Direct Support: Why a Tech Giver is Helping Fuel the Rapid Growth of a Top K-12 Nonprofit

 photO: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

photO: wavebreakmedia/shutterstock

In recent years, Craigslist founder Craig Newmark has ramped up his giving through Craig Newmark Philanthropies, which works to advance people and organizations that are “getting ‎stuff done” in the areas of ‎trustworthy journalism, voter protection, ‎women in technology, and veterans and military families.

We last wrote about Newmark when he gave $20 million this spring to the City of New York (CUNY) Graduate School of Journalism to recruit additional faculty, develop innovative programs, and pursue activities that support greater trust in journalism. 

Now comes news of a $1 million grant by Newmark to support STEM classroom projects through DonorsChoose.org. Of that amount, $850,000 will be used to match donations to STEM projects one-to-one, and another $50,000 will be set aside as a bonus gift, which teachers and supporters can “unlock” by using the campaign hashtag #STEMStories on Twitter.

I recently spoke with Newmark, as well as Chris Pearsall, vice president of brand and communications for DonorsChoose.org, to better understand how the gift transpired. Chris joined DonorsChoose about six years ago and is struck by the nonprofit's rapid rise. When Chris came aboard, DonorsChoose had pulled in about $150 million. Now, it's surpassed the $700 million mark and, in recent years, has facilitated more than $100 million annually in contributions. That's big money and a striking reminder that not all K-12 philanthropy aims to disrupt how schools operate. In fact, there are plenty of donors eager to help out in a more direct and immediate way. 

Back in March, DonorsChoose scored its biggest windfall ever when Ripple, the cryptocurrency company, donated $29 million to fund more than 35,000 classroom requests. 

Why are donors like Ripple and Craig Newmark so keen on this education nonprofit?

Well, for one thing, its model is elegantly clear and frictionless, offering a way for donors of any size to support education—an area that can be intimidating, even for sophisticated philanthropists. On the website, teachers write up a short description of what they need, describe their students, and include a short story of what they’re trying to accomplish in the classroom. As part of the process, teachers go through the website and shop for items to select exactly what they need—from tablets and paintbrushes, to books or a field trip. 

In turn, donors can see the exact things that teachers are trying to get funded and decide what projects to support. Once funds are committed, DonorsChoose then purchases these items. One thing that is particularly rewarding for donors, Chris believes, is that funded projects have transparency and accountability. Donors know exactly where their funds are going and once the materials arrive, teachers will provide an update with photos and handwritten notes from appreciative students which completes feedback loop. 

Newmark tells me he first read about DonorsChoose more than 10 years ago, and it helped him realize that people need to show more respect for teachers. DonorsChoose is "a common sense way for anyone to help a teacher out a few dollars at a time," he says. Newmark's earlier big gift to the organization was $1 million toward a project for teachers who teach military families. Supporting veterans and their families is a focus area of Newmark's giving. With Newmark's help, DonorsChoose supported a whole new branch of schools in military communities (on or near bases) through a special campaign to back projects helping students and these families.

Newmark's latest commitment to DonorsChoose, meanwhile, began in May of this year, when the nonprofit polled teachers about resources needed for the upcoming school year. In just one day, over 1,000 teachers voted, with more than 80 percent stating that they hoped to see Newmark's support of STEM projects. Through Newmark's latest grant, teachers across the country will be able to access much-needed support to ensure students in their classrooms have better hands-on STEM education. The gift will support over 100,000 students in more than 1,000 classrooms.

This latest gift coalesces with both Newmark's philanthropy and his personal background. Like a lot of tech donors these days, he believes that STEM education can pave the way to career success for students. Newmark studied computer science at Case Western Reserve University, before going on to work at IBM and Charles Schwab, and then founding Craigslist. Newmark also believes the country needs more people with STEM knowledge to defend the country as cybersecurity threats grow. Newmark adds that "he's a nerd of the old school, so STEM is a fit for me. I can understand STEM. Can’t understand so much teaching the arts, they’re important, but what I understand on a gut level is STEM."

A component of the gift also focuses on STEM education for girls, which is another interest of Craig Newmark Philanthropies—along with other funders from a tech world that remains male-dominated. As Newmark tells me, "in high school, we learned that America aspires to fairness and opportunity and respect for all. That’s what we aspire to. It’s important for people do something real about that. One way to focus on women in tech is to get girls in high school this kind of STEM training—otherwise, they won’t have that kind of opportunity."

Newmark also is attracted to DonorsChoose because of its matchmaking model.

What they do is qualify people who do need help, specifically teachers in public schools, and then the teachers put together programs that have immediate value for kids. Then donors get thank-you cards from kids, etc… it's a great way of addressing real human needs, and you know that it’s really happening, and you get some results. That model of philanthropy should probably be everywhere.

The beauty of this model, adds Chris Pearsall, is that it can succeed with donors at different levels. "People want to see their impact. Not everyone can be a major philanthropist with five- or six-figure checks. Some can maybe allocate 20 bucks a week; you get to see exactly where your money is going, the people you’re helping, and the difference you’re making."

Given that a component of Newmark's philanthropy involves supporting journalism, I also used my time with Newmark to ask him where he sees his philanthropy going down the line, especially in the current political and social climate. In the short run, Newmark says he's focused on the upcoming election season, and is funding a number of groups countering disinformation. He's also focusing on voter protection. "A lot of bad actors are trying really hard to stop people from voting. Everyone is supposed to be equal under the law. Clearly, we have bad actors trying to stop people from voting, and that’s not right," he says. In the long run, Newmark also wants to expand efforts to support trustworthy journalism like the work he's doing with CUNY. 

While more grants have been flowing through Craig Newmark Philanthropies lately, it remains a lean operation, listing just one staffer on its website, Jason Yurasek, who serves as its general counsel, officer and director. However, in a refreshing contrast to many foundations run by living donors, Craig Newmark Philanthropies doesn't reject unsolicited grant proposals. On the contrary, it has a handy online application portal that's accessible to anyone.