Hobart and William Smith Colleges Convocation speaker 2012-2013
Hi there. Thank you so much, President Gearan, for that introduction. And thanks especially to each of you for lending an ear. It is an honor to speak with you on such a special day. I’m really excited to be a part of your convocation.
Over your next four years at this incredible place, I bet that a lot of you are going to come up with ideas for stuff you want to launch. Maybe it will be a club, maybe it will be a company, and if the case is right it’ll be the next Facebook or a cure for cancer research. So, I want to share with you the story of how I got DonorsChoose.org off the ground. But first I want to ask for a show of hands. How many of you had a teacher in high school who made a really big impression on you? Someone you wanted to be like. Raise your hand. The vast majority of you. I’m glad that so many of you had a teacher like that, that had something to do with the kind of person who gets into Hobart and William Smith.
I also had such a teacher in high school, Mr. Buxton. He was my English teacher and wrestling coach. When I showed up as a dorky freshman Mr. Buxton spoke to me like he would to an adult. If he approved or disapproved of something I had done, I knew it right away because he didn’t put on that mask that some teachers have when they are talking to kids. If you asked him a question on Wednesday he would come back to you on Friday saying that he had thought about it, and he really had. He made you feel like he wanted you on his team. And looking back on it, I’m pretty sure it was Mr. Buxton who made me want to be a teacher.
So, 12 years ago I began teaching history at Wings Academy, a public high school in the Bronx. Now, the school where I was teaching was different. Where I went to high school we went on field trips to the woods, we had graphing calculators for trigonometry, we had the supplies to do just about any art project—we did not want for anything. But when I started teaching in the Bronx, I saw firsthand that all schools are not created equal. My colleagues and I would spend a lot of our own money on copy paper and pencils, and we often couldn’t get the resources our students needed, or do the projects that would excite them about learning. We’d talk in the teacher’s lunchroom about books our students ought to read, a field trip we wanted to take them on, a microscope that would bring science to life, and I figured there must be people out there who’d love to help us, if they could see where their money was going.
So I drew with pencil and paper, I drew out this website where public school teachers could post classroom project requests and donors could choose the project that they want to support. For $2,000 this programmer who had recently arrived from Poland was willing to build the site. It was super rudimentary—the backend of our site was one page that you’d have to scroll down for like 15 minutes to get to the teacher or the project that you were looking for. To process a donation, I had one of those black boxes that you see at the grocery store where you punch in the credit card number and the dollar amount and send it over a telephone line. It was like PayPal, but by hand, and it was a really good thing that my students were helping me out.
Then I had to get my colleagues to try out the site and post the first projects. So, I asked my mom to make one of her best desserts. She makes these roasted pears with apricot glaze and orange rind and spices—it tastes something awesome—and I put the dessert on the table in the teacher’s lunchroom. Before my colleagues could scarf it down, I said, “Hold up, there is a toll.” “If you eat one of these pears, you have to go to this newly created website, DonorsChoose.org, and propose the project that you have always want to do with your students.”
The health teacher ate the dessert first, and she wanted to do a pregnancy prevention project. For that she needed baby “think-it-over” dolls, which are life-sized, life-weight dolls that cry at three in the morning and need to be fed, and show a teenager what it would be like if they had a kid. The English teacher, he requested SAT review books, the art teacher requested fabric and thread and needles so that her students could do a 20-foot by 30-foot quilt. My aunt who is a nurse and my uncle who is a minister, they funded the first project together, but I didn’t know any more donors to fund the other 10 projects. So I funded them myself, which I could afford to do, because after college I was still living at home with my parents.
And I donated anonymously, so my colleagues mistakenly thought that my website actually worked. And that there were all of these donors on the site just waiting to bring teachers’ classroom dreams to life, so that false rumor spread across the Bronx and teachers started posting hundreds of projects, projects that needed a whole lot more money than I couldn’t afford. I was in a really tough spot, not knowing how I was going to get those projects funded. But my students came to the rescue. They could see the potential of this experiment to change their lives at school, and I think they also felt bad for me.
So, for three months they volunteered every day after school to spread word to potential donors. They addressed and compiled 2,000 letters by hand to people all over the country telling them about this site where somebody with $5 could be a classroom hero. We wanted to get the cheapest postage rate so we sorted the mail ourselves. We carted the sorted letters to the post office and we crossed our fingers. It worked. My students’ letter writing campaign generated $30,000 in donations to projects on our site. We were on our way.
But then 9/11 happened, and teachers at the schools beside ground zero started posting projects for recovering from the attack on the World Trade Center. There was a math teacher who requested a set of calculators for her students because their original set was sealed at the disaster site and their classroom had been relocated to a basement. There was an art teacher who wanted to bring in an Afghani artist so students could learn about Afghanistan. There was a first grade teacher whose students had been saved by a particular group of firemen and her students wanted to thank the firemen who had saved them, and for that they wanted to do a musical performance and they needed musical instruments.
There were hundreds of these projects related to 9/11, and I thought that local media would jump on the story; this is during a time when people yearned for a way to participate in the recovery effort. But no local reporters would give me the time of day. I must have called 100 of them with no success. So I figured I better aim higher, and the Holy Grail was the New York Times. They had a new reporter covering nonprofits and philanthropy. Her name was Stephanie Strong, and I figured if we could get Stephanie Strong to do an article about DonorsChoose.org, we would have a shot at big time impact. So, I put together a package of materials and I mailed them to this reporter, Stephanie Strong, and I didn’t hear back. So I called her up a couple of weeks later and she was nice to me but she said we were kind of small potatoes. She said, “If ever I’m doing a round up of a listing of online charities, maybe I can mention you,” and I thought, damnit.
So then I found a directory of the top people at Newsweek and I called the senior editor, Jonathan Alter. I called him because with the last name beginning with “a” he showed up first in the directory. I called him during my lunch hour, and his assistant must have been out to lunch because he picked up the phone, and I said, “Hey I’m a teacher up in the Bronx, I’ve started this nonprofit with my students, do you want to hear about it?” And he said sure. He didn’t hang up on me. We talked for 45 minutes, and that night Jonathan Alter wrote a column on the Newsweek website saying that he thought this experiment growing out of a Bronx classroom might one day change the face of philanthropy.
So, I was so excited, I called up Stephanie Strong at the New York Times and said, “Hey, Newsweek thought we were worthy enough, ya know, at least for their website, so why don’t you give us a second look.” Well then she dashed my hopes. She said, “I am not going to touch your story with a 10-foot pole now that another reporter has covered this story. The New York Times does not follow in the footsteps of other publications.” So I felt like an idiot for having told her that another media outlet had broken our story and I wrote her an e-mail apologizing for being so dumb. She could tell I felt really bad and so she took pity and wrote back to me saying that I shouldn’t feel bad because I didn’t have a chance in the first place because her editors had asked her to focus on charities responding to 9/11. So there was my last opening. I spent a couple of hours crafting an e-mail for Stephanie Strong talking about all of these projects that teachers beside ground zero were posting on our site. I called her up as well—I called during the weekend so that I wouldn’t interrupt her in case she was writing on deadline—and I left her a voicemail saying, “This is the last time you’re ever going to hear from me, I just ask you to read this last pitch.”
On Monday, I was back at school and Stephanie had replied and she wanted to come do an interview for a major future story in the New York Times. Let me tell you, I was over the moon. My parents raised me to be humble but it felt like the skies had opened and I had to shout. I forwarded Stephanie’s e-mail to a friend and I wrote, “Guess who said she wouldn’t touch our story with a 10-foot pole and now wants an interview? That’s what hustling will get you!” I beat my chest; I talked all kinds of trash.
Does anyone know where this is going?
I thought I was forwarding Stephanie’s e-mail to my friend—I’m getting nervous adrenaline reliving the experience—I had hit reply and when I realized, I yanked the computer chord out of the electrical outlet. But I was too late; I sent that trash talking e-mail to Stephanie Strong, philanthropy reporter for the New York Times. So naturally, I sent her another e-mail apologizing for being so dumb. And to Stephanie’s eternal credit she did not hold it against me. She published a major story in the New York Times, suggesting that DonorsChoose.org was the future of philanthropy, and we’ve tried to prove her right.
As of today, 800,000 people have given over $100 million to projects from teachers at half of all the public schools in America. We’ve delivered books, art supplies, field trips, technology, to more than five millions kids from low-income families. I never thought that one day I would be at Hobart and William Smith sharing numbers like that. Hobart and William Smith were nice enough to pay me a speakers’ fee, and we’re going to invite each of you to spend that speakers’ fee on a classroom project of your choice. When you walk out—and this applies to the folks in Albright and the Geneva Room and the Café—when you walk out, you’re each going to be given a $10 DonorsChoose.org gift card to apply on our site. Find the project that really speaks to you. You can even post a message to the students you choose to help. And think of those students beginning their school year as you begin your adventure here, and know that you made those students’ first day of school just a little bit brighter. Thank you for having me here.