Five Questions for Charles Best

Charles Best is founder of DonorsChoose, a nonprofit that lets individuals donate directly to public school classrooms.

Its impact has been astounding:

— 86% of public schools in America have posted a project on DonorsChoose.

— Almost 5.5 million individual donors have contributed.

— It’s given over $1.3 billion to support requests from teachers (from over 87,000 schools).

I recently asked Charlies five questions.

What aren’t people talking about enough?

Tests that are worth teaching to. Standardized tests don’t have to suck the life out of a subject. We can build assessments that capture critical thinking, problem-solving, collaboration, empathy, and other core attributes–and those assessments could be the basis for both accountability and true learning.

What’s a piece of commonly accepted advice you think is wrong?

“Launch as soon as you have a minimally viable product so you can start iterating based on customer feedback” isn’t wrong, but I think there’s one big exception to Eric Ries’ Lean Startup ethos, and that is brand naming. When I came up with the name “DonorsChoose,” I chose poorly. The name doesn’t imply anything about schools, teachers, or educational equity, and most importantly, the syllables in “DonorsChoose” do not easily roll off the tongue or stick to the brain. But early on, we had some great media stories referring to us by that name. If Oprah has just done a segment saying that “DonorsChoose is a revolutionary charity,” how could we ever touch the name?

The window of opportunity to change a brand name can close in the blink of an eye, and you certainly cannot iterate on a brand name after you’ve shared it with the world. In short, a brand name is something that you do need to polish and perfect before launch, and even–I cringe to say this–engage an agency to first make sure you’ve got it right. It should never be launched in minimally viable form.

If I said the word “mentor” who is the first person to pop into your mind? Why?

My high school wrestling coach, Mr. Buxton. He made me want to become a teacher, and it was my teaching experience that inspired the idea for DonorsChoose. So if not for Mr. Buxton, no DonorsChoose!

We’re the richest country the world has ever known. What’s the biggest impediment for simply increasing funding for public schools?

Compared to other developed countries, the United States commits a decent amount of funding to K-12 public schools, but it’s not equitably distributed. One reason is our property-tax-based system of financing public schools, which generates more school funding for wealthy communities than for lower income communities.

What apps are on your home screen?

Aside from the usual suspects: Exit Strategy (know which subway car to board–and even which door–so as to get out in front of just the right staircase to just the right station exit for your destination); Leaf Snap (learn what species of tree you’re looking at by snapping a photo of the bark or of a leaf); and All Trails (reviews, tips, and maps for just about every hiking trail imaginable).