Greg Carere works on the DonorsChoose.org Screening team, offering feedback to teachers so they can submit clear, eligible, and persuasive projects.
There isn’t One Big Secret to writing an incredible project essay—each one is going to be a unique reflection of the specific teacher and request—but there are a couple of things to keep in mind if you’re hoping to tell the best possible story. Whether this is your first DonorsChoose.org project or you’re a seasoned vet, we’ve got four essential tips for putting your request into words.
First up, let’s take a look at this project essay from the very handsome Mr. Greg (that’s, um, me… just for reference):
Mr. Greg sure seems enthusiastic about his project, but there’s a lot about his essay that’s unclear; it isn’t easy to picture exactly what items his project is for or why it’ll be great for his students. So, let’s tackle this one step at a time.
1. Talk about the items in your project cart
This might seem obvious, but not describing the requested materials in the essay is the most common reason for a project being returned to draft by our team of screeners (that’s the mix of DonorsChoose.org staff and teacher volunteers who review and approve every project that goes live on the site). It’s easy to gloss over what, exactly, you’re asking for and forget to connect those ideas to the materials the DonorsChoose.org project will provide. And frequently, like in Mr. Greg’s project, we see broad terminology, like “materials” or “technology,” that makes it hard to tell from the essay what, specifically, the students need.
Being explicit about the contents of your cart in your essay is great for the screening team because we can make sure you’re getting exactly what you want, and can double check with you if, say, something was added to the project by mistake. And it’s great for donors, because they’ll be able to imagine exactly what you want and why you want it; you’ll be making it easier for them to say, “Yes, this is where I want my money to go.”
2. Describe the student experience
You can bring your donors into your classroom by focusing on how students will use the requested materials once they’ve arrived. For instance, what will Mr. Greg’s students love about having new seating options and Chromebooks in the classroom? This sort of stuff might seem self-explanatory—students are going to sit on the seating, and do computer-y things with the Chromebooks—but the more detail and context you can provide, the easier it’ll be for your donors to connect to your project. Remember, some of your donors may not have spent time in a classroom in many years.
3. Treat your essay like a story
Your donors will be joining you and your students on a journey, getting a glimpse inside your classroom and watching it transform as your new resources arrive. You can give them a preview of that journey in your essay by using compelling language and a narrative. Give your essay an arc: let your donors see what your classroom is like before you’ve received your materials, and how awesome it will be after those resources have arrived. A story gives them a sense of who they’re helping and makes your case by demonstrating the impact their donation will have on the lives of your students.
In Mr. Greg’s case, he should ask himself: what do his students see when they show up in the classroom right now? What do they need? And what will that space look like when the wobble cushions and Chromebooks are in his students’ hands?
4. Stay away from jargon.
It’s easy to slip into teacher-speak—using statistics, technical language or words that might not be familiar to people outside of the education field. Terms like “flexible seating”, “manipulatives”, or “centers”, and abbreviations like ELL or IEP, are a great shorthand for folks in-the-know. But there’s a good chance these terms will fly over the heads of at least some of your potential donors.
Pretend that the person reading your project isn’t a teacher. Pretend that they have never been in a classroom, or even heard of a school! Okay, maybe you don’t have to go quite that far—but be aware of when you’re dipping into terminology that isn’t universal, and provide context where needed.
With those four points in mind, let’s take a look at a new draft of Mr. Greg’s essay:
This is the kind of essay our screening team loves to see. More importantly, it’s the kind of story that donors want to read: a story about how giving some of their time, attention, and money to a passionate teacher’s idea will make a difference for their students.