The Awesome Foundation

Last week we had a healthy, vibrant debate about whether philanthropists should focus on finding high performance nonprofits or nonprofits whose programs have been proven to create social impact. While I quite enjoyed the conversation, I want to make what might seem like and abrupt shift and suggest that philanthropy doesn’t have to fund high performers or proven high impact programs.

Philanthropy can also do whatever feels right.

Philanthropy is voluntary. It is private action taken on behalf of the public good. I believe that there are more and less effective ways to engage in philanthropy, but it is critical that we remember that philanthropy, like all of life, isn’t just about being effective. We spend time doing all sorts of things that are not “effective” either because they are fun or because we’re not trying to “optimize” anything or because winging it sometimes seems (and sometimes is!) the best way to go.

For instance, let’s take a look at The Awesome Foundation. As far as I can tell, this isn’t even a legally registered foundation (meaning it is still philanthropy, they just aren’t taking a tax deduction):

Welcome to the Awesome Foundation for Arts and Sciences

We support people doing awesome things in the world. Every month we give out a grant. Information on how to submit follows.

What is Awesome?

Awesomeness is often overlooked by mainstream culture, which tends to rehash the same broadly appealing but mediocre creations. Thankfully, there is the web.

Awesomeness is more the product of a creator’s passion than the prospect of audience or profit. Awesome creations are novel and non-obvious, evoking surprise and delight. Invariably, something about them perfectly reflects the essence of the medium, moment, or method of creation. Awesomeness challenges and inspires.

How We Support Awesome

Submit an awesome idea. If we pick it, we’ll give you $1,000 in cash. Yup, $1,000. Cash. Maybe even in a brown paper bag. You’ll also get access to coworking space at BetaHouse for the month of your grant. The only condition is that you be willing to tell us (and some of our friends) about what you did a month later. If we don’t pick it, don’t stress. We’ll pick a new awesome idea next month.

We think lots of things are awesome. Surprise us. Besides your idea, tell us who you are, why your idea is awesome, and how you plan to follow through on it. If you’ve done other awesome things in the past, that wouldn’t hurt either. But don’t make it too long (500 words at most), as we have short attention spans and are sometimes distracted by shiny objects. Be pithy.

Who is the Awesome Foundation?

No, not an international cabal of malcontents. Just a small group of individuals making personal contributions in the name of awesomeness. For more information, see the about page. We’re currently in Boston but are open to awesome ideas elsewhere. We’d also be happy to help others start an awesome foundation in their location.

If you’re interested, follow us on Twitter or Facebook.

You can also follow The Awesome Foundation on their blog, where they are currently discussing their first grant in support of a designer who wants to hang a huge hammock in Boston Commons.

So here’s my point: Nothing in the performance vs impact debate should be read as an attempt to limited the wonderfully idiosyncratic nature of donors. It is a good thing that we have donors who fund things that no “evidence based funder” would ever touch with a ten foot pole. It is good that we have groups like The Awesome Foundation who reward cool people doing bizarre but interesting things. It makes life richer and more enjoyable.

As we strive for a more effective philanthropic sector, let’s remember that philanthropy is a voluntary act. It is a public expression by private individuals in service of the public good. Sometimes philanthropy is science. Sometimes it is art. I wouldn’t want to live in a world that didn’t have both.


  1. Jeff Mason says:

    Sean, is it ok to do things that are harmful as long as we hide our eyes and cover our ears? There are many programs that have actually been shown to be harmful. Even if a program isn’t harmful, but just totally ineffective, there is an opportunity cost associated with giving to them. To address the huge social issues we face we need to be more strategic with our giving.

  2. Awesome sounds fun, and there’s nothing wrong with funding cool art projects (assuming the funders feel confident the project will not have unintended negative consequences, and follow up to check), but if this thinking is extended into human services, there could be real problems.

    There are seemingly good programs – on the surface – which turn out to cause harm to participants (like Scared Straight and similar programs) when rigorously evaluated. There are lots of programs practices that have been shown not to work, and there are some that have been shown to work. Any program should be aware of what is known in the area and manage accordingly, to minimize risk and maximize benefits to clients. No outside evaluation – only internal performance management – necessary to take this basic step.

    Uninformed donors can be a danger to the people they want to help. If they realize this, I believe donors care. Assuming the reason they donate is not only to feel good, that is.

  3. If we were talking about government programs (public initiatives) I would agree with you. But philanthropy is private initiatives. Private individuals, when making voluntary decisions, have the right to make the wrong decision. Or to make a “suboptimal” decision. Or to make a decision that no one understands.

    Clearly, given my extensive writing on the subject and involvement with groups like the Alliance, I agree with you on how philanthropy should be most effectively be practiced. But I also reject the idea that all donors need to buy into effective frameworks.

    Donors don’t force their programs on people and donors are not forced to donate. The voluntary nature of philanthropy is both its greatest blessing and its greatest problem. We can’t force people to buy into top down designed frameworks. Which is both a problem and a gift.

    I believe donors want to do good well. I also know that all of us debating these issues don’t have all the answers.

  4. I agree, Sean, that donors cannot – and should not – be forced to buy into top-down frameworks (and I do like the idea of the big hammock, by the way!). We shouldn’t kill the feel-good motivator.

    But does the typical donor realize how much it takes to make a difference in human services? Is the typical donor aware of the risks involved in poorly implemented programming? Would donors act differently if they knew?

    I believe the answer to that last question is yes.

  5. Sean, I’m one of the micro-trustees of The Awesome Foundation and you’re right, we are not a legally registered foundation. We are just a group of somewhat like-minded people who donate $100 apiece directly to the recipient. We are trying to keep things simple, lightweight and personal. We just awarded our first grant after reading and discussing the more than 300 proposals received. It was fun, amazing, and rewarding – really awesome, in fact!

  6. Yes on celebrating philanthropy as voluntary and potentially idiosyncratic action.

    Piling a whole bunch of “shoulds” onto the act of philanthropy is likely to stifle the individual desire to make a difference in the world.

    Better to celebrate a wide diversity of personal expressions of initiative, even when that results in “inefficiencies.”

    @Reed — “simple, lightweight and personal” is fabulous. I love what you’re up to.

  7. Reed,
    Good luck and have fun (it seems like the having fun part comes easily to you! Bravo!).

    Pam, thanks!

  8. Sean, you say ‘philanthropy is private initiatives’ and that ‘private individuals, when making voluntary decisions, have the right to make the wrong decision. Or to make a ?suboptimal? decision. Or to make a decision that no one understands.’ All this sounds fine, but surely there’s no reason why donors should get a tax break for this, in effect taking away money for more publicly agreed benefits, universal health care for instance? The Awesome Foundation isn’t taking a tax break, and that seems right. Good luck to them.

  9. This is yet another interesting debate. Again, from a practitioner perspective, I too, do not want philanthropy imposing “shoulds or musts” related to programming and I really believe that it is extremely important for funders to support innovative and new ideas. I also completely understand that it is voluntary—which then means it is totally about the one giving. However, the results are most often not about the one giving and I would hope that donors and funders do have expectations of knowing whether or not their investment had a positive or negative impact. Let me put it this way…keeping it simple is something I agree with, and doing something because you personally find joy in it …well that is why I do the work I do! However, we teach our children that every action has a consequence…good or bad. We have free will and choice, but, if we don’t know the consequences of our actions, care about them, or ignore them, we can cause harm to ourselves and to others. For me, it is about what I can live with.
    Here is a personal, simple, and real example from my own experience when I started doing youth work. Granted, I am not a philanthropist and I do not work for a foundation. I have however invested my own money in various causes. As a youth worker, you are always asked for stuff, especially money! Of course the requests come with a story about what it is needed for…food, rent, someone they had to pay to get out of the “game”. The stories I got were not made up; I was a good youth worker and got into people’s business enough to know what was going on in their lives. The problem was that I didn’t hold them accountable for verifying with me that the money I gave them was resulting in the outcome we had talked about…food for the family, rent getting covered, being out of the “game”. It was always personal, because I truly care for the young people I work with and did not want them to suffer anymore more harm and because I work a lot, leaving little time to waste money, I had the money to give them on most occasions. The requests were always simple too…$100 for food for the week, etc… Also you should know that I have always been and continue to be perpetually hopeful, trusting, and know that the young people I work with really do want to change their lives…I was just not as seasoned in understanding my use of self related to supporting them in building their readiness, willingness, and ability to change.
    When I finally realized that my contributions were not always having the positive intended results–I was devastated. I had given someone a couple hundred to “cover the rent” for a month so that he wouldn’t get evicted. Instead, he used the money to buy a supply of drugs that he could sell and double his money. He was arrested for distribution in a school zone. His life was harmed, the people he sold to were harmed, and I had to sit with the reality that I contributed to that harm.
    I decided I couldn’t live with that kind of result. I still give people money when I can, I can’t help myself. But I am much more careful and I make sure they verify with me if we have achieved the intended results. Just last week, I gave one of our young mothers $270 to help her cover her rent for the month because she was short on what she owed, has a toddler, is transitioning between jobs, and has nowhere to go if she gets evicted. She thanked me, told me that she loved me because I have always been there for her, and informed me that she would bring me the receipt of payment from her landlady.
    Though the giving is voluntary and is about the giver, the consequences, if we know what they are, may or may not align with the giver’s intent and will always directly or indirectly affect others in small or big ways…in negative or positive ways. Performance management isn’t an imposition to anyone wanting to do good…it is understanding if we actually are.

  10. Caroline,
    I have to strongly disagree with you. I don’t think the tax deduction is done because philanthropy is suppose to replicate government efforts. Philanthropy is the process by which individuals express their own thoughts about the public good. It is OK (in fact wonderful) that people prioritize different things.

    For instance, look at the Random Acts of Kindness Foundation (an official 501c3). Their work is granted a tax deduction although the government would never engage in the same work.

    I think their is an important role for philanthropy to play that is at least partially dependent on a bottom up determination of what is important work. If we require that everyone stick to a top down definition of “optimal” philanthropy, I think we destroy the very value of philanthropy in a pluralist society.

  11. Anisha,
    That is quite a story. There is no doubt that donor’s actions have consequences. It is important that people understand this. But I also think that donors have the “right” to make “mistakes”.

  12. Sean, i agree–obviously, i have made many!!! the only point i was trying to express is that we should know the mistakes we make so that we don’t repeat them…without systems for knowing this, we may not get the chance to make better or different choices (which will often result in different, new mistakes). And donors do have the right to make mistakes but those who are being served or who are the intended beneficiaries of the giving have a “right” to be served well.

  13. Sean,
    I agree that the tax deduction isn’t there because philanthropy is supposed to simply replicate government efforts. But in a world of finite resources and huge unmet needs, it seems reasonable that the tax deduction, which is after all public money, should go to private action within broadly defined public priorities.

    I agree also that there is potentially great value in individuals expressing their own thoughts about the public good. But I have never bought the idea that tax breaks motivate giving so I don’t see why this sort of giving should be curtailed if a tax deduction didn’t apply.

    Anyone who makes a donation has less money than if they hadn’t made it, however generous the tax break. In the UK, the deduction goes to the non-profit not to the donor, at least for those paying standard-rate tax. The tax deduction thus tops up the donation, but can hardly be seen as an incentive to give in the first place.

  14. I agree that a tax deduction should be granted for “private action within broadly defined public priorities.” I do think that that definition should be relatively expansive and be connected with intention rather than results unless at some point in the future we solve the challenge of measuring results in a way that most people agree on.

    So when I wrote that people are free to make “sub-optimal” decisions, I meant that as we move towards encouraging more effective philanthropy we should maintain the viewpoint that individuals should be free to make their own private decisions even if we think these are suboptimal choices. I think this freedom is a critical element of philanthropy and I would hate to see us attempt to “enforce” some sort of “effective” approach to philanthropy.