Hey Gargoyles! Have I got a project for you . . . (or anyone else who wants to fundamentally alter the relationship between Williams and its always-loyal alums).

Upon reading that Matt Furlong ’10 lacked funding to participate in an unpaid internship this summer working for a “NYC-based NGO, uNight, which advocates and runs programs for the victims of Northern Uganda’s 20-year-long civil war,” Brent Yorgey ’04 offered

to support his cost of living while doing the internship with uNight. If other readers of EphBlog were willing to do the same, we could probably raise a good amount of money. Do others think this is a good idea?

I think that it is an amazing idea but one which applies much more broadly than just to Matt and Brent. Consider the work of Donors Choose, “the future of American philanthropy.”

DonorsChoose has won several awards as the most innovative nonprofit in the United States. Best’s brainchild was to create a market in teacher proposals, which are posted on donorschoose.org in informal, non-grants-proposal language by the teachers themselves. So for example, this week a teacher in Richton, Mo., posted a request for a $392 camcorder for her kids to act out stories they’re reading; a teacher in New York City asked for a rug on which to read stories to kindergarteners ($474); and a teacher in a 100 percent low-income school in Los Angeles wants a $414 telescope to teach astronomy to her students. Donors scroll through the hundreds of proposals (searchable by region, subject, level of school poverty, etc.) and fund them in whole or in part with a couple of clicks. If there’s no market for the proposal, it doesn’t get funded, though most eventually do. DonorsChoose handles all of the discounted purchasing from vendors, so no money goes directly to the teacher.

Genius. If there had been a way for Matt to post his proposal (quick — someone check the domain status of www.ephschoose.org), Brent would have already donated him the money, and gotten a tax deduction. But, without a mechanism to easily coordinate the transaction, this is tough to pull off. More comments below:

1) Any students interested in working on this idea? We need someone to set up a proper non-profit (not hard to do in Massachusetts), someone to handle the technical aspects of a website, someone to solicit and vet student proposals, someone to handle the accounting (bank account, confirmation receipts to donors), someone to do the purchasing (money is not given to directly to students) and someone to provide the confirmation on the website (copies of receipts, pictures of students with item). Ideally, almost all of this would be done by students. Spending time on leadership classes or leadership training is a colossal waste. Creating from scratch an organization like EphsChoose would teach the dozen students involved more about leadership than every silly Campus Life initiative on the topic put together. This is a great project for someone applying to Gargoyle for next year.

2) Any alumni interested in serving on the board of EphsChoose? It would be nice to have some technical/legal/financial expertise to rely on. Better would be some sugar Eph to supply the funding for start up expenses. My preference would be that students take the lead, but the idea is to good to pass by if none of them are interested. Perhaps this could be organized via Ephtown?

3) If you are one of our loyal readers in the alumni office, you should be getting very nervous right about now.

The transaction is totally transparent: If you fund a proposal and want to see the bill of sale for the materials, you get it. A few weeks after buying something, you receive handwritten thank-you letters from the teacher and students telling you how they are using the gift. Many teachers write that it would have been impossible to obtain the materials from the district office. After years of writing checks to charities and not knowing if the money is going for the receptionist, the foundation executive’s fancy lunch, or some meaningless paper-shuffling, donors find this a tremendously gratifying philanthropic experience.

Indeed. As always, I am a loyal donor to Williams and a hard-working class agent. Overwhelmingly, Williams spends wisely the money we raise. But donors would still prefer a personal connection, direct evidence that their gift in particular is having an impact. If your name is Paresky, you get that. The rest of us, not so much.

4) What should the alumni office do? Steal this idea! Set up a version of EphsChoose yourself. Restrict its operation to just April and May each year (so that it doesn’t conflict with the primary fund drives). Rather than view this plan as competition (i.e., every dollar donated to EphsChoose is a dollar less donated to the alumni fund), view it as complimentary. That is, most alumni fund donors will still give the same amount since that giving is driven by their relationships with class agents. Any amount raised in April and May will be extra, money that would not have been donated anyway. Besides, look on the bright side! This will probably increase alumni giving percentages (but only if you run the program).

5) Are there problems with this plan? Of course. You wouldn’t want a rich former-rugby player to donate a fleet of air-conditioned buses so that the rugby team could travel in regal style. (Who pays for maintenance? Where are the buses parked?) That is why each proposal must be approved by the board before they can be funded. In fact, it might be a good idea to require students to get their proposals seconded by a college official before submission.

6) There is more to say about this topic. Reader comments welcome! Note how the Slate article ends.

This year, DonorsChoose will expand from 12 regions to the entire country, which will allow any public school teacher in the United States to post a proposal. China has already imitated the software, so rich Chinese can fund village schools. There’s no reason the DonorsChoose model can’t apply across philanthropic sectors. It could work for the developing world (where relief workers on the ground could post requests for filtration equipment, mosquito netting, and other projects, with the compelling human stories behind them); for hospitals (where doctors could post their cancer-research projects in layman’s terms), and certainly for cultural institutions. (“Our museum wants to buy this Vermeer. Will you help?”)

This future is scary for foundation executives, development officers, and the whole industry that has grown up around spending other people’s charitable donations. They needn’t worry. Philanthropy will always be large enough for different approaches, and many donors will still want someone else’s guidance. But thanks to the Internet and clever adapters like Charles Best, market philanthropy is not off in the distance. It’s here.

But is it at Williams?

PS. I just registered www.ephschoose.org. Contact me if you are interested in this project.

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