32 Keep Kids Learning Pilot
For adjusting on the fly to get students the supplies they need
Crayons, books, laptops. For 20 years, DonorsChoose has deployed a breakthrough crowdfunding platform to help U.S. public school teachers request the supplies they need most in their classrooms. Contributors then hand-pick the classroom project they want to fund. But in March, when public schools across the United States began closing in response to COVID-19, conventional classrooms shut down. The needs of teachers—and their students—became more acute, in entirely new ways.
DonorsChoose realized it needed to adapt. In less than three weeks, after a rapid software-development cycle and operational overhaul, the nonprofit launched its Keep Kids Learning pilot, shifting its model to meet the moment—and ensuring children in high-poverty areas still had the materials to learn, even at home.
The first step: DonorsChoose leaders had to figure out what students needed most—and fast. “We didn’t want to spend weeks iterating,” says Katie Vallas, project lead of Keep Kids Learning and marketing director at DonorsChoose, New York, New York, USA. DonorsChoose surveyed about 5,000 teachers to determine students’ greatest needs if their schools closed. The top results: books, arts supplies, food and hygiene products. DonorsChoose then partnered with Amazon and Walmart to create education-only gift cards that teachers could use to shop on those two sites—but also ensured proper governance. “We got very specific with how these cards would work,” Vallas says. For instance, teachers could use the cards to purchase books but not romance novels, or to buy hygiene products but not cosmetics.
The team designated which teachers could participate in the pilot, selecting among those in high-need communities who had already participated in DonorsChoose and had a strong track record of communicating their projects’ results. DonorsChoose also fixed funding to US$1,000 per teacher, to speed up the process, eliminating decisions about which teachers would get more or less. Finally, rather than send to a certified school address—one of the group’s standard policies—pilot-program goods were shipped directly to teachers, who then distributed them to students at home.
“We were working entirely outside our model,” says Vallas, who was working remotely with other team members, assessing the pilot’s progress and making adjustments to standard procedures. “We had to take nothing for granted.”
For instance, DonorsChoose typically sends out a series of emails to donors over several months to thank them for their contributions and inform them of progress. That protocol was too extended for Keep Kids Learning’s condensed timeline. So the team established a new one: Two weeks after receiving the gift cards, teachers answered a few questions about the gifts’ impact, sharing receipts and photos of their learning items in action, and DonorsChoose communicated those stories to donors in real time.
From its mid-March launch through May, the Keep Kids Learning pilot distributed US$11.7 million donated by individuals, corporations and foundations to more than 10,000 teachers—providing essential resources to students.