Classroom Tech: How DonorsChoose Works To Get Teachers Tech Fast

Written by Buzz Garwood

DonorsChoose lets people donate $5 micropayments to classroom projects teachers post. Buzz Garwood used it and raised the money to get his class Apple iPad minis practically overnight.Here’s how DonorsChoose works. — If you’re a teacher or a parent involved with your school, let your educators know about an innovative, micropayment-based non-profit site called DonorsChoose. It is getting teachers around the world serious money for equipment and other gear they need for truly innovative student projects. The program got me Apple iPad minis for a student project that made all the difference in the middle school class I teach. Here’s how to use DonorsChoose — and how DonorsChoose works.

Cool projects matter a lot in a classroom. As a kid, I remember how I disliked tests. I disdained rote facts and studying them. I preferred practicing music or writing short stories. I was one of those creative types I see so often in my classroom now. If my teacher gave me the choice to take a test or to rewrite the lyrics to a popular song, no question. I’d choose the song every time.

So now, as a middle school teacher, I have a real soft spot for students like me. I love providing my students with multiple routes to demonstrate mastery over topics. The non-profit DonorsChoose gave me exactly that option. I wanted to offer my students a project that involved making movies about a subject using Apple iPad minis. And it was DonorsChoose that provided me with that hardware. Here’s how DonorsChoose works to do that and more.

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Why iPads? Students need tech skills — they love tech, too. Innovative use of tech not only engages students more, but it helps them gain skills they’ll need for their careers later. But tech is costly. Schools have scanty budgets. And that’s where DonorsChoose fits in.

Here’s how DonorsChoose works. For my project, I simply posted a request to the DonorsChoose website.

I called my project: “Using the iPad Mini to Show What They Know.” In my description, I make the case that, with the right mobile apps, my students would be able to use Apple iPad minis to produce their own films.

From scriptwriting to creating story boards to the final edits, my proposed project would let students share their own interviews, presentations, animations and movies.

When I woke up the next morning after posting my request, I couldn’t believe what I saw. My project — a project with a $909 price tag — was already two-thirds of the way funded. This in fewer than nine hours. Your results may vary and I’m just one teacher, but I have to admit it was pretty exciting to think that I was a mere $243 away from having my project completely funded. The money came from’s network of funders, who are able to donate micropayments as low as $5 to projects like mine.

And that’s how DonorsChoose works.

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Later that same afternoon, I visited a local business owner and told him about DonorsChoose. I told him about my project. And you know what? He actually funded the rest of my project on the spot.

So, when I arrived in my classroom on that first day of school, I found a box waiting for me on my desk. Inside it were two Apple iPad minis — just like I requested on the site.

I first became aware of DonorsChoose at a staff meeting last year.

In a nutshell, is a U.S.-based nonprofit organization that provides a way for people to donate directly to specific projects at public schools — and they can donate tiny tax-deductible amounts.

Recently I talked to a fellow teacher in my district, who also had successfully used DonorsChoose to get her class several Amazon Kindle ebook readers for her second grade class. She told me:

A box just showed up in my classroom. When I opened it, I couldn’t believe it actually happened. There I was, staring at a stack of brand new Kindle ebook readers for my second grade students. The (novelty of the tech) really sparked a love for reading among my students.”

Most people associate philanthropy with wealthy do-gooders who leave behind large endowments, grants or trusts when they pass away. They relegate philanthropy to the likes of Oprah Winfrey and Bill Gates. Most people figure they can’t truly make a difference donation-wise. But they can with a $5 donation to a teacher project of their choice at DonorsChoose.

DonorsChoose founder Charles Best was a high school history teacher in the Bronx when he came up with the idea. Like most of his colleagues, he had been spending a portion of his hard-earned cash each month on school supplies for his classroom.

So Best sketched out a website where teachers could post classroom-project requests — and where anyone with $5 could be a philanthropist backing the teachers.

His colleagues posted 10 projects. But Best, not knowing many donors, anonymously funded those projects himself. His colleagues believed that the website actually worked. It was tricky, but the trick worked. Word of his website spread — and it really did start working.

And then came Oprah.

In June 2003, The Oprah Winfrey Show highlighted and described DonorsChoose as a “revolutionary charity.”

15 seconds later, the site crashed from all the traffic. But when it returned, Best found that Oprah’s viewers had donated $250,000 to fund classroom projects. is the first charity to ever make Fast Company‘s 50 Most Innovative Companies, and its impact on society appears to have only just begun. Since its inception, has helped nearly nine billion students by funding nearly 150,000 teachers’ projects through the raising of over $182 billion dollars.

Teachers across the country spend a portion of their own money on school supplies every year. In fact, research released by the National School Supply and Equipment Association (NSSEA), reports that public school teachers in the U.S. spent more than $1.33  billion out of pocket on school supplies and instructional materials in the 2009-2010 school year.

At the time of this writing, there are 13,995 active projects posted on DonorsChoose across the country. Some are only a few dollars away from being completely funded. In the 13 years has been doing this, it has had over 1.1 million supporters. But what’s even more exciting is that the majority of these supporters are first-time givers to public schools — many just contributing $5 or $10 dollars.

But $5 here and $10 there can start to add up quickly. Occasionally, the directors at DonorsChoose will step in and match each donation dollar-for-dollar for a week, as it did with my project.

That kind of donation-doubling is a huge incentive for first-time givers — and teachers, too.

Yet it’s not just individuals who support DonorsChoose. Browsing the list of partnerships is like stealing a page from Fortune 500, with the likes of State Farm, Wells Fargo, Disney, Chase, Kia and Chevron on the list.

From the home page, donors easily are able to search among the various requests due to the website’s simple tile-like design. There are subject-based titles for Art, Math and so on. Donors can also refine their search in several ways through keywords like: autism, military children, trips & visitors. Or you search by zip code. Also, donors are able to apply filters, such as Most Urgent or Highest Poverty.

Projects are as unique and diverse as the teachers who post them.

For example, right now, one teacher is requesting art supplies for her students. Another needs to fill her classroom library with new chapter books. Others are requesting technology supplies in the form of Google Chromebooks or tablets and the like.

Donors who give $50 or more get handwritten thank you cards from students — along with pictures. That’s a nice touch.

It’s really easy for teachers to post their projects — just create a username and password. From there, the site prompts teachers to share the biggest challenge they face. For me, it’s providing students with tools to help them express themselves creatively, and to encourage critical thinking, problem solving and digital literacy — the skills they’ll need to be successful in the 21st century.

From there, the site prompts teachers to describe their students, their project, and to explain in detail what they hope to accomplish with the materials. Teachers are then prompted to Go Shopping and fill their “cart” with the materials and supplies they need for their project.

The system prompts them to write a welcome message and upload a picture of their students. Once the project is submitted for review, teachers are asked to do something that can be a little uncomfortable for some people — to get the word out to friends and family.

To be honest, this was the most-difficult part for me. It’s hard to ask friends and family for handouts.

But my discomfort faded after I reminded myself how important these tools are for my students and that it’s up to me to speak for the children. So I did ask.

And by doing so, I gave others around me the opportunity to invest in the lives of my students and in tomorrow’s leaders. It turned out that $5 — from friends and anonymous sources alike — makes a huge difference.

The way DonorsChoose works is truly innovative and groundbreaking. I highly recommend it.

For, I’m Buzz Garwood.