Teachers have an unlimited supply of interesting ideas for classroom projects, but have often been limited to the resources they could afford to contribute from their own pocketbooks.
Seven years ago, a history teacher in the Bronx started a Web site that directly connected teachers and donors to fund classroom projects. This week DonorsChoose announced that its program has expanded to include every public school in America.
This "open source" approach to supporting public schools encourages teachers to be innovative and entrepreneurial. Their proposals compete in the marketplace of ideas to attract support. Everyday citizens are invited to become philanthropists who can make a big difference by pooling their contributions, from $10 on up.
As a donor, I found that my experience on DonorsChoose channels reminded me of the thrill of an eBay purchase. But instead of making an impulse buy for something that I didn't really need, I was making a contribution to a worthy cause. In return, my family has received wonderful thank-you packets from teachers and students that include letters and photos of the projects we funded.
Classroom needs range from practical items such as glass basketball backboards for the school gym, to cultural explorations like Native Alaskan traditions revolving around salmon and blueberries. Reading the proposals is an educational experience in itself, as teachers articulately and passionately advocate on behalf of their students' specific needs.
The idea of directly connecting teachers and donors is actually quite radical because it cuts out the traditional "middlemen" who control the purse strings: the PTA, principal, superintendent. Teachers know what they need to create more successful learning environments and DonorsChoose gives them a way to appeal to the public for support. Every project is vetted and fulfilled by DonorsChoose to ensure that donations are used for exactly what is listed in each proposal.
Potential donors can browse proposals using many criteria, including subject, grade level, school location, or cost to complete the project. DonorsChoose has undergone a radical expansion this fall, opening in over 30 new states since September. The pipeline will continue to fill with project proposals as the program reaches new teachers and schools across the country.
DonorsChoose illustrates the true potential of the Internet to fuel grassroots activism and philanthropy: You don't have to wait for the whole world to change or attract the attention of big foundations and the powers that be. If you have a good idea, you can start small and watch it grow organically.