Charles Best, the CEO and founder of the classroom crowdfunding website DonorsChoose.org, spoke in Broyhill Auditorium on Tuesday, April 5 to a crowd of students and local teachers about his success as a small business entrepreneur and the foundations of building a non-profit organization.
Best was invited to speak as a part of Wake Forest’s “Leadership Project,” which invites national and local leaders to speak on campus about the qualities of effective leadership.
His work creating DonorsChoose.org pioneered sourcing crowdfunding as a partial solution for classrooms on tight government budgets.
The website creates a way for teachers with a vision for a project or fieldtrip for students but lack funding to ask for help. Then DonorsChoose.org directly purchases the requested materials for the classroom and delivers them, so that donors directly see the impact that their donation has made.
On Tuesday, March 29, Wake Forest students participated in #BestSchoolDay, a philanthropic flash-mob through which students could redeem $25 DonorsChoose.org gift cards and fund projects posted by teachers in the Forsyth County system. DonorsChoose.org has founded 1,770 classroom projects in Forsyth County.
Best, a graduate of Yale University, started by describing the beginning of DonorsChange.org, an idea he had while in his first year of teaching in the Bronx.
He said that starting the project was similar to woodworking — another of his hobbies — in several ways, as one spends a lot of time creating the parts, just to end up modifying them to fit all of the pieces together.
The idea for creating a crowdfunding site came to him after he realized that he was using a lot of his own money to purchase school supplies, specifically copies of Little House on the Prairie, for his classroom. He figured that there had to be people out there willing to fund classroom projects and materials if the need was apparent.
“I thought there must be people out there who would want to help if they could see where their money is going,” Best said. “Normally donators take the role of a passive check-writer than a micro-philanthropist, so I thought that the internet would help bring transparency and vivid feedback of where that donation is going.”
When asked about his methods of leadership and discipline, both in his company and while he was in the classroom, Best said that passion plays a big role in the effectiveness of any project or group.
“My method for achieving discipline in the classroom was to be more enthusiastic about the subject than students were about whatever else they wanted to be doing,” Best said. “I’d like to think that my enthusiasm infected them with an interest in the subject matter. At DonorsChoose.org, I hope my passion for the mission rubs off on my colleagues. That’s my method of leadership.”
Best credits the success of his organization to two qualities: hustle and humility.
Best and his colleagues worked hard to start the company and build the base for what was going to grow out of New York and find a spot on Oprah Winfrey’s list of “Ultimate Favorite Things.”
Best’s hustle and passion for his project motivated his students to participate in the startup of the company as well. His students ran a hand-written letter writing campaign directly out of the classroom, which ended up raising $30,000 for the organization.
“My students were my staff members, and my classroom was my office through the first year,” Best said. “Most great startups start with an itch someone has from firsthand experience. [Once you find] a way to scratch that itch, other people will want to join to scratch that same itch.”
Best stressed to his audience that being in sales, “the asking side of it,” is not merely vocational, but a necessary aspect. “A lot of people think of sales as undignified, but I see it as the thrill of the chase. If you don’t want to do sales, I think that entrepreneurship and nonprofit work might not be right for you.”
In order to “sell” his idea to colleagues, Best brought in a pear dish that his mom made to encourage the teachers at his school in the Bronx to post project requests. These were the first 11 teacher project requests to be posted on the initial rudimentary website. Best, himself, anonymously funded 10 of those projects, which started a rumor among area teachers that the site was itself effective and that actual donors were out there waiting to fund more projects.
This anecdote plays into the second important quality Best credited, which was humility. He said, at DonorsChoose.org. They believe that the true good ideas come from the teachers, on the frontlines of the classroom, rather than from overhead employees. His company is simply a layer that connects crowdfunding with those good ideas.
“We are a platform rather than a prescription,” he said. “We are the thin layer that taps into teacher’s front line passion and inspiration. Teachers know their students better than anyone else, and by listening to them, we will come up with better microsolutions.”
In North Carolina, 60 to 65 percent of projects posted on DonorsChoose.org end up getting funded, a successful rate but not a rate that Best is satisfied with. He said that there is no shortage of projects to be funded, but instead a shortage of willing donors.
“Most of the projects that we fund are for schools in low-income communities,” Best said. “Teacher participation isn’t our growth constraint, it’s finding donors. We are still struggling to bring donors to the site.”