In the cramped, windowless staff lunchroom at Wings Academy, a small public high school in the Bronx in New York City, teachers are often buzzing about big new ideas on how to teach and reach students. But few of their improvement schemes made it into classrooms until rookie teacher Charles Best had the best idea of all: to create an online charity that would give citizen philanthropists direct access to needy classrooms.
Best's vision became donorschoose.org a site that allows donors to search teacher requests and fund the projects they like best. The charity then buys the supplies--anything from colored pencils to microscopes--and ships them to classrooms. "People knew the plight of students in our public schools," says Best, 29, whose own education, at Yale University and an exclusive New Hampshire boarding school, was unmarked by economic hardship of any kind. "They wanted to help out but wondered if their contributions were going to go into a black hole."
In the spring of 2000, Best used roasted pears (his mom's recipe) to lure 10 sweet-toothed colleagues to post proposals on the site. He initially failed to find donors, but he believed in the project so strongly that he used his own meager teacher's salary to anonymously fund all 10 of them--then moved in with his parents to keep the site and himself fiscally afloat. Since then, residents of 49 states (South Dakota is the holdout) and 10 foreign countries have donated $3 million to fund 6,000 projects. The charity garnered a Tech Museum laureate for innovations in e-procurement and has won over corporate sponsors such as Yahoo, Lehman Bros. and Bank of America.
DonorsChoose may be a virtual charity, but its effect on children is very real. Every shipment includes a disposable camera and guidelines for writing class thank-you notes. A fifth-grader in the Bronx reduced a regular donor to tears with this note: "No one has ever done anything that nice for me before ... I want to do something nice for you. Just let me know what you need, and I'll take care of it." Vani Khajuria, a North Carolina fourth-grader, wrote her patron, "My children's children's children will treasure this book." Eloquent proof that a minute or two on a website can have an effect for generations. --By Amanda Bower