I suppose I first took a hard look at the public schools when I became a father for the first time. Oh sure, I knew that you wanted "good" schools because it really affected real estate values. Beyond that, I just figured the public schools were good enough for me, and that meant they were good enough for everyone. But then Jennifer was born and that all changed.

I didn’t initially realize how much it changed. When Jennifer was two, she and her mother sought quarters elsewhere. Court documents to the contrary, I no longer had much to say about where Jennifer went to school. Besides, budget reality dictated that she wasn’t going to spend much time in private schools.

Olivia at CostcoWhen Jennifer went to preschool for the first time, I visited the facility. I was struck by how run-down it was. The facility was seeking accreditation, but I was worried about safety. For example, there were nails sticking out of the sandbox. I bought a dozen 4x4’s and some lag screws. With the help of my brother-in-law and a small army of children, we assembled the new sandbox in a few hours on Saturday morning. When I returned Monday morning, the whole mood of the place had changed. They had something new! What had begun as a safety improvement had made a fundamental change in the learning environment. The total cost, in 1990, was about $250.

The following year Jennifer went to a different school. They didn’t need a sandbox so I asked the teacher what they did need. To my surprise, it was simple art supplies, of which they had none. I opened a tab at Michael’s, a local craft store (which required talking to the manager), and Jennifer brought home arts and crafts every month. Her love of art continues to this day. I spent $250. What a deal.

A stack of boxesSo it went, year after year. I couldn’t send Jennifer to private school, but for a tenth as much, I could make a real difference in the classroom. One year it was new playground equipment, another year it was a field trip to space camp, a third year it was a tab at the local bookstore. I simply cornered the teacher at open house and asked what they needed. It worked great.

Until middle school, that is. For some reason the multiple teacher thing caused it all to break down. The teachers had needs, but they were less well defined. There seemed to be more suspicion (or less desperation) and I just couldn’t make the connection.

About that time, the dot-com boom was in full swing. Amazon had just passed $400/share following a stock split and the internet seemed all the rage. My brothers and I were brainstorming the next big thing at a family barbeque and we speculated that it would be three-way trades. The retail idea was going strong, and business to business (B2B) was just catching on. What if a website simply facilitated trades, much as travel agent does, but between three parties? We saw a forum for donors, teachers, and vendors to interact electronically for the public good.

Marshal and Hilary pack boxesThe TrueGift idea was born in 1999 and our first deliveries were in 2000. Charles handled the website and got us registered as a nonprofit. Hugh handled the marketing. I did the purchases and deliveries. Our original concept was to function as a pure public service to connect donors, teachers, and vendors. We’re still working on the vendors.

We’ve learned a lot since then. For one thing, we’ve learned that teachers don’t mind the free supplies. Somehow, the fact that we are a registered nonprofit allays fears that there must be a catch. Jennifer’s school is doing just fine. She reports that our supplies are everywhere. There’s more art in the art classes, and a lost pencil will no longer get you out of writing. In a school where many students qualify for the free breakfast, supplies allow those students to learn too. Finally, it is one less thing teachers have to worry about, so their morale improves and they do a better job.

Our original vision of a pure internet function had to be modified. We've discovered that the online suppliers aren't the cheapest, even though they are the easiest. Today we can generally get our supplies for about half what they go for at full price retail. We're looking for ways to save even more.

Kids with boxes in the hallWe’re also looking for donors. Its one thing to write a check, quite another to feel the satisfaction that comes from carrying in a box of supplies, knowing it is just what the teacher ordered, and knowing that it will make a huge difference in the classroom, the specific classroom you care about most. Often the supplies can be dropped off with the students –– free shipping.

Although we support and even prefer the original model of direct donations, we also need to be able to function as a conventional charity, buying and distributing supplies to donor-selected classrooms. This is something we didn’t expect and tried to avoid, but for a variety of reasons we weren’t able to. Some donors prefer the simplicity of donating cash –– sometimes matching funds are available from employers, or tax advantages may accrue from donations of appreciated stock. Above a certain size donation, significant work is involved in doing the shopping and shipping (work that TrueGift does for free). Finally, since TrueGift is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, there is no need to pester the school office for tax receipts on donations over $250, as would be needed on direct donations. TrueGift provides those as a matter of course.

Today, TrueGift is small, but growing. We still spend 100% of all contributions on shopping and shipping school supplies. This year, we expect to send half of all our deliveries out of state. We expect to continue growing and supplying America’s schools. We hope you’ll join us.