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Algolia helps DonorsChoose in its mission to connect the public with public school teachers

Algolia was something we could put in place, make it meet our design, and then spend our development energy on gathering and organizing vendor data — which was itself a huge project.

Stephen Burke

Senior Product Manager @ DonorsChoose

Summary

Despite its huge popularity, DonorsChoose, a national nonprofit that helps public school teachers access resources, was seeing too many teachers abandon their requests for help with projects. It knew to change that, it needed to provide a better user experience, and improving search was a major part of that goal. Implementing Algolia, it was able to enhance its website so teachers could quickly and easily find the materials they needed, which could then be supported by community donations. Find out how Algolia’s out-of-the-box UX functionality is helping this unique not-for-profit achieve its mission goals and improve results while its developers can redirect their focus.

Donors Choose
Use case

Marketplace, Site Search

Headquarters

New York, NY

Customer since

since 2023

Amount of SKUs

1Million+

Key results
  • 30% increase in conversions for new users YOY

  • Added 9,000 new teachers during back-to-school peak

  • Less reliance on developer resources

  • Reduced dependence on supply vendors

  • More customized user experience

The challenge

  • Overcoming a complex shopping experience

The solution

  • Algolia brings development ease

The result

  • Making the grade

DonorsChoose, based out of New York City, helps teachers and public school classrooms get the funds they need for projects. The platform helps teachers across the U.S. request resources, and donors contribute to the cost of the supplies needed — from books to butterfly cocoons and everything in between.

Founded in 2000 by Charles Best, a history teacher in the Bronx, the website has since then raised more than $1.6 billion towards educational projects with teachers at 88 percent of public schools having requested help with at least one project. Best got the idea when looking to purchase copies of “Little House of the Prairie” for his class. He built the first version of the website with the help of students and invited colleagues to post their own material requests.

DonorsChoose is a 501C3 non-profit organization. It has received the highest rating on Charity Navigator every year since 2005.

Using a crowdfunding model, it helps match donors to initiatives that inspire them based on a search by school name, teacher, location, subject, material needed or keywords. DonorsChoose then purchases the materials needed and ships them to the school. To see the results of their donation in action, donors are provided with classroom photos or handwritten thank-you notes from teachers and students.

Although a charity, the organization must operate much more like a small tech company, relying on a level of technological sophistication to get the job done.

“Most non-profits don’t need a complicated algorithm to determine what products to surface,” says Stephen Burke, Senior Product Manager at DonorsChoose. “Most charities don’t need a multi-vendor shopping marketplace to mix products from multiple education vendors and allow teachers to order them. We do.”

Like any good tech company, DonorsChoose is extremely data-driven. Burke and his team are always closely watching data to improve decision making and user experiences to achieve the organization’s mission: ensuring every student, in every community, has the tools and experiences they need for a great education.

The challenge

Overcoming a complex shopping experience

DonorsChoose had a very complicated system to help teachers find and ‘purchase’ the very specific materials they needed for their classroom, which led to a challenging user experience and teachers dropping off before completing their request.

Teachers would see a screen with links to several vendors — more than 20 — including large marketplaces like Amazon Business and Best Buy Education, niche education vendors, and specialized vendors. They would then choose between suppliers and be sent to a customized version of the vendor’s website with special pricing and selection set up by DonorsChoose. On completion of the order, instead of a typical checkout process, the order would be transferred back to DonorsChoose in cXML for tracking.

“It wasn’t like any other shopping experience. It was actually 20 different shopping experiences. And they ranged from a smooth experience to dealing with other vendors that didn’t have the technical resources to offer, say, a good mobile experience,” Burke says of the original system.

“It was not something we were in control of, so it wasn’t something we could change.”

As a result of the complex shopping experience, DonorsChoose saw teachers drop off just before completing their orders. From more than 90% completing every other step, only about 75% of users made it past the shopping stage.

“It was a clear red light in our metrics and it was no mystery what the problem was, but we didn’t feel like we had control over it. Rebuilding this core flow from scratch was just too big for us to wrap our hands around.” Burke says.

The organization knew they needed a unified shopping experience. But how?

DonorsChoose image 1

The solution

DonorsChoose image 2

Algolia brings development ease

The project had two phases. First, they would need to gather and store the data from all their vendors and do so daily to have up-to-date pricing and availability. Second, they would need to build a new shopping experience. That was where Algolia came in.

“Obviously, there was development work, but we didn’t have to start from scratch with the shopping experience thanks to using Algolia InstantSearch and sensible defaults for a lot of pieces in it,” Burke says. “Algolia was something we could just put in place, make it meet our design, and then spend our development energy on gathering and organizing vendor data — which was itself a huge project.”

“When I think about what this project would have looked like if we’d decided to roll out our own thing, we would still be managing that part of the project. That part made unquestionable sense to buy Algolia, because it’s a best-in-class search experience and it allowed us to put our development energy into building the custom data transformations we needed.”

The organization deployed Algolia in stages over six months, while they built a customized solution for their teacher shop. It took advantage of how highly customizable the Algolia Search API is for its unique use case. 

“The ability to infinitely customize things like ranking attributes has been essential, and was an important part of this for us,” Burke notes. Starting with Algolia InstantSearch, the organization has implemented Click & Conversion Analytics, and Rules, and will soon be using Dynamic Re-Ranking and AI features.

With the Algolia-powered functionality in place, teachers can now use the online shop to search and find anything DonorsChoose can supply them, from a host of more than 580,000 indexed products and over one million SKUs. 

DonorsChoose image 3

The result

Making the grade

Using the Algolia platform, the organization has been able to create a highly customized solution for their teacher clients to find exactly what they are looking for. The shopping process is much faster and more customized, and DonorsChoose has been able to gain insights into user behavior within its shop.

As well as demanding less time from developers, the Algolia implementation meant less reliance on the organization’s supply vendors to host their own sites. Now, the shopping experience is in the organization’s control.

By launching its new system with Algolia-powered Search, the organization has seen not only a dramatic increase in teachers completing their orders, but especially first-time users being able to navigate the system.

From 37% of new teachers successfully submitting projects, the organization has seen a jump over just one quarter to 48%. That’s a 30% year-over-year increase in conversions for new teachers (and even higher on mobile).

Such an improvement speaks to the heart of what the organization is trying to do. “Customer support tickets for the shopping experience went down as a result of this, plus this is a great result for teachers, which was our primary goal.”

Burke and his colleagues can focus on fine-tuning the experience rather than solving support tickets, ensuring the platform continues to adapt to the ways teachers use it.

But Burke gives Algolia even more credit than merely improved metrics, suggesting they have been true partners. He points to Algolia’s thorough documentation and strong customer support, including rapid response to questions, as instrumental in the organization having a good development process while tackling such a massive undertaking.

“Algolia made the development process easier and made it so that we could actually launch this product, which was the most important thing,” Burke says. “But also, our engineers like working with Algolia, which makes a big difference.”

DonorsChoose image 4

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