August 07, 2014

Philanthropy. The word conjures up images of robber barons funding opera houses and public libraries. Recently, the Giving Pledge  - an effort to get billionaires to give away at least half of their fortunes - has put modern-day plutocrats in the spotlight.

But for most of us, unless we win the lottery, funding a city park or becoming a patron of the arts seems unattainable.

Not so, says Christina Xu, the chancellor of the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies and a trustee of New York’s Awesome Foundation. “With a couple of people coming together and making this relatively low level commitment, we can actually fund an amazing number of things that we want to see in our communities.”

The Awesome Foundation, with 90 chapters worldwide, allows people to chip in $100 a month to provide monthly micro-grants of about $1,000. And these grants aren’t funding traditional charity efforts. Instead, imagine a giant, 30-person hammock on Boston Common or a scientist with a balloon-based imaging system who just needs a plane ticket to document the Gulf oil spill.

Flamethrowers vs. Orphans Debate

It’s up to each chapter of The Awesome Foundation to decide what they’ll fund, and there’s frequent debates over whether to fund a purely charitable project or put money toward a project so ridiculous that no one else would ever fund it.

Xu cites her favorite example of ridiculousness: a group in D.C. that wanted to reenact the famous scene in which Indiana Jones runs away from a fast-moving boulder.

The group purchased a giant, inflatable boulder with the $1,000 they received and set themselves up in a back alley where passersby could sign up and get the chance to reenact the scene.

Left Behind

But while $100 a month is affordable for many individuals and families, some communities are left out.

Xu says the Awesome Foundation has been experimenting with other models for collecting money, including using Foundation money or crowd-sourcing funds from elsewhere, “so that the people participating can be a wider class background than just people who have a hundred dollars a month to spend.”

While there are some critical projects that the Awesome Foundation probably won't be funding anytime soon – think garbage pickup – if there's an avant-garde artist, struggling scientist, or average Joe with a flash of micro-genius, there may be a micro-grant just for them.

Christina Xu, Business, the Awesome Foundation, philanthropy

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