Awesome Foundation dean Nathaniel James talks about “low stakes” philanthropy and what $1,000 a month can do for art in Seattle.
Each month, the Awesome Foundation chooses an applicant who has proposed an awesome project, and we fund them. Our first grantee was an oral history project. More recently we helped fund the Onn/Of Light Festival. Since we operate on a monthly basis, we move quickly. Just a couple of weeks after we make a decision, the $1,000 cash is in the pocket of the grantee. Literally cash.
The Awesome Foundation was founded in 2009 in Boston by a guy named Tim Hwang. He came up with the simple formula of 10 people giving $100 each that is handed out as grants on a monthly basis. It went from the one chapter in Boston to four chapters to 12 chapters. Two years later, it’s at 30 chapters.
Early last year, I ran into Tim at SXSW in Austin and told him this needs to happen in Seattle. He had just gotten an email from someone else inSeattle who wanted to start a chapter, an artist named Tommy Peterson. Tommy and I met up in mid-May to compare notes. When we first started, we weren’t sure what kind of reach we would have. We ended up with 85 applications. The thing about Awesome Foundation is that it’s such a low barrier to entry for the applicants. Have you been to our application page? It asks for contact info, what you want to do and how do you want to spend the money, and that’s it. One of the little joys for me is that pretty frequently someone will say, “This is the first grant I’ve ever applied for.”
The Awesome Foundation does high-frequency, low-stakes grant-making. Most grant-making institutions do high-stakes, low-frequency grantmaking. They often think big about initiatives and form multiyear commitments with their grantees. They give quarterly, twice a year, or only once a year. There’s a lot of pressure on everyone involved, from the applicant to the grant winner to the institution’s program officer to the board of directors.
The foundation’s success has to do with the simple formula. It’s not like big charity where the experience of being a donor is that you give money and aren’t sure where it goes. Our trustees know where the money goes. They’re really invested in the success of these small projects. Most successful chapters have a waiting list of people who want to give them $100. We do too—and we’ve only been operating for four months.
As told to Mark Baumgarten. Above: The Onn/Of Light Festival, which took place Jan. 28–29 in Ballard, was mounted with the help of a $1,000 grant from the Awesome Foundation. Photo by Nate Watters. Find more about applications and giving at www.awesomeseattle.org.