DonorsChoose: It’s Not Just For Teachers Anymore

By Stephen Sawchuk — September 26, 2019 6 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

A popular crowdfunding site for schools is entering formal partnerships with a handful of school districts, hoping to make what’s generally been a diffuse, teacher-by-teacher effort into something districts can support in a more coordinated manner.

DonorsChoose’s new partnerships, to be announced this morning, would also seem to be an attempt by the nonprofit to further distinguish itself from other providers in the crowd—pun intended—and a response to a recent trend of districts putting the kibosh on teachers’ crowdsourcing efforts.

“There have been any number of district leaders who are either confused or concerned about their teachers’ use of crowdfunding sites generally,” said Charles Best, a former New York City teacher who started the organization in 2000. “And I think there are a lot of superintendents who don’t have the time to learn the ins and outs of crowdfunding and what makes ours different from others.”

To kick off the effort, DonorsChoose will work with 10 districts, ranging from large urban districts, including Los Angeles, Atlanta, and Chicago, down to the small, rural, 350-student Richland R1 district in southeast Missouri. It also plans to match up to $250,000 in donations across those districts for teachers’ proposed projects. Each district will get to host a page on on which it can list teachers’ ideas and access tools for analyzing their requests.

The organization wants to triple that number of partnerships by January and potentially expand it to hundreds in 2020.

A Brief History of School Crowdfunding

Crowdfunding at schools has been on the increase at least since the penny-pinching days of the Great Recession. But while the idea is simple in concept, it’s trickier on the ground.

For one thing, the major providers have some significant differences, some of which can spell trouble for districts and teachers wanting to use them. Some are for-profits, others nonprofits; some take a cut of funds raised, others don’t. Some allow users to ask directly for money, for example, others place safeguards around the purchases. (It is probably not a good look, however well intended, for a teacher representing a school to have cash directly deposited into his or her bank account.)

For its part, DonorsChoose vets the projects teachers submit, and teachers must ask for goods or services, rather than money. Once funded, the materials are sent directly to schools.

Even then, some administrators worry about crowdfunding exacerbating disparities—that certain schools will stand to benefit more than others, depending on which teachers are more or less savvy or aggressive users of crowdfunding sites. (It’s well known that fundraising done by parent-teacher organizations can exacerbate per-pupil spending disparities even among neighboring districts.)

And as my colleague Sarah Schwartz recently reported, some districts have moved to outlaw teacher crowdfunding for other reasons, citing concerns that educators are selecting materials not well aligned to their district’s goals or curriculum, and even that teachers might use the sites for personal gain.

This all has left a patchwork of policies. The Tacoma district in Washington state, for example, prohibits the use of cash crowdsourcing sites for district fundraising, but leaves open the possibility that the district could, as part of its overall fundraising, work with third-party promoters.

Fewer than 10 percent of school districts prohibit crowdfunding or put in so much red tape as to make it all but impossible, Best estimated. But generally, he said, districts tend to be passive rather than active supporters of teacher crowdsourcing.

A Centralizing Force

DonorsChoose’s district partnerships appear to be the nonprofit’s attempt to respond to some districts’ objections and concerns while not losing the teacher-led nature of school crowdsourcing.

Each of the partnership districts will have its own landing page on, where it will be able to put teachers’ proposed projects in one place. Then they’ll be able to monitor what’s been donated. Principals will be notified each time a project is funded so they’ll be able to be on the lookout for materials that are shipped to their school, while administrators will receive early notification when donors or philanthropies list new opportunities.

The district landing pages won’t be “gift registries” where teachers can only request pre-approved items; they’ll still get to be creative and flexible with what they want to fund. The one exception is for IT purchases. Most districts have the ability to support only certain hardware and devices; those specifications will pop up when teachers ask for those devices.

Districts will also get more granular data that could presumably help shape their budgeting. If teachers are requesting the same set of books for their classroom libraries, for instance, then that’s something the district might want to put in a line-item in the future.

That’s one of the tools that excites Susan Enfield, the superintendent in the Highline district south of Seattle, one of the 10 districts partnering up. (Enfield also sits on the board of trustees for the nonprofit that publishes Education Week.)

“It’s one thing for a teacher to be looking for something for a cool project he or she is doing,” she said. “But if I’m seeing a certain thing being asked for over and over, that might not just be a request or preference. It might be a legitimate, more widely spread teacher need.”

Read our new special report on what superintendents and principals actually do with K-12 funds—and their biggest challenges and concerns.

So what might these partnerships look like on the ground? The Richland R1 district in Essex, Mo., has worked with DonorsChoose since 2014. It’s used a centralized district page to support teachers’ needs rather than scattershot one-off requests. And because of its small size, the district has been able to get devices for its 1-to-1 computing program, green screens, 3-D printers, and drones through crowdfunding, said Superintendent Frank Killian.

“Our district has our own DonorsChoose page, instead of each teacher trying to create their own,” he said. “We end up making our dollars go twice as far.”

It remains to be seen how these arrangements play out in much larger urban districts, with hundreds of schools and different economies of scale. Some of the first partnerships offer intriguing models, though. In Oklahoma City, a local philanthropy, the Foundation for Oklahoma City Schools, provides matching dollars for teachers’ projects and commits $250 for each teacher’s first funded project of the year, said Mary Mélon, the foundation’s president.

All of that good work notwithstanding, there’s a more philosophical question about the crowdsourcing trend: How does it affect school financing in general? Are districts implicitly sending the message that they can simply fundraise to make ends meet—and, by implication, that they don’t need property tax increase or other revenue-raising methods? It’s a question few school finance experts appear to have studied as yet.

Best says that’s not a major concern of his for now. Internal surveys of its donors suggest that they tend to be more interested in issues of school district management, rather than less, after their first time funding a project in a low-income classroom.

“Project funding is too unpredictable, and discretionary spending by districts too constrained, for a district to say, ‘Let’s not fund this line item in the budget’” as a response to crowdfunding, he said.

Image credit: Getty

Related Tags:

A version of this news article first appeared in the District Dossier blog.

Commenting has been disabled on effective Sept. 8. Please visit our FAQ section for more details. To get in touch with us visit our contact page, follow us on social media, or submit a Letter to the Editor.


This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Teaching Webinar
6 Key Trends in Teaching and Learning
As we enter the third school year affected by the pandemic—and a return to the classroom for many—we come better prepared, but questions remain. How will the last year impact teaching and learning this school
Content provided by Instructure
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
School & District Management Webinar
Ensuring Continuity of Learning: How to Prepare for the Next Disruption
Across the country, K-12 schools and districts are, again, considering how to ensure effective continuity of learning in the face of emerging COVID variants, politicized debates, and more. Learn from Alexandria City Public Schools superintendent
Content provided by Class
Teaching Profession Live Online Discussion What Have We Learned From Teachers During the Pandemic?
University of California, Santa Cruz, researcher Lora Bartlett and her colleagues spent months studying how the pandemic affected classroom teachers. We will discuss the takeaways from her research not only for teachers, but also for

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Schools Get the Brunt of Latest COVID Wave in South Carolina
In the past few weeks, South Carolina has set records for COVID-19 hospitalizations and new cases have approached peak levels of last winter.
4 min read
Two Camden Elementary School students in masks listen as South Carolina Gov. Henry McMaster talks about steps the school is taking to fight COVID-19, Wednesday, Sept. 15, 2021, in Camden, S.C. McMaster has adamantly and repeatedly come out against requiring masks in schools even as the average number of daily COVID-19 cases in the state has risen since early June. (AP Photo/Jeffrey Collins)
Education More States Are Requiring Schools to Teach Native American History and Culture
Advocates say their efforts have gained some momentum with the nation’s reckoning over racial injustice since the killing of George Floyd.
3 min read
A dancer participates in an intertribal dance at Schemitzun on the Mashantucket Pequot Reservation in Mashantucket, Conn., Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021. Connecticut and a handful of other states have recently decided to mandate students be taught about Native American culture and history. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)
Education Judge's Temporary Order Allows Iowa Schools to Mandate Masks
A federal judge ordered the state to immediately halt enforcement of a law that prevents school boards from ordering masks to be worn.
4 min read
Iowa Gov. Kim Reynolds speaks to reporters following a news conference, Thursday, Aug. 19, 2021, in West Des Moines, Iowa. Reynolds lashed out at President Joe Biden Thursday after he ordered his education secretary to explore possible legal action against states that have blocked school mask mandates and other public health measures meant to protect students against COVID-19. Reynolds, a Republican, has signed a bill into law that prohibits school officials from requiring masks, raising concerns as delta variant virus cases climb across the state and schools resume classes soon. (AP Photo/Charlie Neibergall)
Education Hurricane Ida Deals New Blow to Louisiana Schools Struggling to Reopen
The opening of the school year offered teachers a chance to fully assess the pandemic's effects, only to have students forced out again.
8 min read
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021. Louisiana students, who were back in class after a year and a half of COVID-19 disruptions kept many of them at home, are now missing school again after Hurricane Ida. A quarter-million public school students statewide have no school to report to, though top educators are promising a return is, at most, weeks away, not months.
Six-year-old Mary-Louise Lacobon sits on a fallen tree beside the remnants of her family's home destroyed by Hurricane Ida, in Dulac, La., on Sept. 4, 2021.
John Locher/AP