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April 2011

Philadelphia Orchestra's bankruptcy

The board of the Philadelphia Orchestra voted two weeks ago to file for bankruptcy protection (Chapter 11). It is worth noting that the orchestra is considered one of the very best in the country, on par with those in New York, Chicago, Boston and Cleveland. One thing that drew my attention in the Philadelphia Inquirer article (which I link to above) is that "[m]anagement has weighed bankruptcy for more than a year after deciding it no longer wanted to participate in the musicians' current defined-benefit pension fund"; I haven't found mention of a defined-benefit pension fund in other articles covering the news but it surprised me that, in these days and times, an entity that does not belong to the public sector would still have a defined-benefit pension fund.

(It certainly seems advantageous for the musicians, as they know what they will receive when they retire, but I'd always thought that just about everyone beside government employees had made the switch to a defined-contribution pension fund a long time ago. I wonder whether other orchestras have defined-benefit pension funds too, which can increase their outstanding commitments quite drastically. Again, defined-benefit is "better", in the sense of less risky, for the fund's recipients, but I am not sure how a nonprofit can afford it.)

Other interesting facts about the bankruptcy are: (1) management hopes to renegotiate the orchestra's lease at the (gorgeous) Kimmel Center, and (2) "several bankruptcy and charity lawyers said they were puzzled by an organization entering bankruptcy court with assets ($140 million in endowment) more than triple liabilities," which raises the question of good faith. The article continues: "It is management's position that the $140 million in orchestra and Academy of Music endowment is donor-restricted, earmarked to remain forever in endowment, and is therefore untouchable." I'm not sure I understand the sentence correctly, as it suggests the money is never supposed to be spent; maybe it means there should always be $140 million in the endowment fund so that it is not depleted.

I have always been very impressed with the Philadelphia Orchestra concerts I have attended at the Kimmel Center; it is unthinkable for me that the orchestra could not survive, or would produce concerts of decreased quality. That is simply not what the Philadelphia Orchestra is about. As an easy idea to engage patrons more, I'd love to see an orchestra - in Philadelphia or elsewhere, but the bankruptcy proceedings call for a bold approach, so why not in Philadelphia first - organize a contest for patrons to design the program for a series of concerts the orchestra would play.

For instance, the orchestra could make a call for nominations, where patrons would suggest works they would like to hear, preferably works that are not performed very often (I am voting for Stanford's Second Piano Concerto. Do not even try to argue with me on that one.) Then, once all the nominations had been gathered, with possibly some filtering by the orchestra given rehearsal times and other constraints, patrons would vote for their favorites - let's say one short work, one concerto and one symphony, using their Patron ID number so that the system could not be taken advantage of by a few individuals voting thousands of times.

And we would thus have an original program decided by the people who have attended concerts before and presumably care about the orchestra, and should find some incentive in returning. Orchestra members could even perform the program multiple times, for instance once at a black-tie gala-type event raising money to get the orchestra out of bankruptcy and once at cheaper prices to incite people to attend classical music concerts; the variations are endless. In the meantime, I'll pop my Stanford recording into my CD player.     

Additional reading:

  • Article in the New York Times (ArtsBeat blog)
  • Article on (before the announcement)
  • Article from Agence France-Presse

Links roundup: innovation, blog shout-out, sustainability in Kansas

In praise of failure. Sir James Dyson, the inventor of the Dual Cyclone bagless vacuum cleaner, which has made him enormously rich, describes in a guest column for Wired his failures-littered path toward successful innovation and talks about the James Dyson Foundation, an engineering charity that provides "hands-on, creative thinking through design and engineering".

Blog shout-out. One of the most enjoyable parts of my job is to meet Lehigh students who already shine on their chosen path, and for whom I cannot imagine anything else than a great future. (Click here for an earlier Lehigh shout-out.) Therefore, it is my pleasure to draw attention to the blog Nighttime maneuvers by a soon-to-be Lehigh graduate, Class of 2011, who also writes the Low End Theories columns in the student newspaper. Such high-quality writing makes me wonder why we put up with so many opinion pieces of dubious quality in the media, while talented twenty-somethings post essays that are infinitely superior on their blog. Anyway, here are a few favorites: "A Sunday in Baltimore", "Fab Five", "A Fame Monster" and "Unfit For a King".

Sustainability starts in Kansas. The May issue of Dwell Magazine has a remarkable essay about the small town of Greensburg, KS, which was devastated by an EF5 tornado four years ago next week. (Click here for the slideshow.) After the tragedy, Greensburg reinvented itself as a "model green town of the future", with a wind turbine that produces enough power for the entire town (and then some) and a K-12 school that meets the Leed Platinum standards (the highest possible level of certification), among other assets. The town has also, according to the article, "attracted thousands of eco-tourists."

The "bubble" of higher ed and cause vs correlation

There has been much talk recently about higher education being the next bubble, i.e., "the next overhyped thing that is going to burst in the face of the people dumb enough to believe in it", or something along those lines. Here are a few links to get a refresher on the debate.

In "Higher Education: The Latest Bubble?", the anonymous reporter writing the Schumpeter column in The Economist explains that Peter Thiel, PayPal's cofounder with a track record of identifying bubbles, "believes that higher education fills all the criteria for a bubble: tuition costs are too high, debt loads are too onerous, and there is mounting evidence that the rewards are over-rated."

His take about university presses is also worth reading (excerpt: "I am regularly shocked by the quality of the books that flow into The Economist's offices from university presses, by the tediousness of the subject matter, the contortions of the prose and the willingness of the authors to bow the knee to various exhausted academic pieties... in the name of challenging conventions...")

He also quotes a vociferous review in Slate of a book written by an apparently well-known English professor at Harvard, review that, shall we say, is not kind to the book's author and which Schumpeter seems to agree with, using it to illustrate his concern "about the quality of a great deal of higher education, especially in the humanities". (I haven't read it.)

The TechCrunch article by Sarah Lacy ("Peter Thiel: We're in a bubble and it's not the Internet. It's higher education") that started this round of the perennial discussion on the value of higher ed, provides more quotes by Thiel (he touches upon the issues of scarcity and status, for instance) and additional insights: "over the last year, as unemployment hovers around double digits, the cost of universities soars and kids graduate and move back home with their parents, the once-heretical question of whether education is worth the exorbitant price has started to be re-examined even by the most hard-core members of American intelligentsia."

Thiel's idea has been to "[p]ick the best twenty kids he could find under 20 years of age and pay them $100,000 over two years to leave school and start a company instead." I find that method dubious, although I hope the students will self-select and have the strength to decline the money if they recognize that they are not yet ready to become entrepreneurs. I'd prefer having him give the money to recent college grads who can convincingly argue that their debt burden (from college loans) is preventing them from turning their dreams into reality and becoming entrepreneurs or nonprofit leaders.

In "Is there an education bubble", Conor Friedersdorf at The Atlantic has a thoughtful blog post about the pros and cons of attending college and graduate school (excerpt: "I tend to think going to some college (though not necessarily the most expensive one) is a good decision for most people - even if it ought to be a lot cheaper. But grad school is a lot less certain.")

I loved his comparison between the college grad announcing he's quitting his job to take on $100,000 in loans to attend journalism school, and the one who quits his job, raids $5,000 from his savings account "and spend two months surfing, drinking beer, and reading David Foster Wallace novels in Costa Rica".I also found his own take on his move to New York for graduate school very interesting. In addition, the comment by "Poor Grad", starting with "It's time to end this monstrosity known as the American university system", adds many points worth debating.

In "Is it really the next bubble?", The Economist's anonymous journalist writing the Lexington column refutes the argument of a bubble by providing statistics about the monetary gains provided by a college degree: "According to data from last year's census, average earnings in 2008 totaled $83,144 for those with an advanced degree (ie, a master's professional or doctoral degree), compared with $58,613 for those with a bachelor's degree only. People whose highest level of attainment was a high school diploma had average earnings of $31,283."

I like numbers in general, but I am always highly suspicious of aggregate numbers. Averages encompass workers with different amounts of experience, different majors, different fields of expertise. Getting a doctorate in engineering opens doors both in academia and industry. A doctorate in the humanities doesn't provide the same value-added in industry compared to a master's or even a bachelor's. Far more valuable would be to look at the extremes. In addition, averages are biased by outlier points: the extremely high salaries of a minority will drive up the averages, while the extremely low ones will have a comparatively smaller effect, since they can never fall below zero.

Lexington also provides weekly median numbers, which are more interesting, and even intriguing: for instance, doctoral-degree recipients edge out professional-degree recipients for the lead, at $1,532 a week vs $1,529. I found that curious because professional-degree holders are expected to work in industry, while doctoral-degree recipients will be found both in academia (which pays less) and in industry. In addition, doctoral studies are often funded by the school through Research or Teaching Assistantships, limiting the amount of debt most students take on, while students in professional-degree programs such as MBA or JD often take on loans to pay for their studies.

Therefore, it seems for this quick look at the bar chart that the professional degree is not as good an investment as students often believe. (Or used to - according to an article in Slate, "the number of applicants to law school has dropped a whopping 11.5 percent year-to-year—to the lowest level since 2001 at this point in the application cycle.") 

I don't think higher ed is a bubble - if it was a bubble, everyone would be worse off when it bursts, in the same way that all investors who owned dotcom stock lost money in the dotcom bubble, and homeowners saw the value of their property decrease after the crash. But having a college degree will always remain valuable for the people who could afford going there, either because of their family's resources or because of financial aid. The university degree will always give access to an alumni network, in addition to a student network and a professor network.

The problems start when someone takes a risk (goes to a college or to a graduate school that costs him hundreds of thousands of dollars in loans) in the hope that the gamble will pay off, and it doesn't. If the downside risk is too big, people simply shouldn't enroll - they can wait a few years, or enroll part-time if they really care about getting that JD or MBA soon.

Master's programs, granting professional degrees or otherwise, are a lucrative line of work for universities, since Master's students typically don't receive financial aid and they are not funded through Teaching or Research Assistantships. In fact, the tuition of Master's students might go a long way toward providing PhD students with stipends in departments with little funded research. So there is an incentive for universities in enrolling Master's students. There is also an incentive for them in keeping their students happy so that they become alumni donors, and many universities have placed their students successfully. But students for whom a top-notch placement must happen in order for them to feel their investment was well-spent might want to rethink their decision. Can they handle the downside if things don't turn out as expected?

In a way, the disappointment about higher ed might stem from a confusion between cause and correlation. Parents see successful people who went to this or that college, so they want their child to enroll so that he can become successful too. College grads see successful people who attended this or that business school, so they want to enroll so that they can have the same success. But going to college is rarely the cause of success.

Instead, people who have become successful tend to have attributes - creativity, tenacity, resilience, etc - that helped them get them where they are, from being accepted into this college or receiving that job offer. Some people develop a clear sense of self late, and so don't benefit from college as much as others. Young adults enroll in expensive graduate programs to escape their current situation, which is rarely a wise move. Having a MBA diploma will not cause success to happen.

Unfortunately, because a diploma is something tangible, students eager to follow their role models on the path to success (and the students' parents) tend to focus on it at the expense of smaller, less radical changes that would take longer to bear fruit but would be a lot cheaper and have less risk. But college and graduate school degrees are only correlated to a certain type of success. They provide experiences, networks, and (hopefully) a seal of quality. But there are many paths to success and in the end, what matters is to pick a path you can afford.

Do Companies Exploit Students with Unpaid Internships?

The Economist recently published a thought-provoking article about unpaid college internships. The title - "Inferno for interns: the annual race to the bottom of the corporate ladder begins" - makes the theme of the article very clear. Internships (especially between one's junior and senior year) often provide a way for companies to evaluate students up close before making an offer for full-time employment; unpaid internships are certainly better, for one's future job prospects, than no internships at all. But can companies really not afford a summer intern for ten weeks? Or do they choose not to incur the cost because they can get labor for free? 

According to the author of a book on this very issue, which will be released next month, "[o]rganisations in America save $2 billion a year by not paying interns a minimum wage." (According to its page, the book offers the following joke: "How many interns does it take to screw in a light bulb? Who cares, it's free." Zing.) A quick Internet search reveals many articles and webpages on the topic of unpaid internships, showing a real concern among college students.

Last year, in April 2010, the New York Times published an article describing US regulators' worries that such internships are in fact illegal. The NYT article gives some of the criteria required for the internship to be unpaid, such as "the internship should be similar to the training given in a vocational school or academic institution" and "the employer “derives no immediate advantage” from the intern’s activities". (Worth noting: "when the jobs are mostly drudgery, regulators say, it is clearly illegal not to pay interns.") An interesting statistic is that "[e]mployers posted 643 unpaid internships on Stanford’s job board this academic year [2009-2010], more than triple the 174 posted two years ago."

It seems that in some industries, students feel they have to accept unpaid internships to get a foot in the door. And certainly, if there is someone who mentors them and shows them the ropes (provides an educational opportunity), that could be a valuable experience. But students should also realize that the name of a prestigious company alone will not help their career prospects if they can't say anything at the next interview about what they did at the internship, or if they admit they filed paperwork and made photocopies. This simply will not help them stand out compared to other candidates.

They would be much better off using their alumni network and inviting local alumni working in the field that interests them for a cup of coffee - alumni would, one hopes, be more reluctant to make a student from their alma mater sweep the floors and clean the door knobs (two examples from the NYT article, as experienced by students from top schools). They might be even better off taking a minimum-wage job at the local diner to make a bit of money over the summer.

Rather than worrying about putting the name of a famous company on one's resume, they should try to think about their own personal brand and create experiences that reinforce that brand. In the worst-case scenario, depending on their major, they could even try to contact one of their professors and volunteer for a project they could do from home over the summer - maybe a literature review or a small study for a marketing project, for instance. With so many resources online, including most academic journals available through the university library's website, college students could do a little research project from home, and develop their creativity and innovation in the process. That would be far better than making coffee for people who don't bother training them.

On the Business of Magazine Covers

As someone who enjoy numbers in general and the analytical side of business in particular, I found this recent post on Foliomag, about "magazines shar[ing] lessons from some of the poorest-selling covers of past years" absolutely fascinating. It shows pictures of these underperforming covers and provides a quick analysis of why they didn't sell, along with some hard data (for instance, you can take a look at the Military History cover that generated a five-year-low sell-through of 40 percent, while the magazine usually has "sell-through at Barnes & Noble of 48 percent to 65 percent.")

The post provides valuable insights into customers' buying behavior and made me think more about what makes me purchase a magazine in newsstands. I liked that the covers were not particularly obvious failures - they wouldn't make a customer wonder "what were they thinking?" as he glanced at them, but he would walk away and pick another magazine, along with many other potential readers, unaware that they were all exhibiting the same behavior.

Here are some of the major factors that explain sell-through failures of Discover Magazine and the like:

  • lack of surprise - the cover mentioned a familiar topic - "The New Moon", "German U Boat" - without making the case that readers opening the magazine would find fresh information. (This being a magazine cover, such cases are usually made with intriguing pictures, or original headlines. There is obviously no space for written arguments.)
  • wrong audience, misunderstood message - Inc magazine put a child on the cover, of little interest to its business readers, who therefore did not pick up the magazine from the newsstands. Also, its "The Success Gene" headline was misinterpreted as meaning that "if you’re not born with what it takes to be a successful entrepreneur, you might as well hang it up." 
  • reader confusion - the editor at Model Railroader magazine explains, "When we publish photos of model scenes that appear so realistic [that] a reader gets confused... we can lose our audience." For a cover in Wild West about an inspiring redemption story about Theodore Roosevelt after the deaths of his mother and his wife, the editor ventured that "maybe Teddy [not easy to recognize in the picture and named T.R. in the magazine's headline, to make things worse] just doesn’t look enough like most peoples’ mental image of him to connect."

That Foliomag post should be required reading for any marketing major, and probably any business major too. It is wonderful that these magazine editors shared their hard-won lessons with a broader public. All magazines stand to benefit if they can use this advice to improve their own sales. It is hard enough nowadays to succeed in the publishing industry; a poor choice of cover doesn't have to add to the difficulty.

Delta Tau Delta and Lehigh: A Few Comments

Lehigh's chapter of the Delta Tau Delta fraternity had its charter suspended a few days ago by its national chapter for "violations of their risk management policies".

According to this article in the student newspaper, the chapter faced charges of "hazing, furnishing false information to university officials and illegal or unauthorized consumption of alcohol"; the article also states that "Delta Tau Delta's poor conduct... was ongoing over the past few years", "they were poor in accreditation" and "[t]he decision to suspend the chapter was made by Delta Tau Delta headquarters [not by Lehigh]."

The article also states that DTD could return possibly on campus after all current brothers have graduated, i.e., after the Class of 2014 graduates. Lehigh's chapter (called Beta Lambda) of DTD dates back to 1874, making it one of DTD's olders chapters, and "is one of six fraternities in the past six years to have its chapter closed at Lehigh."

Yesterday's student newspaper published a letter of the New Member Educator of DTD, who is also President of the Class of 2011, and who I will mercifully keep anonymous on this blog, although you can learn more about him here. You really have to read the letter to understand the rest of my post, and I urge you to do so.

The letter shocked me many times (for instance when its author blames Lehigh as early as the first paragraph, although the investigation was conducted by the national chapter), but mostly by its author's unflinching defense of underage drinking, which appears to be what the author views as "strengthening those brotherly bonds" and "having fun", in the sentence: "[the charge of] "lying to the university" [on university property] in this instance is nothing more than an unavoidable and bureaucratic loophole meant to further indict any chapter unlucky enough to get caught having fun."

Another excerpt: "So, while the generous offer of "registered events" may seem like an adequate compromise, there is just something about paying $250 for event staff to be present at an exhausting and sweaty dance party twice a month that doesn't suffice for my entire social life in college. And it shouldn't. I don't feel guilty that I've hosted and enjoyed parties in college, and that I didn't pay for event staff to be present, as if I were being babysat by my parents in middle school."

Oh, and the author calls the administration "oppressive" and its policy "so tyrannical that fraternities no longer host parties on the hill", finds Safety Bulletins to be spam, and deplores the hypocrisy of alcohol policies because university officials, he says, did the same exact thing when they were in college.

In other words, he's really upset that DTD lost its charter after 137 years at Lehigh, and as the New Member Educator he might feel a tiny bit responsible for that, and his DTD brothers really, really should've stopped him from sending his letter to the Brown and White. It's hard to believe this is going to do any good to DTD's case were it to want to return to campus in 2014, or ever, after such an unabashed defense by the brother in charge of new member education of the culture he was promoting - with an emphasis on underage drinking - as well as a vague attack of the administration.

This makes me think of a teenager who is rebelling against the rules his parents have set for him, and does not inspire confidence in his ability to promote a culture that would prevent catastrophic events such as alcohol-related coma or death from happening in his fraternity, events that must be on the administration's mind.

I honestly don't know what the administration is thinking, about the Greek system in general or DTD in particular. I do know that Alice Gast spent a few years at MIT before coming here, and I was a grad student at MIT from 1999 to 2004. (I only met Alice Gast after she joined Lehigh.) When I arrived in Cambridge it had been 2 years since a freshman died of alcohol poisoning at a fraternity initiation event, and people still felt like they'd been hit by a freight train. Losing someone young is always a tragedy, but losing someone because of something so preventable should never happen. Until you've been through the aftermath (and I wasn't even there immediately after the teenager's death, but I was enrolled at MIT during the negotiations between the university and the family of the dead fraternity pledge), you can't begin to understand how badly people who've been through this never want to see it happen again.

I happen to like the Greek system (I think it is important to build a network during college, and the Greek system is a great way to develop strong connections with other people, especially in other majors). I also happen to be French, which means the issue of underage drinking was moot when I was in college, since I lived in France, where drinking before age 21 is perfectly legal. I also always drank responsibly; I've got to say I'm far from convinced that most US students in the 18-21 age group are able to do the same, and I would never tolerate underage drinking anywhere near me. You just never know what can happen.

The thing is, if DTD couldn't see the writing on the wall after five other fraternities lost their charter, then it was probably only a matter of time until it happened to them too. Comparing what's happening now to whatever Lehigh was like in the 1980s - before it became a research institution, before its identity changed substantially - is as unproductive as trying to convince a police officer not to give you a ticket for driving without your seatbelt, just because decades ago people did not wear seatbelts in their car.

And in case my readers are wondering, the writing on the wall says something like: times have changed, change too or face trouble. It does not say: the Greek system at Lehigh is doomed. Part of what makes Lehigh so special is the strong relationships alumni have with former classmates and their willingness to help current students; since at least one third of the undergraduate population is Greek, it seems obvious the Greek system has had an important role to play in that.

Hopefully it can still continue to do that while convincing the administration it can operate responsibly. (And yes, the letter writer will say that non-Greek students may drink too, and maybe they'll be the ones with alcohol poisoning one day. But that is out of your control. What you have control over is how your own organization is being perceived, and right now, it seems that you have some mending to do.)

The author, in his letter blaming Lehigh, does not talk a single time about any accountability procedure ("risk management procedure", in the words of the national office) that might indeed have been in place at DTD, or any good thing DTD was particularly proud of accomplishing, or anything positive that would allow people like me to feel positive toward the fraternity in its current struggle. If anything, the writer has only succeeded in convincing me it is a good thing that DTD lost its charter because the image of the fraternity that comes across through this letter is of a disaster waiting to happen.

So what should people do now?

If you're DTD, I would suggest you get all the officers together and write a collective letter to the student newspaper that attempts to mitigate some of the damage done by the letter above (although I understand he's upset) and describes what you as a fraternity were about, even if it wasn't about the official values of DTD, in a positive light. It doesn't look like the underage-drinking type of culture is going to be tolerated at Lehigh any more (euphemism), and making it harder for your own fraternity to come back to campus in a few years doesn't serve any purpose. I can't write the letter for you, but I know what I would've wanted to read in the letter that appeared in the B&W, so email me if you want to know more.

If you're not DTD, it's time (in my own opinion) to admit Lehigh will go to great lengths to prevent the "party school" label from sticking (it has invested great amounts of money in becoming a research institution), and it will tolerate neither hazing nor underage drinking; whether you're happy about it or not does not matter. So you've got to think of ways where you can create a shared identity within your sorority/fraternity using ways that are neither illegal nor traumatizing. This is usually achieved through some defining experience, which used to be hazing; however, hazing nowadays is a big no. "Providing an identity-defining experience" doesn't have quite the same ring to it, but until marketing majors come to the rescue, that's what we're going to call it.

(Oh, and not only am I French and alcohol is legal in France before age 21, but I went through the "engineering school" route in the French higher education system and there was hazing there too. And I'm perfectly fine. Frankly I thought there had to be a better way to create an esprit de corps than to make us walk barefoot throughout Paris with trash bags over our clothes and asking random strangers for money, but this had happened every year in the Quartier Latin until then; people were very nice when they saw us come and gave us money. Other schools had more questionable hazing practices. The following year, the school put an end on hazing - I wouldn't have gotten involved anyway, I had better things to do, such as reading Russian novels on my couch while eating Nutella, which is my idea of an afternoon well spent. But I digress. - People I knew then got involved into hazing anyway and almost got kicked out.)

So anyway, I get the point of creating an esprit de corps, and there might not be real differences between the different fraternities, in the same way that there were not any differences between the engineering schools, except that you had been admitted to one and that was your school now. But hazing is not the way of creating a shared bond that will make people go out of their way to lend you a hand if you need them ten or fifteen years from now.

I remember going to the DTD fraternity for a faculty-student cocktail one year; the brothers were all very nice and proud members of the Lehigh community. I'm sure DTD can recover from this setback and hopefully it will return to the Hill at some point. In the meantime, other fraternities and sororities should work to make sure they won't meet the same fate.

"Donors Choose" projects in the Lehigh Valley

As some of you know, Stephen Colbert sang on Late Night with Jimmy Fallon after the two successfully raised money for the Donors Choose charity. (You can watch the clip here.) Donors Choose is an online charity that connects donors with classrooms in need; teachers post a project they would like to see funded for their students and donors can give any amount to contribute toward the project of their choice, or let the staff at select the project.

Similarly to for start-ups, these projects come with a deadline, so they only move forward if they are fully funded before a given date; however, a difference with is that the donor's credit card gets charged when the donor make his gift - he will be contacted if the project does not get funded so that he can reassign his money to another project or let the staff choose. (More information on what happens to donors' money when a project doesn't get funded is available here.)

Donors Choose lists several projects in the Allentown/Bethlehem area, some currently open for funding and others completed projects. I had never heard of Donors Choose before but am not surprised that some of the local public schools in high-poverty or moderate-poverty areas are turning to creative ways of offering their students a better education, given the current economic climate and looming budget cuts. In other schools, parents might be able to donate supplies or give money for the classroom library, but the parents of high-poverty children do not have money, the school district apparently does not have money either, and yet these children deserve a chance.

Here are some of the local projects currently open for fundraising, in no specific order (many more Lehigh Valley projects are listed on the website - some seem more critical than others, below are a few that caught my attention):

  • "Reads that Grab Minds and Don't Let Go" for classroom at Louis Dieruff High School, Allentown (Literary/Books-Essential), 1 donor ($25), $753 to go. Expires August 22, 2011.
  • "Technology in Teaching" for classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School, Allentown (Technology/Enrichment), 1 donor ($25), $975 to go. Expires June 13, 2011.
  • "Marvelous Mathematicians Need Materials" for classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School, Allentown (Mathematics/Essential), 1 donor ($25), $750 to go. Expires June 11, 2011.
  • "Science Whizzes in Training" for classroom at Roosevelt Elementary School, Allentown (Science Supplies/Essential), 0 donor, $332 to go. Expires August 10, 2011.

I wish the local media publicized these projects more so that Lehigh Valley residents would help them get funded by contributing very modest amounts - just a couple dozen people spending $25 in tax-deductible donations would help local kids in need (Donors Choose is a 501(c)3 charity and has received a four-star rating - the highest rating available - by Charity Navigator). Unfortunately, if you look up specific local projects that recently got funded, you will notice they received little help from individual donors and instead were funded through the very generous support of Townsend Press, educational publisher of reading, vocabulary and writing textbooks for the school and college markets.

For instance, the "Edgy Reads" project of a teacher at Louis Dieruff High School got funded through $96 in individual donations and a $383.89 gift from Townsend Press. (This includes the recommended 15% donation to Donors Choose, the staff of which checks the costs involved with each project, buys the equipment, gets it delivered if the project ends up being funded, gathers thank-you cards from students and sends them along to eligible donors. You can find the itemized list of expenses, including the actual books the teacher planned to buy, by scrolling to the bottom of the page.) While deserves many kudos, this is not sustainable.

I'll take this opportunity to express my profound admiration of someone named Pat in Coopersburg, who single-handedly funded the "Manifest Destiny: Literature Circle Expansion" project of the same teacher, Mr B, of Louis Dieruff High School, at the quite impressive cost of $697.71 - there are definitely some unsung heroes out there. Mr B has had a total of 4 projects funded so far through Donors Choose thanks to 24 donors, and I hope his success inspires other teachers in high-poverty schools to try this as a potential avenue for funding. Surely there are other local teachers in need of new equipment or books for their students.