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.
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.