Rethinking 21st Century Philanthropy

Our informal guiding theory is that a rising tide can lift all boats. Larger, community-wide tipping points are the result of the gradual accumulation of individual tipping points, of people "turning on" to trust their own potential, and that of their ideas and projects.
07/27/2015 05:07 pm ET Updated Jul 27, 2016

"Money is like manure; it's not worth a thing unless it's spread around encouraging young things to grow." (Thornton Wilder)

And yet, despite record high charitable giving overall, most of these dollars continue to fertilize particular and often repetitive topics and organizations. In a contemporary context in which more and more industries and environments are being -- pardon the cliche -- "disrupted" by different formats, philanthropy is perhaps one of the buckets that has remained relatively stale. Along these lines, Sean Parker (of Napster and Facebook fame) recently called for a philanthropic shift to "hackable problems" in ways that provoke and upend the established methods for funding and models for solving the issues charitable organizations tackle.

My experience with this dilemma has been through Awesome Foundation which, as the antithesis of traditional foundations, is composed of a grassroots and decentralized network that awards micro grants of $1,000 to small, local ideas. With almost 80 hubs worldwide, this web of dilettante philanthropists has awarded more than $1.5 million to an incredibly diverse assortment of ideas since launching in 2009. Personally, I founded the Miami chapter in January 2013 to pilot this idea for myself and, having now awarded more than $50,000 to local projects, I can safely say I am convinced by the idea of upending established processes and spreading money around with a purpose.

Small can be powerful

Our informal guiding theory is that a rising tide can lift all boats. Larger, community-wide tipping points are the result of the gradual accumulation of individual tipping points, of people "turning on" to trust their own potential, and that of their ideas and projects. Over the past two and a half years, we have witnessed with great respect the grassroots talent and curiosity of Miami residents come across our radar in the form of applications for our grants. The people we interact with every month have a passionate sense of place and a desire to tackle problems, fix inequities, and highlight beauty all around our community. In response, our role has never been to generate these ideas, but rather to be the engine that helps make small, powerful.

The 50+ projects we have helped fund have been diverse in topic, scale, and purpose, but they can generally be grouped into three categories: (1) those that promote local innovation and design, (2) those that focus on bridging opportunity gaps, (3) those who showcase something about Miami from a unique perspective.

Most importantly, we have seen that small can indeed be powerful. We helped Code Fever purchase their first batch of Raspberry Pi computers, and witnessed the organization becoming a pillar of the effort the bridge the digital education divide in Miami. Buskerfest was born out of a partnership grant with Whereby.US and is now an annual street music festival that livens up downtown. Last year, we funded a pilot for a water testing solution we (admittedly!) did not quite fully understand, and now that idea is a successful startup. Granted, not all of the ideas we fund are scalable or replicable, but that is kind of the point; in fact, some of the smallest have been the most powerful in shifting a particular, hyperlocal needle.

1 + 1 can equal 3

At some point along the way, we realized that one of the best avenues to impact all corners of our city was to build partnerships that allowed us to focus some additional grants on particular topic areas or populations. As such, we have done targeted grants to high school students through the Ashoka Changemakers program and the Global Shapers, reached community advocates though Catalyst Miami's Parent Leadership Training Institute, and offered summer scholarships through Wynwood Maker Camp. We have also awarded additional grants on topics such as revitalizing downtown or technology for good. Most recently, we partnered with Miami Dade College - the largest institution of higher education in the country - to solicit ideas from their student population.

Next month, we will be launching a collaboration with the Saldaña Family Fund and the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship (NFTE) targeted for the students in their training program. In the fall, we will be partnering with a major law firm to solicit ideas focused on particular social issues in Miami. Separate and distinct entities coming together to dovetail their efforts - this is the spirit of collaboration that we believe will create a truly thriving ecosystem, and we are proud to play a role convening such interests.

Sean Parker's WSJ article described traditional philanthropy as the only distorted market in the world because the entity paying/donating is not the one receiving the benefits. This is perhaps an oversimplification, but we agree and have tried to create a loose model in which the effects of "philanthropy" are distributed and shared.

When in doubt, kiss the girl

We are often asked about the requirements placed on our grantees to ensure the completion of their projects. Our answer is that "no strings attached" means just that - you don't owe us a report, a financial breakdown of your costs, or a tally of what worked seamlessly and what failed miserably. We choose to believe in the potential of the grants we award, to trust in the beauty of those rogue, misfit, outlandish, often untested, and powerful ideas.

What this speaks to is the balance that a $1,000 grant strikes for both the board of trustees and the grant winners. For the latter, the award is small enough to not be burdensome, but substantive enough to engender a sense of responsibility and commitment. For the trustees, it is an amount we take seriously, but also one we feel comfortable playing around with -- and precisely at this intersection is where debate, excitement, risk, and magic percolate. Ultimately, part of our vision is to be the resource that makes bets on unfamiliar horses: we believe in ideas that seem a bit wild and brash, and we sometimes vote and support projects with no proof of concept. We are the resource that wants to help the average person bridge crazy with doable.

A recent New York Times article describes Awesome Foundation as "rogues giving to rogues. It's misfit money for the weird and wonderful." In the end we most often regret the chances we didn't take so as a group we have learned, when in doubt, just kiss the girl.