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KIM: Internet sensation enables investments in classrooms

December 20, 2014

KimCharles Schwab’s annual IMPACT conference, one of the largest gatherings of independent registered investment advisers, boasts a powerhouse lineup of speakers. This year’s didn’t disappoint, with speeches from former Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke and former President George W. Bush.

Though not as well-known (yet), the lead-off speaker, Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org, a not-for-profit that provides a simple way to address educational inequity, told an equally fascinating story.

Briefly, DonorsChoose enables public schoolteachers to post classroom project requests and donors to pick the projects they want to support. Just as the Internet is changing how people get around (Uber) or raise capital to start a business (Kickstarter), DC is “disrupting” both philanthropy and education by eliminating the middleman and allowing “providers” to interact directly with “end users.”

Schwab says DC “intersects entrepreneurialism and social change.” But before hearing Best speak, I only knew of DC through my eldest daughter’s work with Teach For America teaching 10th grade English in an Atlanta school classified as “highest poverty” by DC. The students are good kids who want to learn, and the teachers are dedicated professionals. But with teachers having to reach into their own wallets to pay for even the most basic classroom supplies, how can you possibly fund learning projects?

Similar to my daughter, Best started out in 2000 as a 25-year-old history teacher in an impoverished Bronx high school. Standing at Kinko’s at 5 a.m. making copies of a chapter of “Little House on the Prairie” for his students, he thought of applying the then-nascent concept of “crowdfunding” to help teachers get basic classroom supplies.

A son of privilege and living at home, Best funded development of a rudimentary website and persuaded 10 colleagues to post projects. Unsure of the concept, he secretly funded nine of the projects himself (a relative funded the other one). During lunch hours, he would call journalists, philanthropists and foundations trying to drum up interest and support.

After a slow launch, with education reform becoming a hot topic and DC offering a unique way to apply technology to philanthropy, funders and the media began to embrace the concept. Stephen Colbert (now a DC board member) asked his fans to support DC, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation gave $4.1 million to match contributions for projects aimed at promoting college readiness.

DC staff vets each project, collects the donations, and purchases the supplies once the project’s funding goal has been reached. Donors can choose criteria including type of project and demographics. Donors receive photos of the project, a letter from the teacher and, if you give over $50, hand-written thank-yous from the students.

Since inception, DC has raised $288 million from 1.5 million donors and funded 521,532 projects submitted by 211,401 teachers from 59,964 public schools, impacting 13.2 million students.

With 2014 coming to a close, consider investing in a classroom. As Best says, “I believe if we can crowdsource educational solutions to teachers on the front lines, who often know their kids better than anyone, we will unearth and generate better-targeted, smarter ideas.”•

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Kim is the chief operating officer and chief compliance officer for Kirr Marbach & Co. LLC, an investment adviser based in Columbus, Indiana. He can be reached at (812) 376-9444 or mickey@kirrmar.com.

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