Philanthropy can be a thing of beauty when it goes well. The donor is pleased to make a contribution to a worthy cause, those in need are helped directly, and an efficient market is created around an exchange of values.
I recently had such an experience with an innovative new approach to philanthropy called DonorsChoose.org. (In the interest of full disclosure, DonorsChoose founder Charles Best is an Ashoka Fellow and, while I recently went to work for Ashoka, I did not have any role in selecting Charles as a Fellow.)
My story goes like this: Charles came up with a new way to reach a potential new audience on line, blog readers. He approached some of the top bloggers in the U.S. and asked that they post a challenge to their readers during the month of October.
The challenge also had a competitive aspect, as the top bloggers were competing with one another to reach more readers and get them to take action. Support your favorite blogger by donating to a project on their list, thereby contributing to the cause, but also helping the blogger beat the other guy.
I'm a regular reader and fan of fellow blogger Fred Wilson, the Union Square Ventures VC, whose blog A VC is on my Google Reader feed. Of course I wanted to help him beat the competition, and I have been curious about DonorsChoose for some time.
So, when his challenge was posted, I followed the link to Fred's DonorsChoose Challenge page and found a project I could get behind, "An Invite to Write." A teacher in a rural North Carolina school, located between Hickory and Boone, wrote the proposal:
"I teach 21 3rd graders at Sawmills Elementary School. Forty percent of my third graders are considered at-risk students in reading/writing," she wrote. "I am currently attending ASU to earn a Master's Degree in Reading Education. I would like to make writing more enjoyable for my students as well as myself! In my graduate classes, I am learning new and exciting ways to integrate writing into all areas of the curriculum."
The need? To create a writing station "in our classroom which will hopefully "invite my students to write." I would like for the students to be able to write letters, compose poems, or go to the station to write freely in their journals. In the writing station, the students would have access to construction paper, envelopes, stationary, colored pencils, pens, pencils, erasers, etc."
Her idea was to prepare these students for the statewide reading test they must pass in 4th grade. "More importantly," she wrote, "it is my goal to help my students become better writers, and to instill a love for writing.
As a writer, this appealed to me right away. It's also a place I'm familiar with because my mother-in-law lives about an hour from there.
The request? The cost of an easel on wheels, a tabletop writing center and a classroom mailbox is $391, including shipping and fulfillment. My $100 contribution would help them get towards their goal, clearly having an impact. (The goal was met six days later.)
My gift had an immediate impact. I felt good and Fred was on his way to meeting his challenge and winning lunch with Jerry Yang of Yahoo. (You can read more about that story, and what Fred did with that lunch, here.)
I received a prompt receipt and thanks for my contribution; very efficiently handled by DonorsChoose.
This would have been a nice story if it stopped there. But it didn't.
A few days ago, I received an email in response to my donation. One of the DonorsChoose sponsors of the Blogger Challenge had provided a gift certificate worth $100 for me to apply to another project.
This time, we searched for a project closer to home, in Philadelphia. We found one called "Making Science Come to Life," a subject my son loves. The school is in North Philly and the request came from an 8th Grade science teacher who wanted to equip her new science lab with materials: 8 dissection instrument sets, sorting trays, a periodic table poster, and 7 rocks and minerals sets. Very cool.
But that’s not all, when we went to make the donation last night, we found the project was 85% of the way toward its goal, meaning our $100 gift certificate could complete the funding!
In other words, my original contribution was leveraged three times: 1.) funding the first project; 2.) helping (however modestly) Fred rise to the Challenge and get the Jerry Yang lunch (and you have to read about what he did with it -- awesome; and 3.) funding this science project in North Philly. Wow.
I can't express how this makes me feel. My gift was leveraged, the projects are funded, the teachers will inspire their students, and students in two classrooms will have a better educational experience this year. Who knows? Some of the students may become writers or scientists, as a result.
An efficient market for philanthropy recognizes that donor-to-recipient exchanges are not just about cash contributions or transactions; they are an exchange of value and values. Kudos to DonorsChoose for making this possible -- and to Fred for rising to the challenge.
DonorsChoose is now supporting public schools in all 50 states. You can even create a Gift Registry, as I've done to encourage family and friends to give a gift that keeps giving.
This holiday season, consider donating through DonorsChoose.org. You won't regret it.