Want to Know How This Guy Got His Startup Endorsed by Oprah?

Posted on Aug 1, 2011 | 31 comments


I’d like to start by asking each of you to consider helping under-privileged children in America get a little bit more than they have today. Sure, you can give a small amount of money. Even $10. Please. It’s better than zero.

You can combine that with supporting Fred & Joanne Wilson.
(if you click no other links on theis site click that one)

But even more valuable if you don’t have much money to give is to give your creativity or your programming time. DonorsChoose let’s you “hack their data” in creative ways to create offerings that may be relevant to helping with education projects in America. So my call-to-action is do something. Anything. Small or large.

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with Charles Best, the founder of DonorsChoose.org to talk about his startup. How did he get started? How did he get his initial traction (hint: Oprah Winfrey, Stephen Colbert, Fred Wilson)? Why did he choose to go the non-profit route? etc. If you want to be inspired, please watch this short interview and you’ll find out all of these answers and more.

Charles is simply amazing. I have talked often about wanting to see entrepreneurs who want to make a difference in the world. That doesn’t have to be non-profit. But it means solving a bigger problem, making the world a better place or somehow “making a difference.” Charles chose all of these. DonorsChoose helps match people who want to make a difference in children’s lives by donating small amounts of money to tangible classroom projects with minimal overhead.

He started as a teacher who wanted to make life better for those in his classroom. Although not well paid, he found himself spending his own money on his students to give them more supplies. What gets lost behind the headlines is how common this is. Charles estimates that teachers spend $1 billion / year of their own money on student supplies. He started trying to create ways for his kids to be able to have more resources. Like most great entrepreneurs his project was born out of both passion and the real need to solve a problem that existed in his area of expertise.

Having had some success building an online tool for fund-raising purposes he decided he could have a bigger impact on education if he did the project full time. He quit teaching and became an entrepreneur. He set up DonorsChoose.org and has been off to the races ever since. To date more than 500,000 have funded more than 200,000 projects affecting more than 5 million children. Enough said. Awesome.

But being the innovator and 1st-class entrepreneur that Chalres is, he knew he could do more. So in addition to: building a great website, creating national awareness to donors and getting corporate sponsors signed up – he also created an open API and is encouraging third-parties to try and hack the data to produce results that benefit programs. And while this contest here is over, check it out for an example of what can be done (the winner is shown in photos with Stephen Colbert).

- Here is the discussion group for Hackers if you want to join
- Here is information on the data set. They’re OK if you use it for commercial purposes. And while the contest is over I’m sure they’d still love to have more hackers.

What am going to do?

  • After watching Waiting for Superman (and literally having tears in my eyes) I wrote this post. If you haven’t read it or seen the movie, please do. It will move you. I decided the area that I would devote my time & money to was public education. Charles makes this easy for me. For that I’m grateful.
  • I’ve agreed to be an advisor to the company and donate as much time as Charles would like. First up, helping with sales & marketing discussions
  • I’ve agreed to be an evangelist in any way I can (he didn’t ask for this, I felt compelled)
  • I’ve donated to Fred & Joanne Wilson’s 50th birthday present through DonorsChoose. What do you give to the couple that has everything they need? Help support a project they’re passionate about. You can donate to their 50 for 50 project here. I did.
  • I’ll do more when asked. Oh, and I promised to have beers with Dave Puketza often ;-) In a funny twist of fate I found out that my childhood friend Dave, who also went to my undergrad before upgrading also worked at DonorsChoose. I didn’t find out until I was taking their office tour. I spoke with Dave (over aforementioned beers) and many team members. They had a common thread of wanting to both enjoy their work and make a difference. It was a wonderful antidote to the often prevalent money-quick culture in startup land. Honestly, I felt humbled by them all.

  • Dave W Baldwin

    Very good Mark.  We can move Education in the US out of the right vs. left wings and enable a better world enjoyed by a greater number.

  • http://www.websterisk.com Josh Webb

    That waiting for superman post is still one of my favorites… Go read it if you haven’t.

  • http://www.charliecrystle.com Charlie Crystle

    I’m on the school board in my city. Let me make a different, complementary appeal:

    Show up. 

    Money is great. Helps. Sometimes makes all the difference. 

    But kids from low-income families need you to show up. Volunteer. Read. encourage. Be there. An hour a week can help. 2 can be dramatic. and 3, well, now you’re talking about moving mountains. 

    1 hr a day, 3 days a week. 

    Mentor the future. It’s incredibly rewarding, and makes all the difference in the world. 

  • http://termpaperwriter.org/research_paper custom research papers

    Good article! Clearly the line between user assistance and user interface is diminishing. Specialists in either of these fields will need to look at both domains very closely to be efficient.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    great, great points. Thank you.

  • http://twitter.com/CamiloALopez Camilo Lopez

    These type of project and ideas really can rally people’s passion and innovation. Charles passion rocks! 

    Thanks for sharing Mark

  • http://www.insideredge.co Florence Lowe

    We (my husband and I, with our 2.5 year old bouncing between us) actually only just saw the movie a couple of nights ago and were very moved as well. Having a child makes you sensitive to issues that you did not know existed pre-children. Thankfully we have people like Charles Best, who soldier on to try and change things where most of us may think our efforts would not make an iota of difference. Good inspirational post -thanks.

  • guangxi chen

    good mark

  • http://blog.ideatransplant.com Jan Schultink

    Great to encourage people to contribute to social causes.

    Personally, I think contributing cash does not give me the biggest leverage. Instead, I do free work to give the biggest bang for the buck: I design fund raising presentations for free for selected organizations.

    I invest a few days of work “at cost”
    The pro-bono client gets value “at street prices”
    But hopefully the fund pitching deck helps them raise more money than they could without me
    With that money than can do more things

    Leverage. 

    I realize that this is easier to do if you are a service provider than a coder.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    true, having children changes your perspective. Imagine being a concerned parent but not being able to make things better for your little one. That was “Waiting for Superman.” I’ve seen it twice now.

  • http://bothsidesofthetable.com msuster

    I agree, Jan. That’s why I asked for coders so we could get leverage. But if you can’t give that then money is better than zero. Frankly, I’m doing both. Money and time.

  • Ashok Kamal

    Hi Friends, I wrote an article about public ed in the U.S., coming from the perspective of someone who went to a “Dropout Factory” school but also benefited from programs that helped me earn 3 college degrees. Here’s the link: http://www.educationnews.org/commentaries/102749.html.

    Public schools are both terribly under-resourced and mis-managed. DonorsChoose is an incredible organization that helps address the resource problem. I’d also encourage you to support the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE), which empowers low-income youngsters to develop an entrepreneurial mentality.

    Thanks! 

  • http://twitter.com/bahrainians Yazin S.

    I’d never heard of this until you posted it. I’m bringing this to the Middle East. Not today, not tomorrow but soon.

  • http://twitter.com/BrowseMob Browsemob

    Donorschoose.org is an amazing website.  My wife was a teacher in South Central, LA and during her first year, she spent approx 3% of her gross salary on her students.  It’s heartbreaking when you consider how absurd that practice would be in any work environment.  

    I’d love to see a debit/credit card promotion that rounded up my purchase, or added a fixed amount to each purchase, to my donorschoose.org account.  There are a couple people in my network that might be interested in exploring that type of partnership.  Let me know if there’s any interest.

    My wife and I often talk about how startups are or could disrupt education.  It’s great to see you are going above and beyond, doing your part.    

  • http://hirethoughts.blogspot.com Donna Brewington White

    Thanks for sharing this, Mark.

    Thanks to @fredwilson:disqus ’s influence, I have grown to appreciate DonorsChoose and it’s enlightening  to learn more about the person and history behind this wonderful organization.

    It is so easy to feel helpless when observing the huge problems faced by public schools in under-resourced communities and the families represented — my sister is an urban middle school principal and tells me stories that break my heart — but organizations like this provide an opportunity to contribute and to be part of making a difference — as well as help to create awareness.

    I am also excited to see a “social entrepreneur” get airplay here.  These special founders and their teams represent a vital part of the entrepreneurial community.

  • http://www.dtelepathy.com Chuck

    Good on you Mark! 

    Charles is a first class guy and Donor’s Choose is a brilliant way to give and actually see the results. It’s amazing when you get emails and pictures from the classroom that show your donations in action and making a difference.

    I also suggest charity: water (http://www.charitywater.org/). The are innovating with simplicity by tackling one of the biggest problems on earth that is actually easily solved with enough resources.

  • http://www.tagbento.com/ @stephenhau

     Teachers here in the UK also get a raw deal. You might like this video of Matt Damon’s retort to crappy questions about teachers: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WFHJkvEwyhk

  • Anonymous

    Hi Mark,

    What are your thoughts on new and upcoming start-ups working in the social responsibility/non-proft space?

  • http://www.smallbusinessbible.org Small Business

    Whoa! This is one of the interesting article I’ve read in this week. Truly sensational, I would be looking forward to implement the strategy of this for my Small Business success.

  • Aaron Schwartz, @ModifyWatches

    Thanks for this article. I’ve shared it with all of my friends 

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  • chandra bose

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  • Mat Tyndall

    Changing the way education is approached in America is one of those goals that I used to think I’d be powerless to make a big difference in without becoming rich/powerful/successful first. 

    One of the reason’s I’m dropping out of school to start my own company is explicitly because I’ve developed a technology that addresses specific grievances I have with the systemic lack of support for different learning styles. 

    Granted, I’ll be focusing on different areas to pay the bills for the first year or two, but educational impact is what I’m most passionate about. It’s why I’m going to see this company through till the end.

  • Anonymous

    Excellent post! We are working hard to get out there with a
    product that will rock the Corporate Citizenship world. But if it’s difficult
    for entrepreneurs in the US imagine how difficult is for us in Argentina.
    Investors only know about brick and mortar and will look you as a crazy person
    when you try to take some of those investment dollars where “Web”, “iPhone” and
    “Social Networks” are the bricks and “Innovation” is the mortar. But we will
    continue on this road until we get to seat on “ThisWeekIn” ;-)

  • FundraisingIP.com

    DonorsChoose.org is based on a very simple yet amazing concept. Helping them sets off a domino effect that in the end benefits all of us. They deserve all the support they can get.

  • http://avc.com fredwilson

    charles is awesome to work with. when he comes to see me, he keeps the meeting short, he has specific information and even more specific asks. you can’t say no to him. and then when you say yes, he makes it so easy to help him. so much to learn from him.

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  • Dave W Baldwin

    Must read- will.i.am: “There should be science programs in every school” http://t.co/uLMQ3MA  His program regarding robotics that aired on ABC featuring the world championship held in St. Louis was great.

    For those without engineering degrees, there is a way to help with the FIRST Robotics at your school.  If your school doesn’t participate, look into it.

  • Wesley Wise

    Great work! Most children nowadays need a lot of help, financially, to be well educated. Donations from kind people in some organizations can make this happen. Keep in mind, the children with good education are our future.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=566038085 Sharif Youssef

    Companies like DonorsChoose.org have evolved charitable fundraising by uniting technology, nonprofits in the name of global good. The world needs more companies that provide easy and trustworthy solutions that offer a value to donors, nonprofits in effort to positively impact global causes.