Times are tough. People need awesome projects to divert attention away from just how difficult things can be. Awesomeness can help, but sometimes awesomeness can be costly. Well, now there’s a foundation that may provide a little assistance. The Awesome Foundation. Once a month a committee of 12 people get together to decide on which awesome idea will receive a thousand dollar grant. It doesn’t have to be profitable, it doesn’t have to be huge. It just has to be awesome. The first recipient was awarded last week. Keith Hopper, a trustee of the foundation, spoke with me about where the idea came from, spreading the awesome word, and how awesomeness is within all of us.
Chris Bowman: The Awesome Foundation! What a great idea! How did this idea come to fruition?
Keith Hopper: It’s primarily the brainchild of Tim Hwang. Although it didn’t start until the twelve, originally ten, trustees came together. But Tim’s original idea came primarily from his applications for grants. In one of his various lives, he works in academia and like many of us applies for grants and was frustrated by the bureaucracy and recognized that probably a lot of people with awesome ideas would be equally as frustrated or compromised by the grants and the grant processes, or the requirements they have. He saw an opportunity to maybe do something different.
For more on The Awesome Foundation click Read More.
CB: The Awesome Foundation has picked a great time to be doing this, in terms of economic stability worldwide. It’s such a generous thing to do. It’s encouraging to see.
KH: While I don’t disagree with you, I think that a lot of people do stuff like this. I work for public radio and while the media landscape is certainly suffering and struggling just like many other organizations in public and private media we see a lot of people donating, giving, caring and starting new things. I don’t know if it’s facing a common crisis or whether or not people’s hearts get bigger, and I’m not suggesting our hearts are getting huge or anything, we quite frankly think this is a whole lot of fun more than anything, but the spirit is definitely out there.
CB: I think people just recognize the value in things. Maybe that’s a positive aspect of the tough times.
KH: Another piece in the good timing in my opinion, and this is somewhat separate from The Awesome Foundation idea and maybe the reason why I’m involved is that there is a lot of awesome things going on. And there is a lot of potential for awesomeness that hasn’t fully been realized. I know Jesse and I’m certainly familiar with TSOYA and the stuff you guys are doing at Maximum Fun. There is an equal commitment to awesomeness there and a recognition that is going on and it needs to be encouraged, uncovered and identified.
CB: There are no definite criteria in choosing a recipient. So when you guys get together and sit down with your checkbooks how do you determine which idea gets the grant?
KH: (Laughs). Not easily. We’ve only done it once so far. I’m sure the next time will be different only because we have no rules. Whatever we’re learning, we’re making up as we go along. We decided to make it a consensus and that’s why the group is so small. There has been a lot of interest in the idea, which is really encouraging. What we imagine might be happening is that other folks might start their own awesome foundations or something similar which would be really cool. But to answer your question specifically around how we make the decisions, our goal is to reach a consensus. And we have, for the first month. Very simply, we all read all of the grant applications. Then we get together, and we make our case. For this particular round we picked our top ten, stayed up late night with beer and pizza and basically tried to come to a decision.
CB: It’s interesting that there are the same number of trustees as there are in a jury. I know it’s all done in the name of fun, but has anyone had to plead their case?
KH: Oh yeah. I mean, you’re right. We all really care. We’re doing this with our own money but it’s so steeped in fun. We’re doing this because we want to do it. No one is telling us we have to give our money away. It’s not like we’re fighting over the federal budget or something like that. We’re talking about something we’re committed to because we think it’s cool. So yes, we’re pleading cases. That’s actually a big part of how we did it. We picked our top ten and then we asked people to speak up and make cases as to why people should get the money. What’s interesting is there been some cases about very specific ideas but in many cases, as you can imagine with any deliberation, it’s often about the things that are driving our decision making. So we had everybody bring something different to the table. We purposely been have been vague in our definition about what’s awesome and what should get the grant because we don’t want to pigeonhole. This is the whole thing about the bureaucracy of grants. If you put too much structure in there then you end up having people who have great ideas, whether they are formal or informal or otherwise, having to jump through crazy hoops that may have nothing to do with what it is they’re trying to accomplish. So by keeping it open, we let people approach in radically different ways. We had some very creative ideas and people coming from all sorts of different angles. Some were incredibly simple and some that were wildly ambitious and we really enjoyed that. There is no easy answer specifically as to how we picked what we picked, but I’ll tell you, the selection process was great fun.
CB: The more people I told that I was speaking to someone from The Awesome Foundation, and explained what it was, the more I heard “Wow, what an amazing idea, I’m totally writing in”. It’s open to awesome people worldwide, correct?
KH: It’s open to everyone. We would love it if other people started awesome foundations. We’re trying to figure out how to structure that or stimulate it. So if and when that happens maybe it’s more regional and less worldwide. But right now, yeah anyone and everyone.
KH: We had around 350.
CB: How are you getting the word out?
KH: We’re about as light weight as it gets. We’re twelve people who have day jobs and whatnot. We don’t have a formal organization, like a PR person or anything like that. In part it’s through each of our individual efforts to make comments on our blogs or our facebook page or whatever. In some cases we’ve been really lucky. Awesome Foundation is an awesome idea, right? (Laughs) So people like talking about it. And that’s part of how it works. It’s also, and this is getting a little philosophical, but it’s also a big piece of what’s going on in the world of why we think awesome things are important. Traditionally mainstream media was the ones in control of what got public attention. Whether they explicitly agreed or not, it had to be family oriented, it had to meet the lowest common denominator and it had to come from someone who was already famous. If it met those basic criteria, if it was Hannah Montana worthy then it made into the newspaper or on to MTV or whatever channel it went through. Well that’s all changing. I mean, it’s already changed, obviously. There are a number of outlets and Maximum Fun is a huge, shining example of one of those outlets that allows all this other stuff to flourish, stuff that doesn’t go for the lowest common denominator.
CB: What was it about first recipient Hansy Better’s idea that made her stand out from the rest of field?
KH: Well certainly there were a bunch of things. And I don’t want to immediately jump to one of the things that it’s not but- one of the challenges not having criteria around selecting something is that when you do select, suddenly you have a criteria. Many of us, the micro-trustees are in technical fields, so we were a little hesitant to come right out of the gate with a recipient that was one of our peers, or someone that looked like we were just funding out own industry. Things like, websites, web applications or podcasts. Things that would fit into that technical space, people came up with great ideas and I guarantee you people in that space will be getting grants, but we wanted our first recipient to be a little different. Not just different from technical but in general. It’s a really unique idea. It combines her fundamental theme of bringing people together with public art. The work she’s done as an architect is really incredibly cool, awesome and below the radar. There’s a bunch of very cool characteristics. I will also say this, there were also 6 or 7 other really stellar ideas. Of course there were 350 awesome ideas, (laughs), but I mean out of those I think there were one or two joke submissions. Everybody was absolutely serious, earnest, ambitious and creative. I’ll tell you, it was a pretty awesome experience going through the submissions. I almost want to de-emphasize the giving aspect of the foundation because we’re having way too much fun for a hundred dollars a month.
CB: Other than funding awesomeness, what are some of the long-term goals of the foundation?
KH: The only thing I can think of that’s not directly related to micro grants that happen on a monthly basis, is to help facilitate similar organizations. Other Awesome Foundations or something like that. We’re learning a lot as we go. There are some aspects of it that we think are pretty cool and we want to help others if they’re interested in doing the same thing. That’s pretty much it. I think it’s pretty worthy. It doesn’t need more. I know that personally, I’m interested in figuring out where awesome ideas come from and what inspires people to act on them. The one big reason we’re doing this is because we think there is a tone of unrealized awesomeness out there and sometimes people just need encouragement. I, personally, would love to figure out how to further encourage people to realize their awesome ideas. Or even inspire people who are just doing their day-to-day job and haven’t thought that they could be a source of awesomeness and encourage them to put on their thinking cap or get together with friends and come up with ideas they wouldn’t have otherwise come up with in the first place.
Think you’ve got an awesome idea? We bet you do. And The Awesome Foundation wants to hear about it. Submit your idea here.