The Awesome Foundation was founded in 2009 as an alternative to conventional forms of philanthropy. The basic idea is simple: ten “micro-trustees” commit $100 per month to the Foundation, yielding a pool of $1000 per month to work with. The trustees then gather together to give away the $1000 as a grant to an awesome project. Unlike most foundations, the donors are personally involved in the distribution of funds. The idea behind these “micro-grants” is that not every project has to set out to change the world, but by doing something small that casts a different light on things, suspends the usual boundaries, and inspires delight for a moment, they make the world a better place—and who knows? maybe that will change the world after all.
Since its founding in Boston in 2009, local chapters of The Awesome Foundation have been formed in 24 cities on three continents. The Chicago Chapter of The Awesome Foundation gave away its first grant in July 2011 and has been consistently funding projects since. CAR Theater Researcher, John Carnwath, recently interviewed Chris McAvoy, one of the founding members of the Chicago Chapter.
What is the Awesome Foundation? What differentiates it from other philanthropic organizations?
The Awesome Foundation is less organization and more philanthropic. We’re do-it-yourself philanthropy—sort of like Wikipedia. Some people like writing Wikipedia entries in their spare time, others like going to the opera or watching football. We like funding awesome projects. The goal of the chapters is to fund $1000 worth of awesomeness per month. It doesn't require a gigantic foundation to make your community better. In fact, being so small and giving away relatively small grants allows us to be more flexible and less bureaucratic. We can go out on a limb and fund projects just because we think they’re cool. We don’t require any sort of final report on how the money was used or how the project’s impact was measured. That said, we do try to select projects that we think will actually materialize. Applying for a grant and then running off with our money is definitely not awesome!
So what is "Awesome"?
Inspiring awe. When you hear about an awesome project, you pause, nod a little bit, and say, "That is awesome." It’s generally something that benefits the community or perhaps humanity at large. Truly awesome projects—as we define the term—serve the greater good, not just one individual’s personal dream or a particular group of friends or a special interest. But as to the specific form that this takes—whether it’s a science experiment, a public art installation, a web application, or a community event—we’re pretty much open to anything.
What types of projects have you funded in the past?
We've funded Little Libraries (little wooden libraries scattered throughout Chicago that make it easy for neighbors to share books); a woman who wants to promote community growth through potluck dinners in vacant store fronts; and an evil genius who wants to prove that you can build a scanning electron microscope for less than $1000 with off-the-shelf electronics and some solder.
Are there any types of projects you don't fund?
We like funding things that cost $1000, not something that costs $30,000 and we're contributing 1/30th of the cost. We don’t contribute to fundraisers or to established organizations, unless they’re proposing some distinct project that they can do with $1000. Part of the secret sauce of the Foundation is showing the larger community that $1000 can make a big difference. We want projects that help us get the message out that small can be as powerful as large.
Other projects that we’re less likely to fund are ones that simply want to purchase material goods (e.g. books for a library), pay for individual travel, or the like. These are cool things to do but they’re somehow lacking in the awesomeness factor, unless there’s some innovative way that these resources or experiences are going to be shared with the public. The same is true of art projects: we’re more likely to fund something that’s free and public and innovative in the way it’s presented, rather than giving a band money to record a new song for their CD or giving a theatre company the money they need to build their sets. But if you’re going to collaborate with the community or present your work in a very public, exciting way, we might be interested.
How can people apply?
Through the convenient form on our website. This form is used for all of the submissions to the Awesome Foundation worldwide, so be sure and choose “Chicago” from the drop-down menu if you want us to get it and not some guys in Sydney, Australia. If you have questions, feel free to email us.
What makes for a strong proposal?
The best proposals have a clear purpose, know how they'd spend the money, and paint a realistic picture of what will be accomplished. Some background on the individual or organization applying always helps. We want to know that you know what you want, how you're going to get it, and can be successful. The more details you can give us on the specifics the better, and we like to see that you’ve already started doing some of the legwork for the project. So if you want to paint your local high school blue, we’d like to know that you’ve talked to the principal of the school, the school district, etc., and that they all support your plan. We also generally want to fund projects that can happen in the next three to six months, or perhaps a year. There’s no hard and fast rule on that, and it depends on the nature of the project, but if your project is going to take several years, we’re going to want to know why. Even if your project isn’t going to require a lot of time, it’s great if you can give us specifics about when and where it will be completed. Of course, those dates shouldn’t just be grabbed out of thin air. Ideally, we’d like to know that you’ve already contacted the owner of the storefront where you’re going to do your mime show, and that they’ve said you can use it every Saturday in July (or whatever the case may be).
While we like it if our grantees check in with us, let us know how their projects are coming along, and let us see it when its finished, there’s no formal reporting requirement. That means that we have to feel comfortable that if we let you walk away with the $1000 you’re actually going to get your project done. That takes a lot of faith on our part. And all we have to go on is your application; there are no follow-up interviews or anything like that. So we only know what you tell us. If you can convince us that you have this awesome idea, you’ve made all of the necessary arrangements, and all you need is the money in order to pull this thing off by such-and-such a date, we’ll be a lot more likely to fund you than if you just write to us and say “I have this awesome idea. Wouldn’t it be cool if…?”
How does one find out more about the Awesome Foundation?
Chris McAvoy is the VP of Technology for Threadless, a Chicago-based T-shirt design company. He is one of the founding trustees of The Awesome Foundation’s Chicago Chapter. He likes archery, writes about Chicago history on Wikipedia, and blogs here.
Note of Disclosure: CAR Theater Researcher, John Carnwath, is a big fan of The Awesome Foundation and holds the unpaid position “Dean of Awesome” for the Chicago Chapter.