The New Face of Philanthropy: How You Can Give $5 Million to Education This Week — Help Needed Now

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charles-at-ms-shubitz-class.jpg
Charles Best, educational visionary, at Ms. Shubitz’ Class

I need your help. This is serious.

This week brings a rare chance that expires soon: to give $5 million to education in the US. This is not a joke and not an exaggeration. First, a bit of personal background…

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.

DonorsChoose.org, which started in Bronx public school cafeteria, is — after years of sweat and tears from hundreds of volunteers — now a semi-finalist in the American Express Members Project, which you’ve seen on TV with Martin Scorcese, Ellen DeGeneres, and others. This is their one big chance, and 100% of the funding will go to classroom projects that you get to choose. In the spirit of “letting the people decide,” they 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. If you want to skip the interview and vote, click here. Otherwise, read on and be amazed…

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.â€? Eleven of my colleagues ate the dessert, and then went to DonorsChoose.org and submitted project proposals ranging from “Immigration Novels ($200)â€? 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 ten 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. 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. It would be huge.

###

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. Please take these three 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.

3. Digg this article here so thousands more do the above.

Let us bring power to the people, but let us also recognize that power begins with one simple tool: education. Arm the masses here.

###

Posted on: July 17, 2007.

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29 comments on “The New Face of Philanthropy: How You Can Give $5 Million to Education This Week — Help Needed Now

  1. I have an Amex account so it was easy to log in. I cast my vote and it looks like “Teachers ask. You choose. Students learn.” is in second place.

    Tim, I think you’ll be able to through at least 100 votes at them!

    I think this type of VERY open accountability is the future of giving. I personally stopped giving to the Red Cross because I was pretty unhappy with how they were handling their funds ie. my money.

    I’d be very open to donations where I know exactly what my money goes for (chosen by me) and am later shown the accountability that proved my funds were used for my choice.

    I doubt I’m alone in this way of thinking.

    Richard Lee

    Like

  2. Tim,

    I truly believe education is very important and would have voted for this project had I not seen the “Children’s Safe Drinking Water” project. I think providing clean, safe water and the promise of a future to thousands of kids is slightly more important than the purchase of colored pencils for a school.

    – Robert

    Like

  3. Tim

    Thanks again for leading in an area that needs new leadership….philanthropy.

    I voted immediately not necessarily because I believe in the cause but more for the fact that it is a very important step towards empowering the “donator” rather than the person managing the charity. More charities need to be transparent and I believe this is a wonderful step in the right direction.

    I hope this receives the response that you desire and attention goes where it is most deserved.

    Thanks again….

    Like

  4. Hi Robert,

    I commend your vote. Thank you so much for taking action! I just want people to get off the couch and fight for whichever cause speaks to them. The effort is so minimal, and the effect is enormous.

    Allow me to explain my reasons for personally choosing education and DonorsChoose:

    Education is, after much research, what I believe has the greatest long-term potential to solve all of our problems: potable water, AIDS, malaria, racial discrimination, unfair trade agreements for developing countries, and all of the rest. Limiting education and DonorsChoose to colored pencils isn’t really fair. They’ve already directly helped in preventing teen pregnancies and getting future leaders from low-income areas on the path to college.

    Adding people without adding the tools — education and confidence — can create more problems than it solves. Increased disease, famine, and war are just three examples. The US, for example, has no problem multiplying its population; it’s training those people to get along and build a better future that’s the challenge.

    So why DonorsChoose? Many non-profits sound great on paper and then fail in execution. I’ve seen inside DonorsChoose. They are streamlined like a Silicon Valley start-up, have helped more than 600,000 students with almost no resources, and they have superstars guiding them, including the Chairman and CEO of Sony Pictures, the founder of NetFlix, the co-founder of Yahoo, and Bill Bradley, among many others. Their corporate partners include Crate and Barrel and Yahoo. It goes on and on.

    With even $1 million, let alone $5 million, DonorsChoose can change the future of US education. I’ve seen them execute.

    I don’t expect them to get everyone’s vote, but they get mine. Get involved and vote, whichever direction you go! http://www.membersproject.com/Education/5630

    Stand up and make a difference — you really can.

    Tim

    Like

  5. I will shoot an email out to my client list about this tonight! I’ve had this AMEX and never used it once, so this is a pretty cool way to christen this plastic!

    Tim, I’ve started up World Vision Entrepreneur (.com). It is a comprehensive program (book & DVD) to teach social entrepreneurship (“get paid to save the world”) I’m looking for people like you and Charles to contribute 10 minutes of video education on your own topic. Half the profits go to World Vision, and remainder pays for our free distribution of the program to high schools and libraries across North America and beyond (tens of thousands of copies!).

    Details are at my Ning site:
    Linkedin-entrepreneurs.com/group/WorldVisionEntrepreneur

    Also at my Ning, there is a group discussing 4HWW. We have 75 members of the main site so far.
    Linkedin-entrepreneurs.com/group/4HWW

    I hope to meet you in person (and maybe Charles)soon Tim. It will be a great honor!
    ~Victory Darwin

    Like

  6. referred by Victory, 1 amex vote done!
    Interesting to read all the blog comments at the site. People sound so frustrated that it’s such a simple idea, but was never executed by the gov’t or a corporation.

    This is a big testament to 4HWW philosophy. Like Charles said it only cost $1500 for the first website. And as Mike Litman (motivational speaker) says “don’t get it right, just get it going”.

    -Brent Goodman

    Like

  7. Richard, Dominic, Coop, Donovan, Vlad, thank you so much for your votes. This is going to be a tight race. Your participation is essential, and deeply appreciated. On behalf of the thousands of public school students who stand to benefit, *thank you.*

    Dorm Room Biz, I appreciate your spiritual support!

    Robert, thank you for participating, too, even if your vote went to another project. Like Tim says, taking the time to express your preference is the most important thing.

    In addition to the principles Tim laid out, I would emphasize that:

    1. “Teachers Ask. You Choose. Students Learn” is the only project which will empower the voters to become philanthropists themselves. For our project, voting is only the beginning of the experience. Spending a DonorsChoose.org gift certificate on a project of your choice would be the best part.

    2. The fulfilling organization of the project you chose, Robert, is UNICEF. They’re an amazing organization, but some voters may want to go with a grassroots organization where $5 million would have a transformative impact.

    In any case, I salute you for taking part!

    Like

  8. Not to sound unsupportive of Tim’s work. . . but. . .

    Would anyone dare to say that providing classroom supplies to our “needy” children in America be more valuable than providing basic, clean water to developing countries? If so, I’d be interested to hear the reasoning.

    I know we all have the freedom of choice, but it just seems to me to be logically inconsistent to be worried about our country’s underfunded education system when there are people in other countries that are so destitute and lack basic infrastructure to provide for their people’s basic needs like water and food.

    But then again. . . could it be that a lot of those countries that are destitute or under developed are because of the fact that their government is so corrupt and messed up? And actually the people of that country are to be blamed? And that actually providing charity (even basic items as water) is only supporting the preexisting government and allowing that existing government to continue and NOT to its basic JOB?

    But then (of course arguing with myself again) couldn’t you argue that about any sort of foreign aid? And the concept of “tough love?”

    Anyway, this goes down the slippery slope that eventually says that anyone less off than you is because of their lack of effort, and any sort of “handout” will only hurt them. . . so therefore any sort of charity will actually hurt them in the long run.

    Just some thoughts that I’m sure aren’t new, but does anyone have any studies that they can point to where it shows charities actually HURT rather than help? And then back to the same original question on how do you justify giving money to our underfunded children when there are drastically much more underfunded children in other countries.

    Where does the insanity end!!?? There’s so much need in the world and collectively as a US population in our wealth have the power to stop it all, but are we to help everyone else’s children at the expense of our own?

    Like

  9. Darn, I can’t delete comments I wrote (referencing the above one) . . .

    I actually *read* Tim’s comment reply after typing my entry above, and yes, Tim did attempt to answer my questions above so sorry to everyone who read through my comment based on my lack of effort to read preexisting comments. I should go back to sleep.

    Commenting to Tim:
    Domestic education as the solution to all the world’s problems. . . interesting concept to ponder. . . so is that like saying that we are educating the people of our country, giving them the tools to eventually make enough money and then trust that they will go and fight against all the world’s problems? For some reason, I really lack the faith of our selfish, consumerist society to overall really actually CARE about other countries. . . aren’t we as US citizens educated enough right now to make a difference? (I just read Farenheheit 451, and sadly I see that as our country’s fate)

    You state, “Adding people without adding the tools — education and confidence — can create more problems than it solves. Increased disease, famine, and war are just three examples,” but when it really comes down to the United States in its CURRENT WEALTH, could we not actually battle disease, famine, and war RIGHT NOW? What are we waiting for?

    What if, RIGHT NOW, every single American citizen stopped buying that extra new vehicle, or Wii, or PS3, or new clothing style, or Starbucks Coffee, . . . and gave 10% of their income to solve the world’s problems (. . . if one could be so bold and general as to claim to know exactly what that is)? Would we solve all the issues? Is education really the bottle neck of the “good doing” of the United States? Or is the US already rich enough in its current state that in truth it’s not education, money, or resources that’s keeping us from solving the world’s problems, it’s just our selfish desire to increase our own personal comfort of living?

    After all. . . we do live in a Capitalist society, which means we make it to the top at the expense of others. . . but then it’s that very same system, where the rich can become filthy rich, that has propelled us to become so filthy rich as a nation. What beauty! What sadness. . . So I can’t really bash on our selfishness, as that very selfishness has brought such great innovation!

    But in the end, the answer probably isn’t just ONE charity over another, and my point isn’t necessarily to bash on Tim’s charity or one charity over another. My point is along the lines of, we, as an American people in our extreme wealth, just need to be more generous with our great power.

    We need more of everything above (and tons more), and it’s counter productive for me to try and argue one charity over another when the underlying solution needs EVERYONE’S contribution.

    I hope DonorsChoose does extremely well, but for the sake of actual needs, clean water is needed more urgently. I’m just not convinced that education is the long-term solution, when currently, as educated as we are in the United States, we already do so little. . .

    Like

    • Jefferson Kim – Please read “I, Pencil” and rethink your position. (note: capitalism is not successful at the expense of others – only corruption is)

      Like

  10. It’s a shame this is limited to American Express card holders only. We here at Mission Tuition (www.missiontuition.com) aim to help college students find ways to fund their studies – but it is absolutely essential to start even younger!! This is a fantastic project – I wish you the very best of luck. One digg here!!

    Like

  11. Hi Tim- Just voted for your friend. Best of luck to him. I recently picked up your book at a tech conference and finished it in a weekend. Congratulations on cutting out all of the nonsense and focusing on what is important in life. I appreciate your insight and LD tips. Your book makes the most sense out of any self-improvement book I have ever read.

    Congratulations on your success. I hope we have a chance to meet one day.

    Like

  12. To Jefferson Kim:
    I’m going to try to be positive here. I think you should rethink everything you said with this in mind: Anytime anyone takes action to do something good, it creates a ripple effect (as we are seeing here). Whether you look at it on a law of attraction level or just that we get emotionally inspired, the fact is it works. If I feel my calling or purpose is to educate potential social entrepreneurs (World Vision Entrepreneur) then I should focus and succeed at that rather than pursue food/water/health projects which I would be much less likely to succeed at. The same goes for donations. Do what inspires you, and then you will want to do even more and you will inspire others. It doesn’t make sense for you and I to spend our energy arguing about which cause is more important, when we are really both on the same side of the “help our fellow man” equation.

    My daughter takes our junk change (pennies, nickels, dimes) and giftwraps them into little $1 packages, and gives them to beggars on the street (lots of them in Victoria). I told her to stop that and put it all in the bank and make a monthly donation to Feed the Children or World Vision. But she said she likes to do this because so many people pass them by and she can be the one who doesn’t, and show them she cares, and she always tells them that she wants them to buy good food. What purpose would it serve to argue with her. Anyway, she said she will start doing paid blog posts for my site and then she can do the donations my way too!
    ~Victory

    Like

  13. Dear Mr. Ferris,
    Hello,

    on page 237 of the Book you write

    “Enormous apartment in the trendy SoHo-like Prenzlauerberg district of Berlin, including phone and energy $300 U.S. per month.”

    I am German and have been in Berlin some time. I have never seen a furnished apartment of average size for less than 750 Euro in Prenzlauer Berg. That is $1000 U.S. and without phone and energy.

    For the mentioned 300 US$, which is about 220 Euros including energy, you might get a single room (120 sq ft.) in a shared flat in the worst suburbs.

    This calculation really frustated me, because now I dont know, which party including money figures are real.

    Can you tell me, where I can find an enormous apartment for $300 U.S in Berlin? Thanks in advance.

    ###

    Hi Conrad,

    The apartment I rented was on Schonhauser Allee, right above the Thai restaurant on the corner, about 3 blocks from Eberswalder (spelling?) Strasse station. It’s a great area.

    The key? I negotiated well. It started off at around 750 Euros and then I got it down to 300 for the space and an additional 25 or so for energy. I used a separate unlocked cell phone for calling friends, etc. To find it, I used the Zitty and Bild weekly magazines in Berlin.

    I hope that helps! Learning and practicing creative dealmaking is key for getting the most from the least. It’s not that hard — it just takes a few dress rehearsals on smaller things to then tackle homes, rentals, cars, flights… the whole lot.

    Cheers!

    Tim

    Like

  14. Hey Tim!

    I just finished your book and wanted to let you know that it was incredible! Thanks for sharing your formula for success. I haven’t been as fired up over a book in a long time and I really think it could start a revolution.

    Take care man and keep living the dream!

    -Eric

    Like

  15. I think that this is a great idea and I stumbled it for you! We need to get more people like you to help educators out. This is a real serious issue in America that is not being discussed enough! Let me know how I can help, please.

    Like

  16. Tim wrote:
    “Education is, after much research, what I believe
    has the greatest long-term potential to solve all of our problems….The US, for example, has no problem multiplying its population; it’s training those people to get along and build a better future that’s the challenge.”

    So HOW should we train them to get along?

    I urgently invite you to consider a cutting edge education model that’s perfect for meeting that challenge. It’s called the Sudbury Valley Model, and it’s essentially a system for a ZERO Hour Work Week.

    The students are free to do whatever they want, all day long —— BUT they have to learn to also respect the rights of the other kids to do what they want, all day long. The result is fiercely passionate, articulate, cooperative, dynamically evolving community of equals that are robustly prepared for the Information Age.

    You can check-out the education model itself here:
    http://www.SudVal.org
    and/or you can also check out an independent fiction film
    that I wrote & directed called “Schooled”
    that was inspired by my skeptical research
    of this seemingly Utopian education model:
    http://www.SchooledTheFilm.com

    The last thing I’ll say, is that if we want our future generations to be as prepared as possible to face to our global challenges, we’ve GOT to phase out our Industrial Era 40 Hour Work Week School System which preaches to kids from the top down. In it’s place, it’s time to create genuinely democratic, agile, problem-solving mini-communities where kids are fully involved in the REAL school issues that matter: creating the rules, the budget, voting on staff, etc.. THAT’S the best way I know of for kids to learn how to use power with purpose.

    Sitting in a classrooms for their 40 Hour School Week, stuck behind a desk, being forced to memorize stuff the kids have no interest in, will not get this job done.

    Very best,
    Brooks

    Like

  17. Tim… from this strategic philanthropy expert’s view the intiative is super on all levels. I will tell you now, you can bet your bottom dollar from this point forward you will be flooded with charitable requests. As your book has made a difference in my life/work… I’d be happy to ‘give back’ at the time you realize you need a philanthropy expert :)

    mag

    Like

  18. What’s so special about an organization that took in 7.5 million last year and yet funded only 2.5 million in student projects? That’s what Donors Choose did last year according to Guidestar.
    ###

    Hi Shawn,

    Good question. I asked Charles of DonorsChoose to answer this, and here is his response. It seems that Guidestar has mixed up some numbers:

    “Hey Tim,

    Here are the numbers:

    -Last fiscal year (July 1 ’06-June 30 ’07) we funded $6.3 million in student projects. Total operating expenses (including both overhead AND direct fulfillment labor) were less—not more—than the total dollars in student project funding.

    -We scored the highest possible ranking on Charity Navigator, 4 out of 4 stars, because of our fiscal transparency and efficiency.

    -We present both our independent audit and our IRS tax filing to the public, on our website:

    http://www.donorschoose.org/help/org_faq.html#q75

    -As our independent audit shows, General and Administrative costs constituted 8.8% of expenses, while Fundraising costs totaled 7.4%, for a total 16% of expenses going toward overhead.”

    Hope that helps!

    Tim

    Like