In Melbourne, $1,000 for those who plan something awesome

MELBOURNE -- The no-strings-attached microgrant has had a hand in turning dog waste into renewable energy, giving out scholarships to girls in Sierra Leone, and more.
Written by Lieu Thi Pham, Contributor

MELBOURNE -- It's the antithesis to most grant processes. Every month 10 Melburnians meet up, pooling together AUD$1,000 between them. At the end of the meal, the group decides through consensus which project will receive the money, otherwise known as an Awesome Foundation grant. There's no lengthy paperwork, no claims to IP or investments at stake. In essence -- this is a no-strings-attached cash arrangement, and the only caveat is that the recipient must promise to do something remarkable.

Established in January 2011, Melbourne's Awesome Foundation is a part of a syndicate of 66 "chapter" groups spread across 12 countries, whose main objective is to fund small projects. Historically the first Awesome Foundation was set up in Boston in 2010 by Harvard alumnus Tim Hwang, who defined this approach to micro-financing as "a micro-genius grant for flashes of micro-brilliance."

Leslie Swearingin, "Dean" of the Awesome Foundation in Melbourne, said the biggest challenge is in explaining to the applicants how simple the process is. "If you win, we give you cash in hand, you can do whatever you want with it, we don’t monitor and we don’t track, because that creates admin and overheads," she says.

Although the chapters share the same ethos, they operate independently; local rules might also affect the timing, award amounts, requirements, and other logistics of individual chapters. For example last year, in a first for the Awesome Foundation, the Melbourne chapter gave away a megagrant of AUD$4,800 (USD$4924) to the One Girl non-profit, whose mission is to provide 600 education scholarships to girls in Sierra Leone by 2014. And last October in addition to receiving the $1,000 grant, Marcus Taylor won a TedX Melbourne talk to present his Comfort Calculator Zone project, the first scientifically valid (online) calculator designed to motivate you to get out of your comfort zone.

The Awesome Foundation advocates for everyday philanthropy -- the practice of giving in small yet impactful ways. This coalition of like-minded philanthropists, believe that with small gestures, awesomeness can happen.

The Awesome Foundation's founding member explains that big, world-changing things start small. "There's not always the support to take a first chance on new ideas and projects. Large nonprofits and corporations are typically very risk adverse, and often are too slow and bureaucratic to really support projects at such a small scale," Hwang explains.

"Awesome Foundation is trying to change that by creating opportunities that make this possible. By taking lots of small chances, we know some of them will be able to spread and grow, just like we have," he says.

Swearingin echoes this sentiment. "Everyday philanthrophy is imporant because there are lots of ways to get cash for large projects and businesses, but there aren't many ways to fund smaller projects. Aside from taking the money out of your back pocket, if you want to fund something small and awesome, there aren't many options and that's what makes the Awesome Foundation so unique," she says.

For Melbourne resident Francis Icasiano, the grant has allowed him to purchase appropriate insurances to set up his volunteer biography-writing business -- the Biography Program. Icasiano's non-profit organization has just recruited their first cohort of volunteer biographers, and is currently seeking further funding to continue their work.

Inspired by the Awesome Foundation's style of "paying-it-forward" philanthropy, Rachael Byrnes, a 33-year-old singer-songwriter, has created the Grantmaker Jukebox, a project that helps to generate grants in a self-sustaining model.

The project invites musicians to apply for a grant under the condition that if they are awarded the grant, they must pledge to raise $1,000 as part of their project launch, thus creating an ongoing chain of projects and grants that has the potential to continue indefinitely.

Duncan Chew, a 35-year-old science professional, is another Melburnian to have benefitted from the grant. His project, unambiguously titled Poo Power, uses discarded dog waste from parks as a renewable energy source. Since awarded the Awesome Foundation grant in April 2012, Chew has received an additional AUD$45,000 (USD$46,000) in government funding.

"It was recognition of the Awesome Foundation grant that started the ball rolling, I had been quietly working on the project in the background for about 18 months and this was the first time someone said 'you're awesome and we believe in what you're doing,'” Chew says.

The concept of the Awesome Foundation is gaining momentum in Melbourne. A Malaysian ex-international student, Jay Sonn Tay, has recently set up the Southeast Asia Awesome Foundation specifically to help international students fron Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia.

"Our aim and purpose is to educate the international students who flock to Melbourne every year, about social entrepreneurship, and encourage them to start thinking about ideas that can impact their home country," Tay, a 27-year-old IT consultant and social entrepreneur, says.

Tay plans to launch the new Awesome Foundation chapter next month with an event that will see international students submitting their ideas to a panel of trustees in a live pitch setting. He believes that the Awesome Foundation model is key to jumpstarting ideas.

“This is a grassroots movement. It’s a bottom-up philanthropy approach rather than a top-down,” Tay says. “Being bottom-up allows awesome, unique ideas to be sponsored without bureaucracy. Having someone believe in your idea forces you to do something about it."

To date the Melbourne chapter has given out a total of 24 grants, valued at AUD$28,000 (USD$28,792). Globally the Awesome Foundation has given out a total of USD$428,000 over the past three years.

Photo: Awesome Foundation

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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