A new jargon for philanthropy? Or even a new culture?

Hacked solution. Maker culture. Artisan. DIY. Dorkbot. Citizen-powered. Decentralized. Open brand. Flamethrowers vs. Orphans Paradox*.

Are these terms in the vocabulary of your giving or of the foundations you know?

They weren’t for me until I attended the first Awesome Summit in Boston this month. The three-day event was the first gathering of the rapidly-expanding Awesome Foundation movement. There are more than 40 chapters, each giving $1,000 at a time as “MacArthur grants for microflashes of brilliance.” By the summer of 2013, the movement will have given away $1 million.

In one sense, the Awesome Foundation chapters across the world are a 21st-century take on giving circles. They’re groups of donors who band together to share in the joy, and perhaps risk, of giving and learning together. In another sense, the chapters embrace practices of organized philanthropy. There are application forms, deliberation processes, and award announcements. Many chapters “do more than give” through publicizing good ideas, actively attracting other resources to them, and forging networks of grantees.

But there’s something more. One of the movement’s founders, Christina Xu, opens her Tedx profile, with the phrase “How a playful subversion of traditional foundations is spreading awesomeness and tackling serious problems.” In the talk, she describes the movement as an experiment in guerilla funding and a celebration of citizen problem-solvers. (Now you’re talking my language!)

The trustees are mostly younger and more connected to the creative and tech sectors than your typical philanthropy group. They’re more likely to run in circles that connect with hackers (the benign kind), hobbyists, makers, and others who love grassroots innovation. Some come from government and nonprofit backgrounds, attracted to the Awesome Foundation’s simple, no-strings-attached work. They often draw on the values of the open-source movement – sharing, openness, collaboration, clever repurposing of existing work, and a skepticism for hierarchy and lists of rules.

Most importantly, they’re the type of donors and volunteers traditional philanthropies and nonprofits need and deserve. The trustees are connected, active, and already dedicating $100 per trustee per month to improving their communities. They’re biased to finding cheaper, quicker, citizen- and customer-centered approaches to community opportunities and problems. And they’re developing a smart sense of when flexible money at the right time makes all the difference to developing and spreading an idea.

Imagine if…

  • A United Way teamed with its local Awesome Foundation trustees to support new ways of helping people in need, led by those people?
  • An arts council used its Awesome Foundation as a talent scout, allowing the Awesome Foundation to take risks it can’t but adding its marketing and training support?
  • A community foundation asked its Awesome Foundation trustees, their grantees, and their friends to join its grantmaking committees or paid for their participation in community leadership programs?
  • An economic development agency and Awesome Foundation worked together to find and support nontraditional entrepreneurs, connecting them with other forums for innovation, promoting them on Kickstarter or other platforms, and more?
  • A family foundation or donor-advised fund involved its younger family members in an Awesome Foundation chapter to learn philanthropy from new perspectives?

There are bound to be challenges as differing cultures and risk tolerances collide. And some Awesome Foundation trustees might even resist the idea of being co-opted by traditional organizations. But I think the intersection of the Awesome Foundation model and traditional philanthropy is worth exploring.

What do you think? Can traditional philanthropies and nonprofits learn from the Awesome movement?


*P.S. The Boston chapter of the Awesome Foundation coined the “flamethrowers vs. orphans paradox” phrase to describe the tension between funding ideas that produce crazy fun (flamethrowers) and those that produce social good (orphans). Feel free to use it at your next meeting with a grantmaker and let me know their answer.

One thought on “A new jargon for philanthropy? Or even a new culture?

  1. Great post and Awesome question:

    I think traditional foundations and nonprofits are already learning from these trends.

    The social, demographic, and cultural shifts are too big to ignore.

    As a funder, I am beginning to hear more from Gen-X and Gen-Y nonprofit leaders stepping into leadership roles.

    I can also sense an “itch” among the younger trustees of the many traditional foundations I work with — they are ready to explore beyond the usual boundaries.

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