DonorsChooseIntro: Meet Theresia Gouw
Tell us about DonorsChoose...
DonorsChoose helps get resources into classrooms. You can donate $10 or $25 to your favorite classroom projects so that teachers can get the supplies and experiences they need, anywhere from books to field trips. It's one of the most exciting, innovative startups in any field, not just the nonprofit or education space.
What was the inspiration behind its launch?
Charles Best, the founder, was a history teacher at a Bronx public high school. He would buy newspapers for his students, so they would know about and see pictures of current events, and photocopy books at the local coffee shop for them to read. He thought about all the money he and his colleagues were spending on books, art supplies, and other materials. He knew there had to be a way to get public school teachers what they needed. And, remember, this was in 2000, before Facebook, Amazon, Twitter, Kickstarter and GoFundMe were even really things; crowdfunding wasn't really a word yet either. So he hired a developer, built a site and got it up and running.
The next day, he brought a delicious roasted pear dessert his mother had made to the teacher's lunch table. He told them that anyone who wanted a pear had to go to the site and put in a request. The first project that came in was for a class speaker; another was for Baby Think It Over dolls for a parenting class.
At first, Charles and his aunt went in and anonymously funded those projects. People realized it worked. That got the word going around. DonorsChoose was very New York City-based in the beginning, but then Charles began to scale up. It went regional and, eventually, national. It took seven years for that to happen.
How did you first become involved?
A fellow board member, Jeff Wiener [Executive Chairman of LinkedIn], was already involved. He was the one who told me about the organization and what it was doing. I was aware of the iniquities in educational resources in our public school system here in the U.S., but didn't realize how much individual teachers were spending, out of pocket, to give their students the resources they need to learn. I was really taken back by that. I met with founder Charles Best shortly after and, a few months after that first meeting, became a board member. That was over 10 years ago.
“When you think about what our students and teachers have gone through in the past year and a half—that's a lot of funding that needs to happen for every student.”
Books, computers, tablets, school supplies... We've had initiatives to provide what we call life supplies. I remember one where a teacher had several students who were homeless. The teacher asked for sleeping bags so they could be warm when they were outside of the classroom. That one made me cry.
We also support visitor projects—teachers would bring in speakers to classes—as well as field trips, both local (visiting the zoo) or international (going to a foreign country to do community service), but those have been put on hold right now because of COVID-19.
It all comes down to what we call the wisdom of the front-line teachers knowing exactly what their students need. I'm always in awe of their creativity.
Here's an example: A teacher in Chicago requested a saxophone for a student who was having behavior issues and was not coming to class. It wasn't part of the school budget and wasn't part of any program. But he saw that he had an interest in music.
It was just what he needed. He began performing in the school concerts and working with a music teacher. He was performing in an on-grade level in his class and his acting out was dramatically reduced. He was just a happier kid. That goes to show that the teacher saw something in the student and didn't give up. That musical instrument sparked a creativity and level of learning he didn't have before.
When you think about what our students and teachers have gone through in the past year and a half—that's a lot of funding that needs to happen for every student. There were a lot of social, emotional, learning opportunities that were missed just by not being in a classroom with other students. We already know about the education and the equity gap—and that was already before the pandemic. We've heard from teachers that it's just gotten wider. That's why it's important that we get students back in the classroom and get them the resources they need to continue and pick up where they left off.
I've helped with fundraising and participated in some incredible campaigns, including our districts partnership program and Keep Kids Learning, which was our COVID-19 effort aimed at helping students get what they needed to learn and thrive at home in the immediate wake of school closures. Being a part of the ISeeMe project was incredibly exciting as well.
Research shows that students benefit when can see themselves in their teachers and in their learning materials. It inspires them to do more with their education. In lower-income schools and classrooms, many of the students are overwhelmingly students of color and, unfortunately, there aren't nearly as many teachers of color. And even for teachers who are not, getting materials into the classroom—like books where the protagonists look like the students in the classroom—is important. So this initiative gets fundraising dollars behind that, to really support both the schools and the teachers. It seems pretty simple, but it's a really powerful motivational and inspirational tool.
BestSchoolDay campaign in 2016. That was the moment DonorsChoose announced that all the open projects got funded. Seeing the responses from the teachers and students… They were so happy and surprised. There was so much gratitude going around.
In January of 2018 we celebrated the funding of our one millionth project. Today, we're at 1.96 million, which means we are about our hit out 2 millionth project in three years—it took us 18 years to reach that first milestone. To me, that speaks to both the acceleration of our work, how many more teachers we are able to reach and how effective DonorsChoose has become but also to the sadness that these needs are still so great. Teachers are still having to reach into their pockets when they don't have the resources.
That we couldn't do it all without partnership—not just with organizations, like Veronica Beard, but with individual citizen philanthropists. They've made a huge difference for public school teachers and students and have gotten millions of dollars of resources into their classrooms each year. And after the year that schools have been through, I can't imagine a time when it's more needed.