April 22, 2011

Interview with Charles Best - Summit at Sea

Interview with Charles Best, founder of DonorsChoose.org
Saturday, April 9, 2011
Pool deck of the Celebrity Century cruise liner, Summit at Sea, somewhere in the Bahamas
Conducted by Anneke Jong for the interview series "7 Leaders on the Rise"

After five years as a social studies teacher in the Bronx, Charles Best founded DonorsChoose.org, an online platform for crowd-sourced classroom funding. Public school teachers across the country post classroom project requests on DonorsChoose.org, which donors can fund directly for a little as $1. Since inception, DonorsChoose.org has raised over $81 million to support local school teachers. After participating at DC10, Summit Series’ 2010 conference in Washington DC, Best is returning for Summit at Sea as a featured attendee under the Summit Series banner of altruism.

Jong: DonorsChoose.org was recently featured in a secret video embedded in a QR code within the viral video of Stephen Colbert singing Rebecca Black’s “Friday” on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon. How did that come to be?

Best: This will actually be fresh news for you to break: an unwritten, untold story. Colbert had this portrait of himself which hung in the national portrait gallery, first in the men’s bathroom, then in the gallery. When Steve Martin came on his show to do this interview about this book on art appreciation, Colbert asked him if this portrait wasn’t art, and Steve Martin said it wasn’t really a work of art in his view. Then, onto the set came these famous artists like Shepard Fairey and all kinds of amazing artists who embellished the photo. That turned this painting into a really valuable work of art, which Colbert auctioned off with the proceeds going to classroom art projects on our site. The portrait goes for $26,000 — all for art projects on our site.

At the end of the segment, Colbert tells his viewers that his “best friend forever for six months” Jimmy Fallon (as of March 3 they’re best friends forever for a trial period) Jimmy Fallon would be matching all those proceeds with a personal donation of $26,000. As you can imagine, we were thrilled when we saw the show. The internet and Twittersphere started buzzing about what an amazing guy Jimmy Fallon must be. So generous, so dedicated to arts education. We’re high-fiving each other around the office.

But then Stephen called me two days later, to break the bad news: Jimmy Fallon had maybe never even heard of Donor’s Choose before, and he certainly had no idea about any $26,000 donation. Stephen Colbert was philanthropically “punking” Jimmy Fallon. Luckily, he [Stephen Colbert] had some ideas for how to make this work out, and he personally committed to, in his words, “cover the spread” if Jimmy Fallon couldn’t make good on the debt he never knew he’d incurred. In the end, they decided to ask Jimmy Fallon’s viewers to help make an honest man out of him and donate to art projects in his name, which they did to the tune of $65,000. As a condition of Jimmy Fallon’s viewers doing that, Stephen Colbert sang Rebecca Black’s “Friday” with The Roots [the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon house band] who are all psyched about DonorsChoose.org because of being introduced to it by Jimmy and Stephen.

Jong: Coincidentally, The Roots are here at Summit at Sea. Have you spent any time with The Roots on the boat?

Best: I did get to speak with ?uestlove [the drummer for The Roots] for a little bit. He’s already been on our site because of Colbert singing on Fallon’s show.

Jong: You’ve obviously had a big year: at DC10 [Summit Series’ 2010 event], you interviewed Russell Simmons in the first plenary session, and every attendee received a $100 Donors Choose gift card in their gift bag. Now you’re back for another year, and I saw the gift card in the gift bag again. Can you talk about that program and how Summit Series has affected you and DonorsChoose.org?

Best: Summit represents this amazing opportunity to talk to influencers and entrepreneurs and awesome people. Getting influencers and entrepreneurs and awesome people on our site is worth enough that we’re psyched to underwrite these philanthropic gift cards to get people hooked on supporting classrooms.

Jong: Do you have a specific example of someone who got “hooked”?

Best: At DC10, I met the founder of Dapper — they do dynamically created banner ads. Now Dapper is helping us pro-bono by running and creating display ads which use our API to show classroom project requests that are geo-targeted and topically-targeted to the content on the webpage. This is giving us all kinds of learnings. Notably, these ads have taught us that for someone to feel like a giving opportunity is hyper-local, it needs to be in a 50 mile radius. We know that from testing these banner ads. That’s an important takeaway that we got from a partnership, and we only got it thanks to Summit Series.

Jong: What do you see as the future for your industry of crowd-sourced giving? Obviously you guys have helped pioneer this space. What’s next and where do you see the space going?

Best: I’m humbled by our brethren like Kiva and Kickstarter. I feel like each of them disproves an assumption. Kiva disproved the assumption that everyone needs a tax deduction to give money altruistically. Kickstarter disproved the assumption that people don’t want to give more than the specific request is asking for. I feel like half the projects on Kickstarter are over-funded and that blows my mind. People are willing to donate another $20 to a $1,000 request that has already gotten $2,000. We’re doing exponential growth, but Kickstarter is explosive growth.

Jong: What are the challenges for your growth?

Best: We’ve had a lot of growth, but there’s still a lot of work to do. To put it in perspective and show how much further we have to go: I was talking to a business school professor recently, and we were discussing the classroom total project funding that DonorsChoose.org is going to do this year: $31 million. He explained that if just one major development officer at a big university did only $31 million in a year, they’d be fired for terrible performance. That’s one development officer at one university serving a tiny sliver of the population — in contrast to our goal of every public school in America. What a big university raises in 3 months is more than DonorsChoose, Kiva, and Kickstarter combined, so we still have a long ways to go.
You can learn more at DonorsChoose.org or follow Charles on Twitter at @CharlesBest

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