Awesome Summit 2012: Intro Session | MIT Center for Civic Media

Live notes from the intro session to the Awesome Summit, by Rahul Bhargava and Ethan Zuckerman

Christina Xu welcomes a varied and enthusiastic crew to the Awesome Summit at MIT's Media Lab. For two days, the trustees of various different Awesome Foundations have been meeting to discuss internal affairs. Today, the conversation opens up to the general public, where the topic at hand is the future of philanthropy and social change.

Awesome Foundation is now three years old. The pink "fast forward" logo, designed by founder Tim Hwang, is a really good example of organizational philosophy. It is created by simply typing 8 in the Webdings font. Awesome Foundation is all about having a great idea. People may not be the most professional at it - but they just do it.

The "standard" model is to involve a group of 10 trustees, each of whom contributes $100 per month. The group gives out a $1000 monthly grant, with no strings attached. Some examples of recent grants include:

  • Float - funded by Awesome Foundation Boston. They have built air sensors that they attach to kites. These sensors change the color of the kite based on the local air quality. Their hope is to do subtle education on air quality issues.
  • Social Colander - funded by Awesome Foundation Boston. They host Iron Chef-like competitions in the homes, combining a dinner party with a raucous competition. They are now building a physical kit to send to other cities.
  • Free the billboards - funded by Awesome Foundation Portland. They find billboards they find unsightly, hold a photo in front and take a picture. These photos are shared on a blog. They are planning to to set up viewfinder stations that let you see these photos "in situ".

Awesome Foundation has grown to 47 chapters around the world. The latest just emaield this morning to let Christina know they were starting one in Tel Aviv, Israel. Christina has been thinking over the last few days about what makes the awesome foundation really awesome? First - it engages lots of people who've never done philanthropy before; average people who wanted to get involved in this space. Second - it lowers barriers to entry for both grant-makers and grant-recipients. She shares a story of someone who said it is awesome because "I don't have a lot of hundred thousand dollar ideas, but I think everyone has thousand dollar ideas". Third - it is all about peer to peer giving. The old model of high and mighty foundations giving grants is the opposite of what Awesome Foundation is all about. This is just someone who has an extra $100 a month, giving to their peers. Christina is excited about developments like grant recipients later becoming trustees.

Their history is constant experimentation - Christina argues that impatience can be a virtue. If something doesn't work, people call it out and change it. What's the worst that can happen? They've only had one arrest so far. Awesome Foundation is an open brand - anyone can start a chapter in their location. In some cases, people have started awesome foundations and we've only found out about it due to Google Alerts

Finally, Cristina reminds us that the goal of this is to be "it's really really frickin' fun". Awesome Foundation members have had two days of potentially boring conversation, including questions of whether they should franchise, what the management structure should be... despite all this they're still capable of having fun.

They started the Institute on Higher Awesome Studies (IHAS) in 2011 - to serve as a backend for the Awesome Foundation. The Foundations look like mycelium - foundations with no legal entity status, organized spontaneously. IHAS is the bureaucratic, process-holding organization to allow the foundations to operate with very little structure. Christina compares the Awesome Foundation is a herd of beautiful kittens. IHAS is Kitten Voltron, organizing the kittens into an awesome fighting robot.

The last two days have been a private summit for Awesome Foundation chapters. They had representatives from 26 of 45 chapters, including 4 fledgling chapters that haven't yet gotten started. Five continents are represented - and Christina is interested in looking for an African and even Antarctic awesome chapters. To celebrate their third anniversary, they decided last minute to create an Awesome Foundation third birthday cake. The problem was they need one in 24 hours. Luckily they found a friend of a friend who said their my roommates could probably make one. The next day they had a two layer cake with lights in it, and pink dinosaurs. After eating it they discovered that it was built on top of a picture frame with the awesome foundation logo within the jurassic park logo. The summit included a "meta awesome project" - ten dollars from everyone, to give a grant to someone in the room. The winner turned out to be the idea of starting a meta awesome foundation to offer first grants to new awesome foundations.

Today is a more open conversation about innovative models for funding. The goals for the day include:

  • Build a community around new models for philanthropy, because people are realizing the old models are old. We might think of this as the misfits of the philanthropic world.
  • Cover some issues unique to our community - how do you run a decentralized organization, and how do you provide support beyond financial support
  • We don't all have to be on the same page, but we need some organizational APIs - ways for other organizations to pull information out of us

The driving spirit of the event is to JFDI (just f-ing do it). If there's something that needs doing, do it. Use whiteboards, twitter and talking to people to ensure what you need to have happen will happen. "Be the change, or whatever."