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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation

Wish List: Donated School Supplies Are Just a Click Away

The dos and don'ts of requesting supplies at DonorsChoose.org.
By Sara Ring

It's Covered: Doreen Weiss reads to her students on their donated rug.

The hardwood floor in Doreen Weiss's second-grade class was lovely to look at but uncomfortable to sit on during reading time, so Weiss covered part of it with a colorful rug decorated with a world map -- one paid for not by the school, nor by Weiss herself, but by an anonymous donor through the Web site DonorsChoose.org. "My students loved it. And they still love it. They like to sit on certain continents," Weiss notes with a laugh.

If you could use some help providing supplies or experiences for your class, you're not alone. Since 2000, more than 42,000 school projects have received funding through DonorsChoose.org, which now serves public schools in all fifty states. Donors (the site calls them citizen philanthropists) range from charitable organizations to Fortune 500 companies, but the majority of benefactors are simply individuals looking to make a difference. So far, donors have given more than $18 million to fund projects for schools in need. Yours could be next.

How It Works

To submit a proposal, you'll have to write an essay explaining which items you want and how they'll benefit your class. (Teachers have requested everything from multimedia projectors to art supplies to lab safety aprons.) Potential donors browse through thousands of proposals and may choose to contribute to, or fully pay for, the projects that interest them the most. If your project gets funded, DonorsChoose.org will purchase the items and mail them to you along with a feedback package you complete to thank your donors.

Increasing the Odds

How can you improve the chances of your proposal getting funded? Here are some helpful dos:

  • Do submit an essay that paints a picture of who your students are and how they will benefit by receiving your requested items.
  • Do give your proposal a catchy title. For example, the title "What a Knock Out!" (an actual project name) is more eye catching than, say, "Martial Arts Class Needs Free-Standing Heavy Bag."
  • Do try to keep the cost low. Most requests that cost less than $400 are funded within three months. If possible, consider breaking up an expensive project into multiple requests.
  • Do have colleagues proofread your essay, recommends Steven Slaughter, a fifth-grade teacher at Chicago's Abraham Lincoln Elementary School. Slaughter has had two projects funded through DonorsChoose.org: a rotating bookshelf filled with books, and supplies for an organic garden. "It's important to write well," he advises, but he adds that, compared to a grant proposal, the DonorsChoose.org essay is easy. Another plus is that unlike in the case of most grant-making organizations, DonorsChoose.org doesn't have specific cost or subject-matter requirements, which allows for much more flexibility in the type of items you can request. And, rather than cutting you a check, DonorsChoose.org actually purchases your items and ships them right to you.
  • Do mention if you have many students at a high level of poverty. Some donors prefer to give to schools where the need is greatest, whatever the project may be.
  • Do consider letting friends, family, and students' parents know you've submitted a request. All donations are anonymous, and the funds could start pouring in if you're comfortable spreading the word.
  • Do be patient. Proposals are kept on the site for a maximum of eight months, and it may take that long to get funded. Proposals not fully funded by their expiration date are removed from the site.

And, of course, here are some don'ts:

  • Don't be late returning your feedback package. Donor appreciation is a vital aspect of the program's success.
  • Don't be late returning emails from DonorsChoose.org. Again, a prompt response is key.
  • Don't get bogged down in academic terms. "Use layperson's language, not education lingo," suggests Linda Erlinger, the organization's vice president of teacher engagement.

Giving Back

Contributing Colleague: Teacher Kevan Truman enjoys funding other teachers' projects.

Credit: Barbara Ungar

Teachers aren't just on the receiving end of DonorsChoose.org. Kevan Truman, a third-grade teacher at Central School, in Wilmette, Illinois, has donated funds to several projects on the site over the past two years. Would he ever request materials for his own class? The answer is no. "I am blessed with so much," he explains, noting the affluence of his school district.

For those who could use some assistance, DonorsChoose.org is a great resource -- so good, in fact, that some teachers are initially skeptical. "Teachers often tell us that this seems too good to be true, but it isn't," says DonorsChoose.org's Linda Erlinger. "It works."

Sara Ring is a contributing writer for Edutopia. She lives in Los Angeles.

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