Crowdfunding the Classroom

Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

Chief Operating Officer, DonorsChoose.org

Screen image of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches public school projects with donors.

Screen image of DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches public school projects with donors.

Long before "crowdfunding" became a buzzword, Cesar Bocanegra had been harnessing it to bring needed resources to public schools at DonorsChoose.org, a nonprofit that matches classroom projects with potential benefactors.

Founded in 2000, the organization invites teachers and school administrators to post a project on its website, along with the supplies required to complete it and a budget. Donors then bid gifts, usually in small amounts. Once the budget is met, DonorsChoose.org ships the supplies directly to the school. According to the company, 62 percent of public schools in the United States have at least one teacher with projects on DonorsChoose.org. 

Bocanegra, who holds degrees from Caltech, MIT, and Wharton, leads the organization's operations, helping it to translate gifts made in cyberspace into physical supplies in the hands of students. We spoke with him about his work and the role technology can play within nonprofits today.

 
Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

Cesar Bocanegra (BS ’95)

You have expressed a particular interest in education and mentoring. What drives that?

I think it’s because I know the power of having strong teachers and mentors in one’s life. I grew up traveling between the United States and Mexico. I knew as a child that I wanted to become an engineer, but by the time I reached the 10th grade, I was behind in my English and math courses. A counselor sat me down and said, “Look, if you’re serious about going to a top engineering school, you’ll need to work very hard to catch up.” She laid out an ambitious plan. I joined a magnet program at San Fernando High School and devoted myself to my studies. I did well enough to eventually make it to Caltech. That could not have happened without the support and guidance of my teachers.


Tell us about DonorsChoose.org and how it became involved with public schools.

DonorsChoose.org was started 14 years ago by Charles Best, who at the time was a history teacher at a public high school in the Bronx. He found that he was starting to spend money—his own money—on school supplies. His friends wanted to support him, but they weren’t quite sure how, given the opaque bureaucracy of school systems. Charles decided to create a crowdfunding website, before the word “crowdfunding” entered public consciousness. Teachers could post projects—all aimed at public education—and then anyone could donate to that specific project. Before Kickstarter, Twitter, or Facebook, DonorsChoose.org was a pioneer in the world of crowdfunding and social media.


What is your role?

I joined in 2007 as Chief Operating Officer to help scale the organization. DonorsChoose.org is a bit different from other crowdfunding sites in that we don’t just pass on funds, we actually fulfill orders of school supplies and ship them to classrooms. Where once it might take three minutes to fulfill a single order, I helped set up systems, integrations, and partnerships that allowed us to do 1,000 orders with the click of a button. In the first nine months, we went from supporting 10,000 schools to supporting 100,000. Today, we have fundraised more than a quarter of a billion dollars and helped more than 400,000 teachers.

Engineers and people who work in nonprofits share this in common—we want to make the world a better place.

The crowdfunding model has become more established since you started. What kinds of challenges and opportunities do you face today?

We actually have many of the same issues normal online retailers would have in terms of sourcing inventory and creating a distribution network. We joke that we have become the Amazon.com of the nonprofit sector. I’m proud to say we’re quite good at quickly translating an online donation into physical supplies in the hands of students. 

Now we see new opportunities in the data. We’ve been doing this for 14 years, so we have accumulated a great deal of information that could drive new insights. Hypothetically, we might observe, “Why do California teachers seem to order more pencils than teachers in the rest of the country?” or “Why are teachers in this Texas school district asking for more technology than books?” What stories would such data tell us? At a minimum, this could help enlighten key decision-makers about the needs and priorities of educators in their regions.

We’re also starting to drive more experimentation in the classroom. The best teachers are in many ways entrepreneurs, so we also want to connect them with entrepreneurs in industry. When MakerBot, a 3D-printing company, wanted a way to make its technology available to schools, we were able to affordably place more than 1,000 printers across the country in less than two months. Classes are using them to make anything from chess pieces to prosthetic limbs to replicas of artwork.


How does your training as a Techer help you in the nonprofit sector?

I think many people assume that nonprofits don’t necessarily need a lot of technical expertise. In fact, the opposite is true. Advances in technology have created similar opportunities and opened the same kind of disruption you see in business. We have fewer resources, so we need to be efficient with them. In the case of DonorsChoose.org, I was able to apply lean management techniques that I learned at Caltech, and MIT and Wharton afterwards, to refine it into what I call a “social, lean enterprise.” Even though we have been doing crowdfunding for 14 years, we still feel like we’ve realized only a fraction of the potential. 

Engineers and people who work in nonprofits share this in common—we want to make the world a better place. When people ask me for career advice, I often say that every company has a mission, so it’s important to find a mission that matches your passion. There is probably a position or job within that company that requires your skill set and education. I feel incredibly lucky to have found such a role, and I get paid to do it. 

I’m even more blessed to know that we’re making a difference in the lives of educators...because they certainly made a difference in mine.


Learn more about DonorsChoose.org.