By Mary Lou Fulton
Foundations are a great source of story ideas. I say that not because I work for a foundation, but because in the acts of asking for and giving money there are many fascinating stories to tell about how people are working to solve problems and make the world a better place.
However, it’s not always easy to find these stories because the process of making grants is not very transparent. Proposals are submitted privately to foundations, each of which have their own priorities and decision-making processes. Grant announcements are made, but often just in general terms that describe the purpose and amount of the awards, and the follow-up about what happened along the way is primarily left to the grant recipient. I have been thinking about possibilities for opening up this process, and was happy to learn about DonorsChoose.org, a fast-growing “citizen philanthropy” web site, that was featured during this week’s Council on Foundations conference for community foundations.
The idea behind DonorsChoose.org is simple: give classroom teachers a way to ask for money for specific projects to help their kids, and give individuals a way to fulfill those requests by giving money online. Teachers register for the web site, describe their request for items such as art supplies or digital cameras, and most important, talk about why this will make a difference in helping kids learn. Projects can be sorted by location and by topic.
Individuals contribute money toward specific projects, most of which cost a few hundred dollars, and a progress meter tracks how much money has been contributed and how much there is left to go. As the web site says, “You can give as little as $1 and get the same level of choice, transparency, and feedback that is traditionally reserved for someone who gives millions.” So far, $58 million has been raised to fund more than 144,000 projects.
But what is really special about this idea is the opportunity it offers to build relationships between donors and teachers, to give individuals an emotional stake in our public schools and to keep the conversation going beyond that initial donation.
At the Council on Foundations conference, attendees were given a $100 DonorsChoose.org gift card to try out the service. Last night, I logged on and gave $50 each to two teachers: one in my hometown of Yuma, Arizona, and the other in Long Beach, Calif., where I live now. When you make a donation, there is an opportunity to send a message to the teacher and say whether the contribution is in honor of someone. I gave my donations in honor of my mom, a devoted teacher in Arizona public schools for 30 years.
Within ONE HOUR, I received email responses from both teachers. One simply said thank you, and the other replied with this personal note that also is posted on the project’s web page:
“Thank you so much, Mary Lou. My students and myself included are so grateful for your generosity. I know my students will find so much joy from this project. I’m in admiration of your mother’s dedication and service to our schools. I hope to one day be remembered as an inspirational educator just like her!”
Wow! Now I feel really good about what I did, and maybe these teachers will stay in touch with me and share pictures and notes about the impact that these projects have had on their kids. It’s not just about the giving – it’s about feeling the impact of the gift in such a personal way.
So what does this have to do with journalism and storytelling? Well, in every project, there is a story to tell. There are stories about teachers and their ideas, some of them quite novel, for how to teach their kids. There are stories about donors and why they felt inspired to give to these projects. And there are stories about the relationships that form as a result of these donations.
Local reporters: log on to DonorsChoose.org and look for projects in your community. If you don’t find any, maybe you can write a story about this web site that encourages local teachers to start participating in it. While you’re at it, look up your local community foundation and ask about the grants they’ve made lately and why. I bet you’ll find some good story leads.
Foundations: think about how approaches like DonorsChoose.org can be used to expand the impact of your grants. Maybe community members would like to donate more to a specific project and find out how to get involved. You won’t know unless you give them a chance to do so. And think about offering matching funds to help support teachers in the communities or topic areas that are your focus.
You’re going to be hearing more about DonorsChoose.org soon. Word on the street is that DonorsChoose.org will be white hot after the Sept. 24 release of Waiting for Superman, a new movie about the education system from the director of An Inconvenient Truth. DonorsChoose.org will be promoted as a way for individuals to get more involved in their local schools, and in fact, if you pledge to see the movie, you’ll get a online gift card that gives you $5 to donate to a project of your choice. It’s free to pledge, and with that you get free money to donate to a local teacher and can get a feel for the experience of being a citizen philanthropist.