Crowdfunding websites help donors help teachers

Teachers are turning to crowdfunding sites, such as Donors Choose, for help funding classroom activities.
Teachers are turning to crowdfunding sites, such as Donors Choose, for help funding classroom activities.

Scott Morris at Katherine L. Albiani Middle School in Elk Grove needs laptops for his robotics class. Heidi Umemoto is asking for books and hospital scrubs for her students at Mary Deterding Elementary in Carmichael. Heather Brandt asked for Kindle electronic readers and textbooks for her eighth-graders at Kingswood K-8 in Citrus Heights.

They are among the thousands of teachers nationwide looking for extra funds to meet classroom needs through crowdfunding websites like DonorsChoose, Adopt A Classroom and ClassWish.

“I use DonorsChoose for things that are outside of the box,” said Umemoto, who teaches a class of advanced fifth-graders. “While our PTA is awfully generous and open to all kinds of ideas, as a teacher I don’t want to feel like I always have my hand out.”

The Mary Deterding Elementary Parent Teacher Association paid for the curriculum for Umemoto’s “Code Blue” anatomy project, in which students will learn about science by taking on the role of different medical specialists who work together to solve medical mysteries. But there is still a need for scrubs to complete the experience and books for the classroom of “voracious readers,” Umemoto said.

On the DonorsChoose website, teachers put projects on line and choose from a number of vendors to purchase needed items. Supplies aren’t sent until a project is fully funded by donors who pay by credit card or PayPal. If a project expires before the four-month deadline, without being funded, donors will be given credit they can use on another project.

Three hundred Sacramento teachers already have had their projects funded this school year and another 200 have requests on the DonorsChoose website, said Christopher Pearsall, spokesman for the nonprofit. He said 467 teachers working in Sacramento had projects funded last school year.

Eight people gave $1,532 to purchase basketballs for Hiram Johnson High School. Two donors paid $441 for 30 copies of the book “The Things They Carried” to support history curriculum at Met Sacramento High School. Glenwood Elementary School was given $2,180 from one donor to buy iPads and books for independent reading. Del Paso Heights Elementary School has two new laptops because of two donors who gave $817. Ten donors offered up $545 so that the students at Pasadena Avenue Elementary School would have 12 microscopes and other lab equipment.

Nationally, DonorsChoose has raised nearly $300 million and funded the projects of more than 219,000 teachers since it was started 15 years ago by Charles Best, a history teacher in the Bronx, according to its website. DonorsChoose exploded in 2003 when Best appeared on the Oprah show, Pearsall said. The website crashed that day because of the high number of donors. When the site came back up, the organization had raised $250,000, he said.

“We know that teachers spend an average of $500 of their own money each year just in school supplies for their students and we’re grateful the donors have turned out to help these teachers,” Pearsall said.

Brandt had her most recent project funded Dec. 19 with the help of Chevron. The company paid all but a few hundred dollars of the $2,000 needed for 10 Kindle electronic readers and 49 textbooks. She said the donation will help give her students – who are mostly low-income and may not have access to a home library – more reading options.

“I have very little budget, if any, to put these on the shelves of the classroom,” she said. “I feel a responsibility to have those things, most teachers do. Although we try not to spend our own money, we do. ... It feels good to feel that people care.”

DonorsChoose has drawn a number of big donors, like Chevron, Staples, Kia and AT&T. Chevron’s Fuel Your School program distributed nearly $9 million this year through the website.

Teachers like Umemoto and Brandt know the best time to put a project on the site is in September, when Chevron starts looking for education programs to fund. “If it’s not during Chevron, I’m not so successful,” Umemoto said.

Pearsall said the most requested items on the website are books and basic supplies. He said the nonprofit would be happy to get “out of the basic needs business” and help fund more inventive projects like one that recently paid for a 3-D printer and another that supplied underwater robots so students could explore waterways.

Seventy to 75 percent of the projects posted on the website are funded each year, Pearsall said. About half of the donors give within 20 miles of their ZIP code.

Umemoto is running out of time, however. There were 21 days left to collect donations on the Code Blue project before it expires. As of Saturday afternoon, $179 of the $1,154 had been donated. “I don’t think I will make it,” she said. “Fingers crossed.”

Call The Bee’s Diana Lambert, (916) 321-1090. Follow her on Twitter @dianalambert.