May 19, 2022

DonorsChoose: From a Classroom Idea to a Crowdfunding Giant


Michael W. Kahn

Michael W. Kahn


Payments Institute happy woman reading glasses

NASHVILLE, Tennessee—In a New York City public school, barely 3 miles from Yankee Stadium, the idea that became DonorsChoose was born out of necessity.

“When I started teaching in the Bronx, I saw firsthand that all schools are not created equal. My colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on school supplies, and then we would talk in the teachers’ lunchroom about books that we wanted our students to read, a field trip that we wanted to take them on, a pair of microscopes that we needed for a science experiment,” said Charles Best.

“I just figured that there must be people out there who would want to help teachers like us if they could see exactly where their money was going.”

That was in 2000, when Best enlisted the help of a programmer to develop a bare bones website called DonorsChoose, where 11 of his fellow teachers posted their requests, including SAT prep books for history class and fabric for art class. His aunt funded one, and he anonymously covered the rest, leading colleagues to a mistaken conclusion.

“That rumor spread across the Bronx, that there was this website where donors were just waiting to support teachers’ ideas,” Best recalled at the May 3 general session at Smarter Faster Payments 2022. “Teachers started posting hundreds of project requests.”

Unable to fund them out of his own pocket, Best’s students embarked on a letter writing campaign that generated $30,000 in donations on the site. 

“And we were off.”

Today, Best is CEO of DonorsChoose, which to date has raised some $1.3 billion to fulfill more than 2 million projects. 

“My students and I never dreamed that what we had built would achieve a breadth and a scale of impact like this. We sure never dreamed that crowdfunding would become a movement. That crowdfunding would become a whole new sector of finance,” said Best, who explained why he’s bullish on the future of crowdfunding. 

“Anybody, even if they have just $5 to spare, can be a patron, a financier, a philanthropist. It’s happening all around us, and I would wager that multiple percentage points of our GDP in just a few years will come from crowdfunded projects and ventures,” said Best, who put his money where his mouth is. 

“Nacha was generous enough to give me a speakers fee, and I want to invite all of you to spend my speakers fee on classroom requests of your choice,” he told the audience. Each participant at Smarter Faster Payments 2022 subsequently received a $15 gift code to use for a project on DonorsChoose. 

“I want to invite each of you—equip each of you—to create a best school day in your hometown.”