The Business of Giving Visits the Offices of DonorsChoose

This evening we get to visit one of the most engaging and energizing places that I have had the pleasure to step into. Those of the offices of DonorsChoose which are up at West 37th street here at New York City. Their mission is to make it easy for anyone to help a classroom in need. Moving us closer to a nation where students in every community have the tools and experiences they need for great education. Earlier this year, we had their President and CEO, Charles Best on the show, and I asked him about the corporate culture of DonorsChoose. We’ll start with him and then hear from those who work there as to why it is such a special place.

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Transcript

Charles: If you came to our office — which I hope you will. We’re 30 blocks uptown from where we’re doing this interview. You’d walk into an office that I hope you would feel like a cross between a schoolhouse and a start-up. Our office is totally open and you see the physical materials that teachers are requesting through our site and people are all sitting at big tables. And I hope that you would feel that you had walked into an organization with a very flat non-hierarchical structure, but one that is nevertheless able to be decisive and agile. And you’d find the people who are there because of the mission, because we want to fight educational inequity, but I hope you’d find people who are every bit as data-savvy and performance-minded and user-focused as you would at any for-profit start-up.

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Julia: Our executive team is really comfortable and honest with each other. So it sets an example for the rest of us and they’re also able to help us key in to what we might be missing; about how to work with a technical person or a marketing person or a partnership person. So that level of trust they have really is something that we rely on and I think allows us to be successful in our work and our collaboration.

Melanie: As an HR person, I’m thinking about retention all the time. And last year we asked people on our survey why they stay and I wanted them to say, “The leadership team is the best.” Well, that was number two. The reason that was number one is for each other, our staff feels incredibly connected to the people who work here. They’re connected to the people on their team, the people across the organization. They’re curious and they care about each other; that makes a tremendous difference.8dc48180-d3fd-4ed6-9220-328b99ac4e38_1

Julia: As a manager, I would say that the thing I most appreciate about DonorsChoose that I think is unlike some other nonprofits is that we have an understanding and a respect for what it means to be a manager and building that time into our jobs. So you’re not a manager on top of a fleet of a 100% full of work and productive things that you have to do. As a manager, one of the elements of DonorsChoose and how we’re structured is that we respect the fact that managing, setting goals, giving feedback and spending time on performance reviews or something that’s critical to growth and critical to the success of our company. And because of that, we insure that our jobs are developed in a way that there is time set aside for managing and not just doing work.

 

James: One thing I think is really powerful at DonorsChoose.org is this ability to give and receive feedback from any of your peers at any level. I think that it’s one of the few places where my intern can actually offer feedback to me in a way where I actually understand it, translate it, digest it and then put it to work. And I actually want to empower her to keep doing that, while at the same time I can have a conversation at lunch with our CEO and offer that same type of candid feedback.

Melanie: So, there’s accountability here, but it’s not accountability that’s driven from the top down. It’s personal accountability and that means that the bar can be incredibly high without people feeling like we’re taking advantage of them.

Orly: DonorsChoose.org does such a great job of embracing curiosity and I think that really sets it apart, not only as a nonprofit but as a place to work in general. And this takes a lot of different shapes. For example, we have such an emphasis on data and looking at our data and holding ourselves accountable with that data. When you walk into the office one of the first things you’ll see is a dashboard with all the important metrics that we’re using to measure our success. We get emails sent every week on our team telling us what we’re excelling at, looking at the numbers and seeing patterns and finding trends of how we can do better, and where there is room for improvement and where we’re excelling.

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Liam: I think one thing that I love most about working here at DonorsChoose.org is our focus on our end user. And so every person… every team it focuses on a different end user whether that’s teachers, donors, our vendors or our partners and specifically to my job, our volunteers. But every decision we make goes into thinking about that end user and how they’ll be impacted. It’s really unique and something that we don’t really focus on, how it impacts us before we think about how it impacts the user.

Saul: We communicate a lot and we don’t just communicate about work. We’re just always open and talking about what makes us individuals. And I’ve never honestly worked anywhere where I know so much about my colleagues and where it’s encouraged to be your weird self and I love that about DonorsChoose.org.

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Julia: One way that DonorsChoose sort of seeds interaction between staff members that I think then leads to very real respect for the work that we do, is we leverage a platform called You Earned It. And it is essentially an internal tool that we use to give compliments to each other when something’s not, so that might be a simple as: I saw you refill the coffee on behalf of the whole office and I am going to tag you and thank you for demonstrating your value of teamwork and flexibility. And what this does is public; everyone can see it.

James: So one thing that I think is really cool is that our core values do spell out this “rough it” which you’ll hear us kind of talk about around the office. But where I find the most emphasis is like when you see someone having that “rough” day, actually and that’s like its own value in itself. Because this entire organization is very much in tune with how people are feeling and like what may be going on both in the office and out of the office. And coming from like a Irish Catholic family, I’m not used to people asking me how I feel…

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Melanie: So one of the unofficial things we’re looking for– it’s not on the wall in our main conference room directly, it’s at the bottom– is our three unofficial values of humility, integrity and fun. And of those, the H is a key one, humility. Well, how do you assess that? That could be our CEO cleaning up confetti on the floor after a birthday party; true story. But in the hiring process we’re asking things like, “How do you handle a day to day task that may not be that fulfilling? How do you get around that? Tell me about the time you to take on work that you didn’t really enjoy. How did you do that? Tell me about a real tough time managing your workload where you need to pitch in and may be it was unfair. How did that happen?” And we’re trying to assess for someone who really wants to be a teammate; who doesn’t want to necessarily just shine all the time, because sometimes it’s about putting people out in front. And so that helps us find a team that’s willing to work together or there’s not a lot of competition, and we’re all on the same side.

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