Perhaps once or twice in a lifetime, there is a mentor who makes you believe in yourself, thus changing your world forever.
For me, one such man was Mr. Buxton. Much more than a wrestling coach, he trained us all to be purpose-driven machines. Each of the wrestlers on our 1992-1995 teams went on to enter the "real world" and push the boundaries of the possible: in business, entertainment, and even education. Charles Best, now CEO of DonorsChoose.org, has gone from teaching in the Bronx to rubbing shoulders with Queen Noor, all in the name of revolutionizing education in the US.
Where did it all start? Bashing heads with me each week as we fought for the 152-lb. varsity spot under Mr. Buxton.
The below interview with Charles will show you how to pair a luxury lifestyle with changing the world, how he went from zero funding to receiving help from Pierre Omidyar of eBay, how he got on Oprah, and much, much more.
What prompted you to start DonorsChoose.org?
During my first year of teaching at a public high school in the Bronx, my colleagues and I would talk about books we wanted our students to read, a field trip that would bring the subject matter to life, an art project that just needed certain art supplies... Many of us would go into our own pockets to buy copy paper and pencils, but for the most part, we saw our students going without the materials and experiences they needed to learn.
But why attempt to create an entirely new way of donating?
I suspected that there were lots of people who wanted to help our public schools. But I also suspected that those same people were skeptical about writing a $100 check to a big institution and then wondering whether their money really went to the intended recipients. By using the power of the web, I saw a way to give ordinary "citizen philanthropists" the same level of choice and impact that Bill Gates gets when he's making a million-dollar gift.
Did you have to be tech-savvy to start the website on your own?
I'm not tech savvy at all. In fact, I only learned how to do instant messaging a year ago. I created DonorsChoose by putting pencil to paper -- literally -- and sketching out each screen of the web site and how it would work. Then I paid a programmer from Poland $1,500 to turn my sketches and common-sense rules into a functioning website. That was Version 1.0 of DonorsChoose.org, and it sufficed for two years!
With the website constructed, how did you get teachers to participate?
My mom helped me make dessert for my colleagues, and I put it in the teachers' lunch room saying, "If you eat this dessert, you have to go to my newly created website and ask for whatever it is you most want for your students." Eleven of my colleagues ate the dessert, and then went to DonorsChoose.org and submitted project proposals ranging from "Immigration Novels ($200)" to "Baby Think-It-Over Dolls for Pregnancy Prevention ($400)."
Did you need to have a network of rich friends to get donations flowing through the site?
At the time, I didn't have any rich friends or family members who could fund projects on the website. My aunt, who's a nurse, funded the first project, and then I funded the other 10 anonymously. I'm embarrassed to admit that the reason I could spare such funds from my teacher's salary is that I was living at home with my parents.
That doesn't seem like a sustainable way to support a fledgling organization.
It wasn't. But my students came to the rescue. Every day, for three months, they would come after school and volunteer to stuff, stamp, and hand-address letters to people all over the country -- letters telling people about DonorsChoose.org and asking them to check out the web site and consider a donation. We got the addresses out of the alumni directories for my high school and college. My students sent 2,000 letters, which generated $30,000 in donations to projects on DonorsChoose.org.
Was that enough to reach critical mass?
No. To really drive donors to the web site, we needed some serious media attention. At first, I tried calling local reporters, but none of them would give me the time of day. Then I said screw it, and cold-called a senior editor of Newsweek, Jonathan Alter, during my lunch hour at school. He actually wanted to talk! An hour of conversation later, he decided to write a column arguing that one day, DonorsChoose.org would "change the face of philanthropy." Oprah Winfrey noticed the piece, and the rest is history.
It must feel good to know that you're helping kids, but what else makes it fun to run DonorsChoose.org?
For starters, the people I encounter. I've met with Queen Noor because she was interested in how our technology might be applied to peace in the Middle East. I've met with titans of Silicon Valley because they're investing in our national expansion. I've had lunch with Claire Danes because she sees DonorsChoose.org as the best way to help students in public schools. I would never, ever rub shoulders with such people if I had followed the typical career path in investment banking or whatever.
Some people may think that working for a nonprofit means living off canned soup and forgoing the good life. Is that really true?
Two months ago, I found myself on the beaches of Haifa, watching capoeira dancers perform to conga drums while the sun set behind the Mediterranean ocean. An Israeli philanthropist had flown me out so that I could offer some help with an education initiative that he's launching. As part of my week in Israel, I took a helicopter ride across the country, buzzing through canyons and circling Roman ruins. I do not live off canned soup.
If you could ask readers of this interview to do one thing, what would it be?
Right now, it would be to take 30 seconds and vote for our submission in the American Express Members Project. We're in the semi-finals to win up to $5 million, all of which would go to classroom projects on our website. In the spirit of "letting the people decide," we would distribute DonorsChoose gift certificates to all the people who voted, enabling them to apply the award proceeds to classroom projects of their choice.
The margin of victory could well be a hundred votes or less. This is one contest where each person's vote makes a huge difference. We're up against stiff competition, but if people vote off of this post this week, we could pull off an upset victory and improve the educations of thousands of public school students.
Earn some serious good karma and use this as your moment of zen today. You can make a difference in tens of thousands of lives with the click of a button -- but only this week. Please take these two simple steps to move from spectator to player in creating the world you want:
1. Vote here. If creating an account and voting is at all confusing, just view the Voting Guide PDF for simple instructions. If you don't have an American Express Card, please forward this post to a friend and ask them to vote on your behalf.
2. Email/IM/blog your friends to do the same.
Let us bring power to the people, but let us also recognize that power begins with one simple tool: education. Arm the masses here.