With $225M Raised Across 400K+ Campaigns, DonorsChoose Is Using Data To Illuminate Educational Inequity In The U.S.

There’s a lot of debate swirling these days over the best and most effective ways to fix the U.S. education system. With high costs, disappointing outcomes and high drop out rates now rampant across age groups, at the very least, it’s become clear that something needs to be done. Many circles are looking to technology and young tech companies to help fill the gap, improve learning and get the system back on track.

While help in the world of education technology usually takes the form of for-profit software startups, a company of a different shape has been quietly making an impact by using the power of the Web: Thirteen-year-old, non-profit crowdfunding platform, DonorsChoose.org.

Back in December of last year, my colleague Drew Olanoff profiled DonorsChoose, an online charity that aims to make it easy for anyone and everyone to give money to classrooms in need and help make a difference in education. The idea for DonorsChoose originated back in 2000, when founder and former New York City public school teacher, Charles Best, began noticing that, while fellow teachers had ambitious ideas for both their students and their schools, few of them had the funding to follow through with their plans.

The need gave rise to a crowdfunding platform that enabled anyone to donate as little as $1 to a classroom in need and receive the same kind of feedback, transparency and choice that is “traditionally reserved for someone who gives millions,” he said. Though that might sound corny or wish-washy, it’s this philosophy that has helped DonorsChoose stand out over the years, as the company has focused on building out and supporting a teacher network — a network that has grown in loyalty over the years and now helps the company review project requests and compile thank you packages.

When people look back at the company’s progress in 20 years, the founder said that he wants DonorsChoose to be seen as a “pioneer of peer-to-peer philanthropy” and as a platform that helped unleash teacher innovation.”

While growth has been gradual and the road far from short, that goal is becoming increasingly realistic. In a Fast Company profile this weekend, the Best said that, since founding, DonorsChoose has raised a total of $225 million for more than 400K projects. In turn, he estimates that those donations have helped more than 175K teachers and over 10 million students.

While transparency and keeping to a strict teacher-first policy has helped it grow, Best also attributes the platform’s progress to its remaining neutral in the increasingly intense back-and-forth over the best way to fix education. You won’t find the company taking a side on the issue of reform, nor whether it’s best accomplished through top-down efforts or through unions and teachers.

Instead, the company has focused on solving the most immediate and pressing needs in schools at the present moment. It’s won many supporters for this approach, and by its efforts to help bring discounted 3-D printers and Chromebooks into U.S. classrooms, or helping to finance AP classes for STEM education subjects in districts that can’t afford to do otherwise, for example.

Over the long-term, DonorsChoose also thinks it can become a pioneer in peer-to-peer, education-focused philanthropy by leveraging its growing reservoir of data to help paint a clear picture of inequity and bureaucracy within the U.S. education system. With every campaign, the platform gains more data on what schools need, what areas of the country need the most help, and why they’re struggling to get help.

Best says that he thinks that by aggregating this data and putting it onto a clear map, the requests for funding (i.e. the campaigns) will help “create a pointillist portrait of educational inequity in America.” Not only that, it could start to uncover answers to key questions like, how much taxpayer money going to education is actually, directly helping students? And if it’s not helping students or getting to classrooms, why not and where’s the disconnect?

“With so much data floating through our sites, we are hoping to give our donors the ability to spot the trends and connect the dots,” the founder told Fast Company. While partnering with companies like Google to distribute Chromebooks to budget-strapped classrooms is a key part of DonorsChoose’s role in the educational landscape, Best is increasingly intent on creating easy-to-understand trend reports and having the platform act as a sort of distribution network to share that insight into the system.

“If a district is getting a relatively high per-student spending rate and there are many requests from that district for basic supplies such as paper and pencils,” the founder says, then “that will tell us that too much of that money is never leaving the central office.”

While the U.S. education system is changing and changing fast, the decision-making hierarchy along with educational spending — whether local, state or federal — remains slow and opaque. DonorsChoose probably can’t illuminate and change the entire landscape overnight with a few infographics, but its data can provide a meaningful window into how the system works, and where it’s failing.

Screen Shot 2014-02-18 at 1.18.23 PM