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Yesterday morning, almost 12,000 public school teachers arrived to their classrooms at the crack of dawn, hoping to educate America’s children despite, in some cases, lacking resources as necessary and as basic as books and chairs. Each teacher had created a project on DonorsChoose.org about a classroom need, specifying what it would cost to fulfill and hoping to crowd-fund bit by bit something that would improve the educational experience of their students.
More than 50 celebrities, athletes, and business moguls came out of their pockets to fund these 12,000 projects all at once in a campaign called “Best School Day,” ensuring that things like field trips, art supplies, and educational software would be a reality. In a single day, over $14 million was dispersed throughout national public schools—an unprecedented shot in the arm that will fix problems small and large.
It was an insanely ambitious plan, but the simplicity of making classroom necessities and dreams happen is what brought together everyone from Carmelo Anthony to Seth Rogen to Russell Simmons. The guy who started this celebrity domino effect is Biz Stone, the co-founder of Twitter and co-founder and CEO of Jelly. We sat down with Biz Stone on the day that "Best School Day" launched to talk about the state of American education and what young people can gain from altruism (beyond, you know, a general feeling of having done good in the world).
How did this Donors Choose Best School Day Initiative come about?
My wife is actually the mastermind behind it. We were on date night and she said, “We should flash fund Donors Choose like Stephen Colbert did. We should just pick Boston, where you grow up, and flash fund them.”
Flash funding is when, without warning anyone, you raise enough money to fund a bunch of classroom projects on Donors Choose. In one morning—boom, all done. The teachers wake up and they’re all shocked and surprised and all the kids get everything they need. It is really fantastic and fun. Everyone wins.
I agreed it was a good idea, and then she said, “Do you think you can get Jack Dorsey [co-founder and CEO of Twitter] to do it, too?” I thought he definitely would. And then she asked, “What about Evan [Williams, former CEO of Twitter and co-founder of Medium] and Sara [Evan’s wife]?” And I said, “Hey, it can’t hurt to ask.”
I sometimes like to say that there is a bit of selfishness in selflessness because you really do benefit a lot from helping other people.
So, they all got on board, and I told Charles [Best, co-founder and CEO of Donors Choose], “Hey me, Jack and Ev are going to flash fund our respective hometowns and somewhere in the Bay Area because that’s where we made our fortune.” Charles said, “If you guys are doing this, I can get so many more people to do this. I can go to Hollywood, I can go to athletes, I can go to other founders."
Charles and his team went crazy and got all these people involved. I emailed anyone who might be interested, and we got up to 50 celebrities, founders, athletes, and all these fancy people to do it. From my wife saying we should flash fund something, it snowballed into this massive 14-million dollar project. We covered 46 states, and then the rest of the states covered by matching grants of 3.2 million from Sergey Brin [co-founder of Google] and Brian Acton [co-founder of Whatsapp]. And then it just happened to be that Charles picked my birthday to be the Best School Day. [Laughs.]
Did anyone pledge to help out a certain hometown or region and get stuck with an absurdly high bill?
[Laughs.] No, Charles was very specific. Basically he ball-parked that it would cost to do various options. With Ev, for example, he said, “If you just did the city of Lincoln, it would be a very small amount of money. But you can do all of Nebraska for this much money.” So Ev decided to fund all of Nebraska’s projects. ”
In a time of crippling student debt, somewhat high barriers of entry into the workplace, fierce competition for a finite number of jobs, why should young people care about altruism?
I believe there is a compound impact to getting started early with altruism. Most people do philanthropy wrong. They say, “When I’m old and rich and comfortable, I’ll donate some money to something.” First of all, no one ever feels like they’re quite rich enough for that. But if you got started in your teens, just with five bucks or even volunteer time, the impact you have over the next 40 years is way more than anything you could have done in your 40s. It’s like having a bank account with compound interest: If you put four hundred dollars in when you’re 12—I mean they don’t have these kind of things anymore—but just imagine with 12 percent compound interest, you would have four million dollars when you’re 40 and you can have a great mid-life crisis. [Laughs.]
Seriously, though, volunteer work is kind of a genius move. It’s doing good for the community, right? But, it gives you a few more things. If you’re looking for a job and going on interviews, you get constantly turned down. What happens is you go into the next interview already defeated and people sense that. You go do volunteer work, all of a sudden you feel good about yourself like, “I’m a good guy, I just put in a day’s solid hard work cleaning up low income housing for mentally ill folks,” or whatever it is. So you feel good, your confidence is restored, you go to your next job interview and they ask what you’re doing right now. If you say, “Right now I’m volunteering, but I’m looking for full-time work,” you will look great and stand out.
there’s so much red tape in government, and organizations like Donors Choose are leveraging the web and going straight to the people and saying, 'Let’s just solve this together.'
Also, it’s networking. All kinds of people volunteer. You can be painting a door with me or giving out food next to me and we start chatting and all of a sudden I ask you, “I’m looking for a marketing coordinator for my new startup—are you interested?’ You never know. I sometimes like to say that there is a bit of selfishness in selflessness because you really do benefit a lot from helping other people. That’s why I encourage it.
Are you involved with addressing more systemic problems in American education?
Yes, but Donors Choose is kind of where my wife and I decided to focus, because at first, in the very beginning, I thought, “This is a very great organization but it’s a Band-Aid on top of a totally broken system.” The median income of teachers in America is $50,000. And $1.6 billion is the number that teachers pay out of their own pockets to buy school supplies, and that’s an annual number. I’m not talking about iPads, I’m talking about 19th century style things, like chairs for the room! My wife and I funded one where the teacher said she needed sweatshirts because her kids were really cold. I mean, come on! “We need books. Pencils.” The teachers are grooming the folks that are going to take over our nation, and we’re asking them to do it without books and pencils.
We’re trying our best. We formed a foundation, we got involved directly with schools in the Contra Costa county in California, where Richmond is, and they have very particularly tough problems with some of their public schools. But the teachers, their hearts are in it so much that when you start working with them and giving them a little bit of money, they make it go far.
I’m not a political guy, so I’m not really sure in that regard how to do this. I get the impression that if we want to change things, we have to do it ourselves. It seems like there’s so much red tape in government, and organizations like Donors Choose are leveraging the web and going straight to the people and saying, “Let’s just solve this together.” And I think that that’s the way to go.
I think the systemic approach is to use technology to facilitate people in this country making it happen and bringing about change.
Maybe you’re not a political guy, but you are a tech guy. Are there any specific instances where tech and education are coming together that seem promising or exciting to you?
Well, there’s a lot of stuff happening online with tutoring and learning. I don’t necessarily follow any specific advancements in technology and how it’s applied to learning. I take a more high-altitude view, that if you give kids the right tools and some guidance, they can and will learn. If you can just get the right tools in the right hands, learning will happen—but you do need guidance. The teachers are there to keep the kids on track, keep the kids focused, but the kids have a hunger to teach themselves, too.