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DonorsChoose.org founder shares journey to philanthropic innovation

As a public high school history teacher in the Bronx 12 years ago, Charles Best saw firsthand how a lack of funding can limit how teachers educate their students. Unique program ideas, field trips, and essential reading materials were among the luxuries many educators had to do without.

To help solve this problem, Best founded DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit organization that allows teachers to post classroom project requests online that donors can choose to fund. Teachers can ask for funding for anything from SAT prep books to art supplies. Today, it is considered one of the most innovative companies in the world and has revolutionized philanthropy.

“At DonorsChoose.org there is nothing standing between a teacher and potential support,” Best said. “There is a change underway. It’s change in who you have to know, how long you have to wait, and how lucky you have to be to bring a good idea to life. It’s about a new kind of marketplace where gatekeepers do not stand in your way.”

Best shared his philanthropic journey with more than 150 people at Northeastern’s Raytheon Amphitheater last Thursday afternoon. Attendees received a $125 gift card for DonorsChoose.org so they could help fund a classroom project.

His keynote address was part of Student Engagement and Philanthropy Month, an international celebration to raise awareness and engagement of students in higher education advancement.

Best shared stories of DonorsChoose.org’s early days, when he had to bribe colleagues with food so they would post projects on the site. And of the first 11 projects, Best funded 10 with his own money. The nonprofit started to garner more attention following 9/11, when teachers at schools near Ground Zero started posting projects to help their classrooms recover from the terrorist attack.

To date, donors have given $31 million to classroom projects, money that has benefitted some 14 million students. About 63 percent of all public schools in the U.S. have at least one teacher who has had a project funded, and Best said 250,000 projects would be submitted in this school year alone.

“Every teacher posts photos of their project in action, they write impact letters to the donors, and every donor that gives $50 or more gets handwritten letters from the students,” Best explained. “So our donors get to see and feel the impact they have had.”

During a Q&A session following his talk, Best was asked to explain what he’s learned from running a major nonprofit. He responded by comparing it to the experiential learning Northeastern students get through the university’s co-op program.

“I feel like a lot of what I learned, I wouldn’t have learned in business school,” Best said. “I needed to get it from just doing. And it all grew organically.”

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