DonorsChoose.org’s novel approach to providing teachers with up-to-date educational materials landed the company on the cover of Fast Company’s Most Innovative Companies issue this month. By giving teachers a forum to ask for school project funds, the company has raised $225 million from almost 1.2 million citizen philanthropists.
Charles Best, DonorsChoose.org’s CEO, gave Co.Design access to the organization’s data on what kind of projects teachers propose and which projects donors end up funding. DonorsChoose.org intends to use that data, and the many other indices the organization tracks, to “make government education spending smarter, better targeted, and more responsive,” Best says. We’ve helped DonorsChoose.org get started, pulling five stories from the numbers that indicate regional school subject preferences and overall trends across the site. The data reveals everything from a lone Southern bastion of generosity in funding math and science to a disconnect between teachers who request classroom iPads and donors who aren’t as eager to fund technology projects.
Well, at least if your teacher uses DonorsChoose.org. Based in Manhattan, the service has taken off across its home state, perhaps due to press coverage and concentrations of high-poverty schools, which are more likely to receive funding. From 2008 to 2013, teachers in the state proposed 1,894 projects for every 100,000 students in the New York public school system. Compare that with Ohio, which had the lowest rate, 380 projects per 100,000 students. That New York has a proposal rate per student almost five times higher suggests there’s a lot of room for new DonorsChoose.org proposals nationwide.
Proposing a project in Arkansas can be crapshoot or a done deal, depending on what class you happen to teach. Math and science requests received full funding 83% of the time, America’s highest success rate in that category. But at 48%, the state’s special needs success rate is the second-lowest in the nation, and the health and sports success rate of 51% is America’s lowest.
Schools’ poverty level, proximity to cities, and regional biases all influence donor enthusiasm. One large reason for Arkansas’ disparities is the Arkansas Community Foundation. For each of the past five years, the organization has donated $150,000 dollars to fund science proposals across the state. Teachers have responded en masse to the offer–Arkansas is the only state where math and science requests outnumbered literacy and language proposals.
Eight of the nation’s 10 least-funded states for literacy and language sit below the Mason-Dixon line. Much of this can be attributed to a general lack of funding in the region: Except for Arkansas, every Southern state falls short of the national average for DonorsChoose.org funding success. Still, literacy and language get the rawest end of the deal, as the subjects’ funding rate in Southern states is almost always below those states’ average funding rates.
Donors generally trust teachers when it comes to what kind of resources students need. There seems to be a slight reluctance when it comes to funding applied learning requests, a broad category that includes early childhood development, college preparatory materials, and technology such as tablets and computers. Donors were least likely to fund applied learning materials, despite being the fourth most requested category. Music and arts projects were the most successful.
When asked about the relative unpopularity of applied learning initiatives, Best suggested it could be due to the fact that tablets are overrepresented in the category: Proposals for tablets receive full funding 62% of the time, compared to the average project success rate of 69%. “We suspect some donors may see technology items like tablets as less essential than other traditional supplies such as books, paper, and basic resources,” Best says. “But we’ve seen how tablets can be transformational in education, particularly for students with developmental challenges.”
The organization probably already knows this one, but it’s too remarkable to omit. “Kickstarter for teachers” may be the easiest way to describe DonorsChoose.org, but there’s one big difference: Sixty-nine percent of projects on the site are funded, versus a 44% project success rate on Kickstarter. And as the organization has used data to determine what makes a good pitch, that percentage has increased. In 2013, 72% of projects got the greenlight.
Correction: A previous version of this story misstated the number of projects per student proposed in New York and Vermont.