By Charity Hanley
A response to a public conversation with Charles Best on February 15, 2012.
Since 2000, Donorschoose.org has raised more than $100 million to fund classroom projects in public schools across the country, reaching more than 6 million students. On its site, teachers post projects like trips to an aquarium or requests for dictionaries, construction paper, even iPads to make classroom lessons come to life. Anyone can go online, pick a project, and donate as little as $5 to the project that interests them most.
CEO and founder Charles Best believes the nonprofit’s success has been fueled by the “pent-up innovation” of teachers and donors. Donorschoose.org, he said, gives teachers an unparalleled platform to develop new and creative solutions to the challenges they confront in their classrooms. And donors see exactly where their money is going. As with other peer-to-peer philanthropy sites like Kiva or even Kickstarter, they connect to the donation on a personal level, giving to their hometown, their favorite sport, or the class reading their favorite book from 7th grade.
But too much choice can be a problem, Best admitted. In some cases, donors found it too difficult to choose a project, and after looking through three or four web pages, they left without donating. Identifying a passion, said Best, “wasn’t in their muscle memory.” I am not so sure.
In a 2005 TED Talk, Sheena Iyengar talks about choice in “The Art of Choosing,” in which she shows that unlimited choice can be more attractive in theory than in practice. In her well known jam study, she demonstrated that when we have too many choices, in her case 24 flavours of jam, we are less likely to make a decision.
Donorschoose.org, which lists 25,000 projects at any given time, can give donors choice fatigue—and Best knows this. That is why Donorschoose.org now uses a logarithm that ranks projects according to their need, calculated by the school’s poverty level, and their likelihood of being fully funded. By narrowing down the choices, the logorithm helps donors decide on which projects to fund.
I had my doubts about this logarithm. Shouldn’t Best himself bring his experience and knowledge to bear on this ranking process? After all, his ten years as CEO (and five years as a public school teacher in the Bronx) must have given him some expert perspective on which projects work best and benefit the most number of students, and so ought to be funded. Shouldn’t he use his expertise to guide donors, ensuring that they make the best choice, and not leave it entirely up to a logarithm?
Best says no. While Best admitted that the peer-to-peer giving doesn’t work for all charitable causes—indeed relief and aid organizations must depend on trained professionals to assess and respond to disasters, for example—he believes that most donors are well capable of identifying exciting classroom projects on their own. After all, we were once students, too, and know a good lesson when we seen one.
He also believes there’s “wisdom in the aggregate.” The data on projects, which Donorschoose.org has inadvertently amassed, gives powerful insight into the needs teachers face on the front lines. For example, more and more math teachers are posting requests for cooking equipment to illustrate the value of fractions, and English teachers are asking for basic projectors so they can project book pages onto the screen and trace along with their fingers (something that high-tech interactive whiteboards can’t do).
The ability to mine the data on project requests could have far-reaching implications in shaping education reform. Originally intended to support grass-roots action, Donorschoose.org now has the opportunity to find new solutions and help integrate those that work best into the education system. Its data has the potential to inform important choices made at the policy level.
Charity Hanley spent the last eight years advising businesses in the United Kingdom on corporate responsibility.