This post was published in July 2017 and was updated in December 2019.
Dave Stuart Jr. is small-town high school teacher who helps educators promote long-term flourishing on DaveStuartJr.com. If you're trying to become both better and saner at the work of teaching, join Dave's free newsletter.
I first learned about DonorsChoose in 2008 when an old college roommate snail-mailed me a clipping from a magazine. Thinking of all the supplies my students and I needed for my middle school classroom in Baltimore, I eagerly went on the site, created an account, and made my first request: "Making Writers Out of Apathy," a $506 project for folders and a few editing pens.
Suffice it to say, the project expired without full funding. So how did I get over that first speed bump to ultimately have 47 projects completed? Here are the lessons that initial project taught me:
My classroom isn't the center of the universe.
This sounds harsh, but I think when I wrote that first project I was writing with a couple of assumptions:
I assumed that people would just magically want to donate to my class, just because, you know, it was us! I mean, c'mon — my students are amazing!
I assumed people would "get" my title, whereas in hindsight, it came off as pessimistic and confusing.
Looking back, I expected way too much out of potential donors — who are just as busy as I am — and didn't do enough to make donating to my class exciting and accessible. For future requests, I used my project to warmly invite potential donors into my classroom and see all of the amazing work we were doing... and how they could help. For example, one of the essays I’m most proud of is A World Class Library for World History Students.
Write projects with this in mind: "What would I want to see as a potential donor?"
Going back to the title of that initial project, you can see that, really, I was speaking to teachers, not potential donors. Anyone who has taught middle school English knows that apathy can be a real and overwhelming reality for students and is often the number-one obstacle to a student growing in our classroom. However, I don't think that the average person outside of teaching knows that in the same way; what they do know is that classroom sometimes need basic supplies (like the ones I was asking for) and that helping kids become able writers is an important thing.
By putting myself in a potential donor's shoes, I can do a good job of communicating the essence of a project quickly and effectively. That way, they don't need to understand the inner depths of a teacher's struggle in order to get excited about putting some money toward new writing folders. For example, the title of one of my later projects, World History Students + Bill Bryson = History Love, is clear and tailored specifically to catch the eye of a potential donor who may not have set foot inside a classroom for years.
Break projects down.
If there's a single thing that has given me the greatest breakthroughs in writing successful DonorsChoose projects, it's this: break big projects down. At this point, I’ve been a DonorsChoose teacher for nine years, and what I have noticed in that time is that projects that are within $100 of completion are much more likely to receive random "I've-never-seen-this-donor-before" funding than projects with more than $100 left. A big reason for that, I think, is that donors like to support projects that they know are going to reach full funding.
If I could to go back in time and try to get all of those funding for all of those folders again, I would break it down into several $100-$200 projects, with eye-catching titles such as "Spelling Folders for the Win!" or "Keeping Things Straight: Reading and Writing Folders".
Sure, it would have been great if my kids had received those folders back in 2008. But I’m ultimately thankful that "Making Writers Out of Apathy" didn't receive funding because of the many lessons it taught me... and the many subsequent, successful projects those lessons helped me create down the line.