The Institute on Higher Awesome Studies | MIT Center for Civic Media

The Institute on Higher Awesome Studies

Last Thursday at the Center for Civic Media, we heard a talk by Christina Xu, Chancellor of the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies, the non-profit wing of my favourite funding organisation, the Awesome Foundation. Christina formerly worked for the Center for Civic Media, and the Institute for Higher Awesome has been funded by the Knight Foundation to start the Awesome News Taskforce increasing awesomeness in communities and the world. Christina joined us to talk about the values of the Awesome Foundation, and to share an update on her work to bring Awesome to Detroit.


Christina describes the Awesome Foundation as "The MacArthur Grant for Micro-flashes of brilliance," an "experiment in guerilla funding." Every month, each Awesome Foundation trustee sets aside $100, combining their funds to give a thousand dollars to something awesome which wouldn't happen otherwise. Awesome started in Boston and now has 28-29(ish) chapters around the world. Here is a list of things Awesome Foundation chapters did in October 2011.

The Awesome Foundation has been a great personal inspiration to me. I first heard of it from Jon Pierce during a sojourn at Betahouse. When I discovered in 2010 that Awesome London was starting, I became an instant fan. I loved the ideas they funded, as well as the environment of fun and empathy-- qualities which are usually discouraged in other funding organisations. The London chapter even funded an initiative I helped start!

The Awesome Foundation started when its founders exited college and discovered that "free money is hard to find once you're out of college." While venture capitalists and angel investors readily fund some projects at $500k or $100k, it's often harder for small, early stage projects to find the money they need. The Awesome foundation aims to fill that gap with much smaller amounts of funding.

One fascinating feature of the foundation is that it has no formal organisation. Although recipients are given a "big cheque," Awesome has no legal entity at all. Some chapters give grantees cash in a paper bag. A manual exists for running your own Awesome Foundation, but anyone can start a chapter: get together some people who commit to give, fill out a form on the website, and the Awesome Foundation will add you to the list of chapters. There is also an optional mailing list. This combination of inspiration and low institutional overhead may be the reason there are now so many chapters around the world. Of course, individual chapters develop their own processes, but even in those cases, the goal of process has always been to speed and smooth a chapter's work rather than slow it down.

Institute On Higher Awesome

"Yo, I know this sounds cray-cray. But like, check this argument out"

-- Christina Xu

Shortly after the Haiti earthquake, Christina was talking with Tim Hwang about how the Awesome Foundation could get people excited about development in a way she hadn't seen in a long time. The Institute on Higher Awesome Studies is the resulting non-profit wing of the Awesome Foundation. Its aims are to:

  • Interface between the federation of Awesome and "big-boy entities" like the Knight Foundation, which is now funding the Awesome Foundation News Taskforce
  • Serve as an inter-chapter coordinator to promote overall health of the Awesome movement
  • To start Awesome Foundation chapters that are awesome AND good

Christina then shared with us what she thinks constitute the core values and "lofty goals" of the Awesome Foundation:

  • Democratise and Rethink Philanthropy: Up to now, people needed to be incredibly wealthy to give or receive philanthropy. Philanthropy also carried problematic implications that donors were an "angel of charity dropping money on people and forgetting them." People want a more engaging and accessible form of philanthropy, perhaps drawing less from models of philanthropy and more from immigrant giving circles and Credit Unions. Christina acknowledges that this isn't a new idea, but "we have helvetica" and can make them exciting again.
  • Local Sovereignty: The people with the money shouldn't be privileged to decide how it should be used. At the same time, it's important for communities to have people who understand giving, mentorship, and grants. Giving, Christina said, is a lot like exercising. If a disaster hits Toronto, the Awesome chapter more people who know how to organise, find money, and put it where it's needed most. Awesome also builds stronger bonds between the people who are giving and receiving funds. Since it's organised and run locally, an Awesome Foundation chapter builds community rather than just giving money.
  • Staying Flexible, with minimal structure: At the moment, it's very easy to start a new chapter. There may be risks associated with that, but Christina thinks the greater dangers are entrenchment and inflexibility.
  • Sustainable & Meaningful Funding: Christina showed us a graph of the energy in a sugar rush and compared it to most philanthropy. She pointed out that large amounts of money often overstimulate a project in the short term and leave it hanging in the long term. Furthermore, small donations over long periods are more sustainable for donors.
  • Having Fun (while causing transgressive change): Fun has often been overlooked in the nonprofit sector until very recently. Fun and transgressive change are important parts of the Awesome ethos. Having fun is not something that people look for in a grant. But it breaks people's defenses, encourages them to talk about the project, and it plays incredibly well in the press. Furthermore, participants are less likely to burn out when they're having fun

Awesome News Taskforce, Detroit

The Awesome News Taskforce is starting in Detroit And after her first visit to the city (22 meetings!), Christina had some sensible advice for us on working in Detroit:

  • Never, ever describe Detroit as a "blank slate" (you need to convince people that you're not just coming in to do an art project and leave)
  • Do not use any "ruin porn" on any of your materials.
  • Know the basics of Detroit sports. You will be tested.
  • Lafayette Coney Island > American Coney Island
  • Put your money where your mouth is quickly. (for ex, Awesome hired a gfx designer from Detroit, and programmers from Detroit)

Christina had some provocative things to say about diversity and the groups which naturally gravitate to the Awesome Foundation. Detroit is a city of deep divides (generational, racial, geographical, digital, class). The Awesome Foundation is immediately appealing to hipsters: younger people, artists, people who think that it's cool and can read about it on Twitter. But in a place like Detroit if you're trying to do real development work, that's really not enough. According to Christina, only a few people who are making conscientious efforts to cross that divide. Many seem to have given up.

Locations of Christina's initial meeting participants in Detroit, institute for Higher Awesome

To illustrate this, Christina showed a map of Detroit of all of the places where she had meetings. She ended up in the areas of the city which are revitalising, and which are covered by 98% of the press. Detroit is a big city. Within its area it can fit Manhattan, DC, and Boston together. After noticing the lack of geographic diversity in her meetings, Christina hired a community organiser who knows all the areas that aren't on Twitter and Tumblr.

One important divide is colour. Although most people in Detroit are not white, often the only people of colour in meetings were Christina and the janitors. She hopes that unusual organisations like the Awesome Foundation can serve as a space which is free from traditional power dynamics, opening opportunities for people to work together across boundaries.

What goes on in Detroit is also shaped by the people who live outside: suburbanites who want to help, the Detroit "diaspora" who still care about the city, and people who actually live within the inner 8 miles of Detroit and feel a strong sense of ownership. Sometimes this shared passion for the city leads people to collaborate. Often, geographic differences get in the way of people helping each other. With this in mind, the Awesome Foundation is working with Lovetax to develop an "Awesometax" that people can contribute to on a monthly basis. Members of the "Detroit diaspora" are also thinking about starting their own Awesome Foundation.

The Plan in Detroit

At the moment, Christina is recruiting trustees for Awesome Detroit. Instead of asking these people to donate, the Institute on Higher Awesome will supplement their funds from foundation money and crowdsourcing. They hope that removing the donation requirement, they will find representation from diverse backgrounds and regions.

The trustees are also going to be actively looking for possible projects, asking communities about their information needs rather than just waiting for applications.

During discussion, Sasha Costanza Chock pointed out that Detroit is also home of Allied Media Projects and the Allied Media Conference, a space which crosses all the divides which Christina mentioned. For a decade, they have been thinking about how to create these spaces for radical media production. He then discussed the Knight Foundation framing around information needs. Sasha thought the notion of "information needs" doesn't fit with what Awesome has done previously, because it assumes a lack or need. He suggested that Awesome might start from an "information strengths" standpoint, looking for what's already awesome but which needs to be further supported.

Another attendee asked why Awesome hasn't given out money in larger amounts. Christina answered that while it's possible, the Awesome Foundation is very deliberate about giving a thousand dollars. It's an amount that most people can't get, but too little money to make scamming worthwhile. In theory, grantees could take the money and run away to Mexico, but it won't get them very far. Furthermore, with larger amounts of money, organisations start to need greater structure to ensure that their money is used well. With Awesome, everyone knows that projects might fail or never happen, and that there are no requirements. Trustees value that informality and uncertainty more than they value money.

Sasha and Christina then had an intriguing conversation about money pools among Chinese and Mexican immigrants, as well as Latin American migrant workers. Among these groups, Hometown associations allow immigrants to pool their money to fund needs from their home towns. They pull together funds every month, and then they call up their hown town and decide what to invest in. Christina agreed that these are really interesting organisations, and recalled her own experiences in Chinese migrant communities: "Old Chinese people are at the forefront of civic media. My parents have access to community information which I will never get from Facebook."

What's Next for the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies