Random acts of Awesome

The Awesome Foundation spans six continents and is ‘forwarding the interest of awesome in the universe, $1,000 at a time,’ investing over $1,400,000 in over 1,400 projects worldwide. Lucy Chesters gets the low down...

Random acts of Awesome

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Imagine you’re Indiana Jones, in the iconic scene from Raider’s of the Lost Ark; scrambling to escape a giant boulder decimating everything in its path – but you aren’t in a booby-trapped temple in Peru – you’re in an alleyway in Washington DC. Perhaps you’d prefer to relax in an 8ft by 33ft hammock, in a park in Boston on a warm summer’s day; or maybe you’d like to discover a hidden envelope, containing £5 to spend as you please.

These are just a few examples of the projects that the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences has funded since its inception, promoting social good in communities around the world.

With over $1,400,000 invested in over 1,400 projects worldwide, the Awesome Foundation has been gathering momentum since its humble beginnings in Boston in 2009. Boasting a network of 73 active chapters, and with new chapters opening all the time, the Awesome Foundation stretches from Toronto to Tel Aviv and beyond. It spans six continents and its mission is simple: ‘to forward the interest of awesome in the universe, $1,000 at a time.’

The Awesome Foundation was founded by Tim Hwang, a Harvard University Graduate, in Boston in 2009, as little more than an experiment between friends to solve a local problem.

Often, the process of applying for a grant or fellowship to fund a small, interesting project was long and laborious. It was much easier to get a lot of money from organisations than it was to get a small amount. Usually, grants were very mission-oriented and forced applicants to disguise their project in order to affiliate it with that mission.

Frustrated at the lack of financial support available for small projects, Hwang joked with a friend over dinner, “what if we just call ourselves a foundation and start giving out grants? What would happen?” And so the Awesome Foundation was born.

“At the time we didn’t think of it as anything that would go global,” Hwang says. “Boston had a lot of really amazing people doing a lot of really amazing things and there were a lot of problems. We started funding and it was surprisingly successful – we were surprised by how many people responded to what we considered to be a relatively small grant.”

The concept of collaborative funding isn’t a new one. Not recognised as a term until the 2000s, ‘crowdfunding’ traces its origins back through the centuries. In 1884, when funding fell short for the construction of the Statue of Liberty, American newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer called upon the public for donations to complete the statue’s pedestal, raising over $100,000 in six months. Now, crowdfunding is a popular option for entrepreneurs and start-up businesses to gain exposure and funding for projects worldwide. In 2014, the crowdfunding industry amassed $5.1 billion across the globe, proving itself as an extremely viable funding mechanism. With crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter, SeedInvest and IndieGoGo investing in over one million individual campaigns globally, crowdfunding is a popular option for anyone seeking financial investment for their projects.

The Awesome Foundation was founded at the beginning of the boom in crowdfunding in 2009. “I’m excited by the idea that we might be the training-wheels for a project. We work with projects and give them their first $1,000 and the ten trustees are very important, as they help to bring a lot of attention to the project,” says Hwang. But he admits that the Awesome Foundation is “operating with a lot of precedence – it would have been very difficult to set up this kind of organisation, even a decade or two ago.”

The idea is simple; each Awesome chapter consists of ten or more dedicated trustees, who donate $100 (or the local equivalent) of their own disposable income each month, to form a $1,000 no-strings-attached grant, which is then distributed to projects that aim to make the world a better place. The Awesome Foundation never claims intellectual property over any of the projects it funds, and anyone is eligible to apply.

The foundation adopts an open and lightweight funding structure. It takes 10–15 minutes to complete an application form via the Awesome Foundation website, detailing your project, why it’s awesome and how you would spend the money. And that’s it. The foundation skips the arduous questionnaires and the legal and organisational checks required by traditional grant-making bodies, and simply choose a favourite applicant to fund each month.

“We always believe in the money that we provide,” says Ana Santos, Dean of the Rio de Janeiro chapter, “We tell people  – you can do it! Just take it – we trust you to do something useful with it!”

Whether the money is granted in the form of a cheque or a bank transfer (or even cash in a brown paper bag) the decision as to who gets the money is a very important one. Lee-Sean Huang, a trustee of the New York City chapter, explained that the trustees – many of them experts with deep networks in their respective fields – were “looking for a new way to aggregate their giving,” and sought to support projects that were “underserved by traditional philanthropy or arts funding.” Applications are reviewed by the dedicated panel and judged through a traditional voting system or an in-depth discussion over whether the project is ‘awesome’ enough to clinch the $1,000.

“We pick trustees who are interested in social good and giving back to the community in all kinds of ways,” says Ana Santos. The Rio de Janeiro chapter consists of computer scientists, engineers, social innovators and writers. “We have a crowd of people who are not involved because they have money to spend, but because they have a community oriented mindset.” Santos struggles to highlight her favourite projects funded by the Rio de Janeiro chapter so far: “It’s hard to talk about our babies, they are all beautiful,” she laughs. For trustees of the Awesome Foundation, it is much more than a microfunding venture; they don’t simply invest their money each month, they invest their time and their passion. It’s a labour of love.

As a city, Rio de Janeiro is home to few rich people and a lot of lower income people and the chapter often receives applications from the favelas, targeting social and community innovation. One such project, ‘So Complex’, was funded by the Rio de Janeiro chapter in December 2014. It is an interactive and strategic board game inviting players to think about possible solutions for local problems, targeting high school and university students from the favela as well as students from middle and upper class neighbourhoods, and engages them in discussion over potential challenges and problems that are rife in modern day Brazilian culture.

The New York City chapter funded an initiative called ‘Name Tag Day’ in April 2013. ‘Name Tag Day’ was a project that offered residents of New York City the chance to break the ice with total strangers on June 1 2013. After handing out thousands of name tags to people in the bustling streets of New York, the project “really changed the social dynamic of strangers in a city. People called each other by their names, introduced themselves, and talked to people in a park or a public space. It was really interesting.” Huang explained.

The growth of social media over the past decade has ordinary people use the internet as their virtual ‘trading floor’, pitching ideas and sourcing funding for their projects. The Awesome Foundation’s reputation has spread like wildfire through word of mouth and social media sharing, providing invaluable, international recognition.

With this recognition comes responsibility. “We thought The Awesome Foundation was just going to be something for Boston,” says Hwang. “Providence, Rhode Island got in touch asking what they needed to do to start a chapter – we hadn’t even thought about doing a chapter before! So we told them that if they could get ten people together, they could have an Awesome chapter. And that’s pretty much what we’ve done ever since.”

The Awesome Foundation is an organic and non-authoritative organisation and each chapter operates entirely independently. There is no central power that governs the chapters, and this allows maximum flexibility for each chapter, enabling them to have a dedicated impact in each of their respective communities.

“After we hit 20 or 30 chapters, we discovered there were things that were really difficult for one chapter to take on, such as build the website. In order to fix this we created the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies,” Hwang explains.

The IHAS is a non-profit organisation that has four main aims: to fund and support Awesome Foundation chapters; to develop and improve the Awesome Foundation infrastructure; to create collaborations between traditional foundations and  organisations; and to organise events to bring together all those involved in The Awesome Foundation globally.

The Awesome Foundation holds an annual Awesome Summit to unite chapters from across the world. “We decided that as we communicate regularly – wouldn’t it be great if we actually got together and meet each other,” says Hwang, “It’s so great meeting the people who work on the Awesome Foundation in other cities. So we hang out and discuss what we can do collectively to push the Awesome Foundation forwards.”

The Awesome Foundation’s ‘microgrant’ funding system focuses on the public joy aspect; promoting incredibly unique projects in order to support entrepreneurs and creative people in their local community. Christina Xu, trustee of the New York City chapter, joked in her TEDxBoston talk that, “Without joy, the Awesome Foundation would be the cheap and effective foundation.” Although said in jest, the notion is simple; $1,000 is enough money to produce a focused project and applicants are introduced to an audience that they otherwise would not have reached. The foundation promotes the ideology of ‘trusting and being trusted’ and it is an extremely powerful community resource.

So is the future bright for The Awesome Foundation? “We want to expand the Awesome Foundation geographically and socially,” says Hwang. “We’re interested in finding ways of making it more accessible. We started the Awesome Foundation because we weren’t large philanthropists, so if we can make that experience available to more people, then I think that’s a great thing!”

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