Saturday, August 04, 2007

Charity Work, ‘American Idol’-Style

By JIM DWYER
About New York
The New York Times
August 4, 2007

Seven years ago, during a gripe session in the teachers’ lounge, Charles Best and others counted up things they needed. Books. Pencils. An occasional field trip. And they talked about a fact of life: generous people would be glad to give money to buy supplies, but not necessarily to write a check that would vanish into the maw of the school system.

Mr. Best, then 25 and a social studies teacher in the Bronx, set up DonorsChoose.org. He got his colleagues to post wish lists of small projects — one needed a set of dolls for a lesson on teenage pregnancy — and he corralled students to help him match donors with causes. It was like an online dating service, or a wedding registry, except one for pencils and SAT review guides.

Yesterday, Mr. Best, in jeans and sneakers, walked across a loft on 36th Street in the garment district. The room was filled with people ordering supplies for schools, checking out requests, sending thank-yous: the mechanics of getting a job done.

Once serving just the Bronx, where Mr. Best taught at the city’s Wings Academy, the DonorsChoose network now takes requests from eight states and four cities. Come September, the Web site will be open to every public school teacher in the country. So far, it has matched $13 million in donations to 28,000 school projects; 22,000 more are lined up. Most are from schools serving the poor.

This weekend, Mr. Best and his colleagues will be watching another Web site, not their own. American Express is running a contest for its customers to select a good cause that will receive $1 million to $5 million. DonorsChoose is one of the final five, along with a forestry program, solar and wind energy projects, a national parks restoration effort and support for clean drinking water in poor countries. (More details are at membersproject.com.)

The contest is built on the “American Idol” model, Desiree Fish, a spokeswoman for American Express, said yesterday. “It’s part of a marketing campaign.”

That part has worked: The promotion, which included commercials with Martin Scorsese and Ellen DeGeneres, has brought attention to American Express. And it helps explain why some people will pay money to watch dogs fight: The public loves its gladiatorial battles.

As the American Express contest enters its final weekend, the top two vote-getters are the water purification proposal and Mr. Best’s project. Winner takes all.

Which means that American schoolchildren who need books so they can learn to read are fighting it out with African children who need clean water so they don’t die from diarrhea.

At the same time that Mr. Best was starting DonorsChoose seven years ago, Greg Allgood, a public health specialist, was trying to market Pur, a water-purification product made by Procter & Gamble. It was to be used in the homes of people in poor countries. The product was so cheap to make that the company had to sell vast quantities to make its profit margin acceptable. It did not sell enough.

This was not a new deodorant failing: About as many people die from bad water as from H.I.V. or malaria, and most of them are under age 5.

Mr. Allgood persuaded his bosses at Procter & Gamble that they should continue to make the product and sell it at cost. “It was, and is, a not-for-profit effort,” he said, the first in the history of the company. He formed a group in the World Health Organization (who.int/household_water) that promotes home water treatment. He worked on water purification after the 2004 tsunami in the Indian Ocean, in Pakistan after the 2005 earthquake, in Kenya after recent floods.

After Mr. Allgood entered the American Express contest — he proposed support for nonprofit projects involved in water purification — commentary at the American Express Web site suggested that his entry is part of a stealth Procter & Gamble marketing scheme. The company is just starting to sell Pur in the United States.

If the water project wins, Mr. Allgood said, not a penny will go to Procter & Gamble, but to Unicef, which does use Pur now, but will conduct a competitive process to choose among four methods of successful home water purification. And if the school charity wins, Mr. Best said, the voters can choose which classroom projects to fund. American Express, it seems, wins either way.

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

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