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DonorsChoose grows

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Web site linking teachers, donors adding four states.

By Todd Cohen

[02.16.04] — DonorsChoose.org, a web site launched in fall 2000 to connect public school teachers in New York City with donors, will expand to four more locations this year.

North Carolina will be added first, followed by Chicago and then Colorado and the Bay Area in California, says Charles Best, a high school teacher in New York City who founded and heads DonorsChoose.

And while the site has depended on grants, Best says, it eventually could cover its operating costs through voluntary “fulfillment fees” contributed by individuals making donations.

DonorsChoose works like a marketplace, with teachers posting their needs, and donors making online contributions to meet those needs.

Through the end of 2003, nearly 1,000 teachers from nearly 400 schools had submitted more than 2,600 proposals that the site screened and posted.

Residents of 48 states have used the site to fund more than 2,100 teacher proposals, providing nearly $1 million worth of resources to 736 New York City classrooms, more than 90 percent of them in poor schools.

The site invites but does not require donors to contribute a fee, equal to 15 percent of their contribution, to cover the cost of screening proposals, purchasing materials and providing feedback to donors from teachers and students.

In November and December 2003 combined, those fees totaled $40,000, roughly equal to one month’s operating costs, Best says, adding that 90 percent of donors overall have opted to contribute the fee.

“We hold out the possibility of becoming self-funding,” he says.

Missy Sherburne, executive director of DonorsChooseNC, says the organization fills a critical gap for teachers.

“I worked with teachers coming to me saying they had a great idea but had no money to make it happen,” says Sherburne, a former teacher in Baltimore for New York City-based Teach for America, which recruits college graduates to teach for two years in schools throughout the United States that typically are poor and have high teacher turnover and low student performance.

Sherburne cites research showing that teachers in kindergarten through 8th grade spend over $1 billion of their own money a year on classroom materials, with average out-of-pocket spending totaling $520 in 2002, up from $448 in 1999.

After registering at donorschoose.org, teachers can post proposals to fund needs ranging from classroom supplies to field trips.

Donors, who also must register, can browse for teacher proposals by academic discipline, grade or amount of money needed, and can make a contribution online or by check.

DonorsChoose gets the money, and spends it on behalf of the teacher.

In return, donors get thank-you notes from the teacher and students, and photographs showing how the money was used.

In North Carolina, which will serve as a model for expansion to the other three locations this year, DonorsChoose initially will serve up to 17 school districts before being available throughout the state.

Spurring the expansion to North Carolina, where donors also will be able to search by county, was a $100,000 grant from the Michael & Laura Brader-Araje Foundation in Durham.

In fact, DonorsChoose decided to expand beyond New York City only because Michael Brader-Araje wanted it in North Carolina and would help finance the expansion, says Best.

Pilot districts will be launched in North Carolina in February, in Chicago this spring and in Colorado and the Bay Area in September, with expansion throughout each region six months later.

The North Carolina expansion will focus on low-income schools, says Brader-Araje, who says he learned about DonorsChoose last spring while watching a TV interview with Best on The Oprah Winfrey Show.

“My first thought was, ‘There’s no reason we can’t do what they’re doing in New York City here in North Carolina,’” he says. “It’s the eBay of philanthropy.”

Brader-Araje, a New York City native and former English teacher, founded online-auction software firm OpenSite Technologies, and sold it in 2000 to Siebel Systems in San Mateo, Calif., for $542 million.

After learning about DonorsChoose, he says, he spent the next seven months working full-time to assemble a North Carolina board, raise additional funds and hire an executive director.

Brader-Araje, who chairs both DonorsChooseNC and the expansion committee for the group’s national board and serves on the board of Teach for America’s North Carolina affiliate, met Sherburne when she was the affiliate’s executive director.

The North Carolina expansion also has received commitments of $75,000 from the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem, N.C.; $50,000 each from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation in Battle Creek, Mich., and Wachovia Corp. in Charlotte; and $25,000 from the Progress Energy Foundation in Raleigh.

DonorsChoose has received two-year commitments of roughly $400,000 each from Bank One for the Chicago expansion; from venture capitalist Vinod Khosla, a partner at Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers in San Francisco and Menlo Park, Calif., for the Bay area expansion; and from Leslie and Bill Volbracht, founder of Land Title Guarantee Co. in Denver, for the Colorado expansion.

“This is an amazing concept that basically democratizes philanthropy,” Brader-Araje says. “No longer is philanthropy the exclusive domain of wealthy philanthropists or foundations. DonorsChoose puts that power in the hands of ordinary citizens and empowers teachers to focus on the things that are important in their classrooms because nobody knows their kids better than they do.”

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