Thursday, March 10, 2011

The Awesome Foundation

Giving circles have been around for a long time. Probably millenia. In the last decade they've gotten a lot of attention because of the formal structure of Social Venture Partners and increased research and expansion efforts.

I think the Awesome Foundation is something different. I first found the Foundation through their Twitter feed @AwesomeFound. They also live on Facebook and are fond of meetups. They were celebrating some of the first grants made by the Foundation's inaugural members back in Boston. Several months ago I reached out to founder Tim Hwang - he of ROFLcon and Web Ecology fame - to learn more. I'm writing a book (yes, still) and was drafting a chapter in which I hoped to focus on young, not-enormously-wealthy, digitally native activists. The folks at The Awesome Foundation are all that.

Here's what The Awesome Foundation says about itself:

"The Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences is an ever-growing, worldwide network of people devoted to forwarding the interest of awesomeness in the universe.

Created in the long hot summer days of 2009 in Boston, the Foundation distributes a series of monthly $1,000 grants to projects and their creators. The money is given upfront in cash, check, or gold doubloons by groups of ten or so self-organizing “micro-trustees,” who form autonomous chapters around geographic areas or topics of interest.

The Foundation provides these grants with no strings attached and claims no ownership over the projects it supports. It is, in the words of one of our trustees, a micro-genius grant for flashes of micro-brilliance."

When I talked with Tim there were six active chapters, in Boston, San Francisco, Ottawa, London, New York and Providence, RI. The website now lists 14 chapters. Most are geographically defined, but one chapter is focused on food.

Much of what The Awesome Foundation espouses runs counter to current trends in organized philanthropy. It funds "awesome" things - they know them when they see them. It's members are not rich. They each contribute $100 a month. That adds up to $1000 grants that are distributed monthly, "no strings attached." There is no weight given to whether an idea is coming from a nonprofit or commercial enterprise - it just needs to be awesome. The online application form has two required questions - 1) describe yourself and your project and 2) how will you use the money. (OK, OK, you do have to fill out some contact information also) You apply once and all the chapters can access the idea (Apply once, reach 14 funders)

Most of the growth has been through word of mouth. Because the Foundation's organizational infrastructure lives on the web it's easy to find it, find the funders, copy it, riff on it, improve it. Tim's original idea was to keep the infrastructure as lightweight as possible. He was inspired to start the foundation when he realized how much work it was to apply for even a little money. Nerd that he is, he wanted to align the amount of work necessary with the amount of money available. Especially since, as he noted in our conversation over tacos, "so many really cool ideas need only a tiny bit of money these days."

Here are some of the things that Awesome chapters have funded:

  • The Toronto Chapter recently supported the Connect the T-Dots project, an art projects that connects the real world with Google Maps and turns the whole city into an interactive puzzle.
  • A distributed mobile phone project that will help rural communities connect via radio waves. Check out The Serval Project.
  • "A handheld cotton candy cannon that can “coat a rotating human in a cotton candy cocoon in one-three minutes."
  • A "Fab Lab" in DC, modeled after such a site at MIT. The "Fab Lab DC will create a high-tech, fabrication laboratory/community workshop in the heart of the Nation’s Capital to advance creativity, innovation, and collaborative projects."

The Awesome Foundation is one manifestation of these community based microgrants programs. I wrote about Soup and FEAST in this post on CO- as a buzzword. Elements of crowdfunding (another 2010 buzzword) are also at work. Other examples include 5x5 nights, and the 25 site, international dinner party network Sunday Soup. The Future of Art has a microgrant program. Platforms like Kickstarter and 33Needs make it ever easier to manage the money raising, communities anywhere can use those sites.

What is coming together here? Digitally native assumptions (lightweight, low cost, online, easily spread, networked). Community and sharing economies. Crowdfunding. Microgrants. Worth keeping an eye on.

1 comment:

Tommer Peterson said...

We're about to launch an Awesome Foundation here in Seattle, as well.