Executive Q&A: DonorsChoose.org Sets its Sights on Data Science and Advanced Email Marketing

Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer, discusses the non-profit organization's approach to data to help students in need.

DonorsChoose.org is a non-profit organization that connects donors with teachers in need of books, computers, and even chairs for their students. Founded by a social studies teacher, the 14-year-old organization has raised nearly $285 million dollars for more than 500,000 projects or requests to help students learn more effectively.

And even though DonorsChoose.org receives support from companies like eyeglass maker Warby Parker, GQ Magazine, and many other donors, donations and increasing awareness continue to be a challenge. Katie Bisbee, chief marketing officer at DonorsChoose.org, spoke with 1to1 Media about the organization's use of email marketing and data science to drive better results.

1to1 Media: How do you engage donors? How do you get them involved in helping the students?

Katie Bisbee:
Email is our best tool for keeping donors engaged and driving repeat donations. We'll send about 40 million emails in a school year and we use Salesforce's ExactTarget Marketing Cloud to send and manage the emails. Donors get a thank-you email when they make a donation to a project and the teacher writes his or her own email describing the impact of the materials and includes photos of the students using the supplies. We think the ability for people to choose where the money goes and get correspondence and see photos of their contribution being put to use is a fulfilling experience.

How do you ensure that that the donation is put to good use?

KB: We review every classroom project request, and fulfill the projects ourselves by purchasing the materials and shipping them directly to the schools. We also provide a cost report showing how every dollar was spent.

What metrics do you use to measure the performance rates of your email campaigns?

KB: We do subject line testing, track click-through rates, and test different types of content through A/B testing. Mobile is still a challenge for us, though. We don't have an app, but our site is mobile-responsive. Most of the donations are coming through desktops, but we have a 50 percent [email] open rate through phones so we're trying to figure out how to increase conversions across phones.

We've also just hired a data scientist who will be working on publishing findings about education trends based on all the data that we have. About 60 percent of all the public schools in the U.S. have at least one teacher who has used our site, so we have a robust data set of what teachers need. Our data scientist will be spending time organizing our data and pulling insights from it, such as how education needs vary across school districts. This information could be useful for researchers or other education-related companies.

What's on your wish list to further improve your communication and marketing abilities?

KB: We'd like to explore more opportunities for automating our emails and correspondence since we have one person who manages all our emails and we only recently hired a second person. There's so much more we could do, like sending congratulatory emails when someone makes a certain number of donations or hits a certain amount.

What else is on your road map?

KB: Our biggest challenge is branding and awareness. We've gotten some great exposure from [eyeglass maker] Warby Parker. The company loved our mission so much they designed a pair of sunglasses with "DonorsChoose.org" written on the inside leg of each frame and each customer who buys those glasses gets a $30 gift card to apply to the classroom project of his or her choice. [Actress and writer] Mindy Kaling also supported us by being in a photoshoot wearing Warby Parker's sunglasses. So in terms of our road map, we'll be reaching out to people with more campaigns and hopefully helping more teachers and students.