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US Website Creates Electronic 'Citizen-Philanthropy' - 2003-12-25

In America, the holiday season is traditionally a time for generosity and gift giving and the more lavish and unnecessary the gift, it sometimes seems, the better. As an antidote to all the excess, some Americans are logging onto Donors Choose.

The website lists hundreds of modest funding proposals submitted by New York City public school teachers for everything from pencils and books to class trips and science experiments. Donorschoose is helping people experience the merry satisfaction of giving all year long.

With his tall lanky frame and earnest brown eyes, Charles Best, 28, looks every bit the idealistic young schoolteacher that he is. But in addition to his job teaching at a Bronx public high school, Mr. Best is also founder and president of Donorschoose, a non-profit website that has won praise as a new form of electronic "citizen-philanthropy."

"I figured that people who wanted to contribute to charity were becoming more skeptical about writing a $200 check and not really knowing what was being done with their contribution," he said. "So I figured we could connect these two groups - classroom teachers who have identified just the books, the art supplies, the science equipment that their students need to learn, directly with people who would like to choose a project that speaks to them and know that their charitable dollars will really have all gone to help the people they intended.

"More than 1,000 public school teachers in New York City use Donorschoose to earn resources for their kids and people in 48 states in the union have funded 2,000 teacher proposals. We are about to break the millionth dollar in art supplies and science equipment and the like."

The school children crowding into their elementary school auditorium this morning seem happy enough - even if the paint on the walls has aged to a dreary grayish-white. Indeed, with over 1,000 schools in the New York City public school system and a troubled local economy, providing these children with even the most basic school supplies can be a struggle. That's why third grade teacher Miriam Sicherman has come to depend on Donorschoose for some of the little extras she says can make a big difference for her kids.

"When I began teaching, I sort of went under the assumption that I often wouldn't be able to get resources that I wanted or I would have to buy them out of my own pocket, which like every other teacher, I have also done," she said. "But there are limits to how much I can spend out of my own pocket. So now that I know about Donorschoose and I have had about six proposals funded, I feel like if there is a project I want to do and we don't have the money for it, I can write a proposal and we can do it. As a public school teacher, it gives me much more freedom than I expected to have."

Ms. Sicherman's first successful grant proposal, a simple one-page affair, was for atlases so that her pupils could learn the basic geography they needed for a social studies unit on immigration to America.

"I was thrilled when I found out we could get them because I really didn't know how we were going to do that aspect of the curriculum without them," she said. "It was really central. Every day, the kids were looking at their atlases for one reason or another."

Ms. Sicherman has also written Donorschoose proposals for class magazine subscriptions and other projects.

"We got a grant last year to go to El Museo del Barrio in Harlem where we visited the permanent exhibit they have about the Taino Indians of the Caribbean from whom many of my students are descended," she said. "And we did a workshop where we made crafts out of clay. This year I got a spelling dictionary for every child in the class, where it is very easy to look up the spelling of the words. They can add words to it. They use those constantly in all different subjects."

Donorschoose inspires loyalty among donors as well as receivers. Jill Ho Tai once gave contributions through her church, or responded to mail solicitations from charities. Then she read about Donorschoose in The New York Times newspaper.

"The article said this was the way philanthropy would go in the future," she said. "That people would pick the actual people who would benefit from what they were doing, you knew where the money was going, the organization sends you a receipt for the items they bought, they send you thank you notes from the teachers and the kids, they send you pictures of the kids using the stuff. And it was intriguing!

"They had hundreds of proposals. And I am kind of a geeky person and I actually read many, many of them because I wanted the best one that was right for me to donate to. So after a lot of thinking I funded one for yoga mats. Actually a teacher was volunteering to teach a yoga class if someone would donate the equipment. After I got the feedback for my first proposal, I immediately logged on to do another one. It was that gratifying!"

Along with the actual books, yoga mats and other tangible things they need for a decent education, teacher Miriam Sicherman says Donorschoose offers students an intangible benefit as well: a spiritual lesson.

"For the kids, what is most amazing to them is that a total stranger gave them this gift," she said. "I think it shows them that you can care about people you don't know, and that we all have an obligation, when we have the means, to help each other, even if we don't know each other. You are not only connected to your friends and your family. You are connected people you've never met or laid eyes on."