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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

February 23, 2013 at 8:00 PM

Online values in offline giving: Awesome Foundation has open source vibe

One would hand out chocolate on the streets of Seattle. Another would publish her 93-year-old grandfather’s 4,000 rhyming poems. A third would build an app that makes it easy for friends to buy friends soup when they’re sick.

But it was 33-year-old Danielle Gregoire’s idea that earned the loudest applause at the Awesome Foundation’s party Thursday night — an incubator to prepare new female comics for Seattle open mics. Minutes after the pitches began, Gregoire held her prize — a $400 cash mini-grant pooled from the $5 partygoers paid to get in.

And just like that, philanthropy happened.

That’s the whole idea of the Awesome Foundation, which yes, really exists, but no, isn’t really a foundation. It’s something simpler. Rooted in a tech-fueled culture that reveres collaboration, accessibility and action, it turns toward a world lost in plans and procedures and asks a question: Why leave giving to the big guys when 10 people can pitch in $100 and give $1,000 grants every month to something “awesome”?

The Seattle chapter of the Awesome Foundation gave its latest $1,000 grant to an elementary schoolteacher who had been supplying her popular new after-school science program herself — the 17th Seattle award granted since the chapter kicked off in the fall of 2011. Altogether, more than 60 chapters in 11 countries have funded more than 400 projects. More than $1 million in grants will have been awarded by the end of this year — a lot, when you consider it came from the pockets of a few thousand pretty ordinary people.

Awesome began as an idea tossed around at a party hosted by Harvard’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and grew, step by step, as a network, not an institution. There’s no central governing body, just an email list of local organizers. It’s not even a 501(c)(3).

Here’s how it works. Ten “trustees” get together in a city to form a chapter, agreeing to pitch in $100 every month. They take submissions through a website — what do you want to do, how will you use the money? Then they get together every month to pick a grantee.

The more new, local and feasible the idea, the better its chances. But the winning project has to be “awesome.”

Seattle chapter leaders describe that as falling somewhere between “orphans” and “flamethrowers,” something that saves the world or something that astounds it. A portable dodgeball court. Safe-sex kits for homeless teens. A festival of light on Seattle’s darkest day. A campaign in which people write encouraging postcards to complete strangers.

Some months, spots open up for guest trustees to pitch in. I did that once last spring, when our group of 10 funded a local greenway project called the Pollinator Pathway. We met in the common room of one of the trustees’ apartment buildings on Capitol Hill, debating submissions over potluck snacks. It felt way too easy. Aren’t you supposed to be rich to make these kinds of decisions? Or, at least, dress in something other than a tank top and sandals?

I don’t know about you, but I like how things are changing.

Nathaniel James, the chapter’s founder, was also its leader, or “dean,” when I was a guest trustee. He just launched a company, Philanthrogeek, to build community around social giving. Ellen Chisa, his successor, soon found herself more interested in philanthropy than she’d expected. She moved to New York last fall to join blockbuster crowdfunding site Kickstarter.

A thousand dollars won’t support something for long. But it’s enough to get it started, or just to know an idea is worth it.

Michelle DelCarlo won a Seattle Awesome grant last summer for an idea she had been prototyping: a “pop-up museum” where people bring their own items as exhibits. The Awesome grant helped open the door to a bigger one. Then, in late summer, she moved to Washington, D.C., to join the Smithsonian Institution’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation.

Her pop-up museums are gaining traction. If it hadn’t been for the Awesome grant, she told me, she might never have known.

Many Awesome trustees work on some level with creative technology, which doesn’t surprise me at all. To me, there’s no question that things like the Awesome Foundation — and there are more and more things like it — can trace at least their ideological origins to what’s working in today’s tech space: the lightweight apps that solve problems and adapt to users and the social platforms that build open communities to inspire incredible action. The formula works offline as well as on. Simple, collaborative and portable, with no need for a master plan.

Nikki Lee, the current Seattle chapter dean, calls distributed organizations like Awesome “cut and paste” organizations. Others include Hacks and Hackers, Sunday Soup and Seattle’s own Ignite (which I emcee).

The Awesome model won’t cure polio. But that’s not the point.

Molds are breakable. Good ideas are spreadable.

The question isn’t, “Why?” More often it’s, “Why not?”

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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