Schoolkids Get What Donors Choose

The brainchild of Charles Best when he was barely out of college, DonorsChoose may be a revolution in philanthropy.

It also gives the term "middle man" an unusually good name.

Simply put, DonorsChoose (click here for link) uses the Internet to link people who have only a little to give but big hearts to school teachers who have big needs but tiny budgets.

"I work real hard. It's tough getting a dollar. I don't like to give them all away," Chris Christensen, a carpenter in New Jersey, told ABC News. "So if I do by choice, I like to know where it's going."

This new philanthropy system is turning traditional philanthropy on its head with a soaring growth in only five years from scratch to $12 million -- distributed accountably to delighted school teachers in eight states and three metropolitan areas.

This fall it goes national.

Here's how it works:

Christensen's wife Gail goes to DonorsChoose.org and selects one of many requests from teachers -- requests for a globe ... dictionaries ... reading rug ... a class library ... a field trip.

The Christensens then send the money NOT to the teachers, but to DonorsChoose.

DonorsChoose does the purchasing, often online, and sends what's needed plus a disposable camera to the teacher, who takes snapshots of the results -- the kids on the field trip, or sitting on the bright new reading rug or exploring the new classroom globe.

Then the kids sit down and each write a thank you letter to the donors -- by name.

The photos, a teachers report, and all the thank you notes are funneled right back to DonorsChoose's office, and on to the donors.

"The thank you cards from the children are awesome. It gets you right here," Chris Christensen said, putting his hand over his heart.

Gail Christensen, once a school teacher herself, feels the same: "Thank yous from the children -- thank you for the book, thank you for the bus ride, whatever -- so I know where my money is getting used."

The Proof Is in the Repeating

The Christensens have now funded 21 classroom projects and plan to continue.

It's the sort of repeat-giving that other charities, bombarding prospective donors with junk mail, rarely inspire.

DonorsChoose leaves the convincing to the teachers:

"People on the front lines have the best ideas for how to improve things," Charles Best told ABC News.

"We really are based on this idea that teachers have all this pent-up classroom expertise," he said, "and that if we could just empower them to come up with micro-solutions, they're going to come up with smarter ideas than anybody would at the top."

He knows what he's talking about partly because that's how he got the idea in the first place:

"I was a social studies teacher at a high school in the Bronx for five years," he said, "and during my first year of teaching I found myself in the teachers' lunchroom always having the same conversation with my colleagues about the materials and experiences we wanted our children to have."

"I just figured there were all these people that wanted to help improve our public schools and just needed a way to give confidently," said Best.

So he invented a completely transparent "Philanthropy Marketplace" to connect such donors -- who might have as little as only $10 to give -- to public school teachers.

For example, some connected to Mary Temple in rural Liberty, Miss., where the school gives each teacher only $250 a year for supplies for an entire class.

Now, DonorsChoose has created new possibilities and amazed smiles on a classroom full of lower-income 4th graders.

"DonorsChoose has funded for each one of you to receive a recorder" said "Miss Temple" to her kids, gathered expectantly on the rug, as she unpacked the newly arrived box and handed them out.

"These are yours to keep" she told them -- to their obvious surprise. "You can perform in front of the school. Maybe some of you would go to church to play."

Excited gasps ran through the little crowd on the rug, unexpected possibilities dancing in their minds' eyes.

Sweet Cacaphony

As the children began to explore which fingers go over which stops, and just how hard they should blow -- it sent up a sweet cacophony. Miss Temple told ABC News, "We have no band, no elementary music class. The children need the opportunity to see if they're interested."

Many of the teachers in this Mississippi public elementary school have found that, if they keep the thank you letters coming, the return may be a cornucopia of teaching tools.

"My rug is the first thing that came in. You should have seen their faces when they walked in -- because it brightened the room!" First grade teacher Tammy May told ABC News. "And this is a lifesaver: My own copy machine for my class -- and someone has so graciously funded this for us!"

First grade teacher Yolanda McDowell said she was as skeptical as many first-time donors -- at first.

"I thought maybe it was a gimmick, and I tried it," she said. "And when my first proposal was funded, I was like, 'Yes! It works!' And so I wrote five more, and they all have been funded."

She's not alone, as Charles Best says, and as can be seen online at DonorsChoose.org on his financially transparent "Impact" page.

"Today, 23,000 public school teachers from different parts of the country have posted proposals on our site," he said, "and donors from all 50 states have fully funded 25,000 projects on our site. And that channeled $12 million of books, art supplies, technology, field trips to more than half-a-million students from low-income families."

Best has resisted the temptation presented by many admirers who have urged him to grow quickly beyond schools.

For now, he is focusing on how to carefully set up his next step -- giving teachers in all 50 states the chance to submit project proposals for their classroom's "micro-solutions."

'Skip the Latte'

There's clearly great need out there, both in poor rural and inner city schools -- like Brooklyn's P.S. 75, where something as simple as bright new rulers brought smiles.

It's about more than just the badly needed new rulers, 4th grade teacher Patie Hart explained to ABC News while her kids worked on their thank you letters.

"It teaches them a lot of skills -- how to be thankful for the things that they're getting; that everything in life is not free," she says. "This opens their eyes and enlightens them a little bit to say, 'Someone is paying for it, and I need to thank them.'"

It's not only the teachers and children who are thankful, as Gail Christensen in New Jersey made clear.

"If you can use even limited resources -- skip the latte this week, or skip something, give to something greater than yourself -- you get far more back than you do from the actual dollars sent out," she said.

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