friends volunteering their time to get our organization off the ground. The original website, also, was paid for - but for a total of $2,000. We had to pay for the coding, but that's all.
How do you leverage pro bono service today?
It has become a priority to leverage our relationships with corporate partners to augment financial support with pro bono help, and there are a couple shops in New York - Agenda and Primacy (formerly Acsys) are providing us with collateral design and mobile strategy, both pro bono.
American Express and JPMorgan Chase are examples of companies that provide both financial and pro bono support. American Express, as a recent example, has provided a team of professionals who are doing a landscape analysis for us, looking at all the organizations out there that have any similarity - whether by way of education or of peer-to-peer funding - to DonorsChoose. It's something of great value that we couldn't have done ourselves, nor have paid the market rate for someone else to do it without breaking our bank.
Another example - Yahoo donated a team of six engineers and effectively put them on sabbatical for a few months to help us re-write our code base. We knew we wanted to open our site to all public schools in the country, and this project gave us that capability.
What role has your board in helping you connect with companies and to help figure out how to leverage pro bono?
The sweetest example, Steven Colbert, did to unleash pro bono help, and that was by committing to give a trophy to the web developer or data cruncher who built the most impactful app or analysis, using our open data. We have a MOUNTAIN of information which captures every aspect of each of our projects - from past funding to teacher background to community need and poverty rate - and so we used this contest to crowdsource an app developer to help us index and communicate this information in the most effective way to create discoveries. The winner created something so simple, but so important to our bottom line - an algorithm that communicates what teachers most need, in what communities and against which environmental factors, broadcasting discoveries that we believe could make government education better targeted and more responsive, raise awareness about particular needs in particular communities, identify creative teaching strategies to get reluctant learners hooked on math, the list goes on.
What would you say is the overall percentage of pro bono support in your annual budget?
Well, between our pro bono legal help, Agenda helping us not only with graphic design but also with the strategy around our brand identity, plus all of our corporate support, we're talking about almost 20% of our total budget.
What advice would you have for yourself, say 6 years ago or 7 years ago, about how and when to use pro bono services in building an organization.
One thing I would say is that you should really try to seek pro bono help from a company for a project that is really in their sweet spot. I have some super smart colleagues and they come up with their own pretty killer ideas, and if we're not using a company for pro bono it its true sweet spot, we may not be getting expertise and ideas which are any better than what my colleagues would come up with.
DonorsChoose.org is a featured organization on our Powered by Pro Bono Nonprofit Leadership Series, highlighting organizations that maximize their impact by leveraging pro bono resources. The series celebrates the launch of Taproot's new book and program, Powered by Pro Bono.