The first time I heard about DonorsChoose.org was when an English teacher at my high school was spreading the word about her campaign to encourage creativity for typically STEM-minded students. I was excited to learn about the startup, essentially a Kickstarter for teachers, and to get the opportunity to visit for a day! We were prepared for our visit with a few generous gift codes, our very own shopping sprees to support projects on DonorsChoose.org.
Shefali Jain ’17 and I met Andrew Protain ’08, our alumnus host, in the morning after we spent a few minutes in awe at DonorsChoose.org’s gorgeous new Manhattan office. We started off with a briefing from Andrew about the history of the organization, and his own experiences at DonorsChoose.org. Afterwards, we spoke to Elaine, a director of Partnerships and Business Development who explained the process of securing corporate donations and gave us advice worth keeping on how to approach the rest of our time at Princeton.
We then met with DonorsChoose.org’s Data Scientist, Vlad, who told us everything from his story working in social entrepreneurship, to his goals for the data-driven future of DonorsChoose.org. He showed us the process of finding data insights into a question that Shefali asked of donation frequency vs. poverty level of the school, a simple task in DonorsChoose.org’s data workflow with interesting consequences. We had the opportunity afterwards of standing in on a unique Data Innovation Brainstorm, a meeting across the teams at DonorsChoose.org and DataKind about new features and insights from the vast amounts of data generated at DonorsChoose.org. It was exciting to hear all of the different ways the data could be used to support teachers and principals, as well as support education policy at large, and it was a wonderful experience to see how ideas flowed and how everyone would jump in and build on each other’s ideas.
We had lunch with Andrew and another Princeton alum, Charlotte Weiskittel ’06, and a good portion of the DonorsChoose.org staff. It was great to see everyone at ease during lunch, with a lively sense of humor about the new office healthy-eating challenge. Andrew also introduced us to Dan, who worked with Cards Against Humanity on their holiday $100,000 shopping spree and resulting infographic. After lunch, we met with César, the Chief Operating Officer, who told us his inspiring life story as a first-generation college student from a large family who set his aims high and followed through. He reminded us of the challenge of finding work that we’re passionate about, good at, and is financially feasible – pointing out that it’s wiser first to pursue your passions, a lesson that I definitely took to heart. We also learned about what it takes to manage operations at a nonprofit with so many moving components: it’s not an easy task.
Afterwards, we sat in on a Customer Relations team meeting. It was great to see how DonorsChoose.org thoughtfully weighed customer input and needs, even referring to individual customers and power users by name. It was an interesting experience to see how trends that Customer Relations observed related to issues facing the Tech/UX team, and vice versa when we moved on to the Tech/UX scrum. The team went through a backlog of commits (changes to the code) and reconstructed various bug fixes and issues. It was interesting to learn about the tech issues that face an established web infrastructure, and educational to see how Tech and the UX design sides meet to discuss the state of the site. We spoke with Dave, the art director, and again with Andrew about the product development side of DonorsChoose.org. Even more important than brainstorming features, he brought up, is knowing which ones are worth developing, and how to properly allocate working hours.
Before we left, we toured the Donor Appreciation Land, where volunteers screen and send out the thank you notes written by classroom students to the donors. DonorsChoose.org has a uniquely integrated supply chain process that sets it apart from other crowd-sourced project nonprofits, but I think the thank you notes from students are such a great personal touch for the user experience overall. The care and compassion that the notes indicate were reflected in the attitudes of everyone we met at DonorsChoose.org: everyone was passionate about the cause for education, and it was truly inspiring to see them at work connecting donors to teachers and their projects, bringing a little more joy into the world in the process.