Philanthropist urges smarter spending for education

Charles Best, the CEO of the critically-acclaimed philanthropy organization DonorsChoose.org, visited MSU on Tuesday, March 5 to give a lecture about philanthropy and civil engagement.

DonorsChoose.org is a fundraising site for teachers in public schools. When there is a need for technology, fieldtrips or speakers, a teacher can place a request on DonorsChoose.org with the expected cost. Thus far, over 250,000 teachers have utilized the site, raising over $165 million for over 500,000 projects.

Best came up with the idea for the website while teaching history in a low-income school in the Bronx of New York City’s. Though he is a New York native and has spent the majority of his life in the city, he said acclimating to the Bronx high school took some time.

“People think it’s the first year [that is tough], and then you have your legs under you,” Best said. “For me, it was my third year. The first and second years were tough, but in a good way.”

While teaching, Best and his colleagues experienced growing discontent about out-of-pocket expenses for classroom supplies, so Best decided to develop DonorsChoose.org to facilitate micro-donations to fund small projects.

His first personal project with the website was in 2000 and aimed to fund the cost of bringing Moctar Teyeb — a West African who had escaped from slavery in 1978 — to speak to his class. The first 11 projects on the website went unfunded, including his own, so Best personally invested in each of them. Word spread about the website, and in three years Oprah Winfrey featured DonorsChoose.org on her show.

Now, 13 years after the website launched, Best spoke about his current dream for DonorsChoose.org. He hopes the requests on the website can be used as research for politicians to create legislation based off what teachers need.

“Our dream is opening up our data and helping people make discoveries,” he said, “so that there will be smarter spending that’s responsive to classroom needs.”

Despite the challenges of educational reform, Best remains optimistic. He laughed about the challenges he faced when he began DonorsChoose.org, and the challenges that persist today.

“We don’t usually mention this,” he said, “but we got black-listed by PETA [People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals] because of the number of teachers getting money for dissection materials.”