What if Eli and Edythe Broad, two important financial backers of the Broad Institute of MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, had gone batshit crazy back in the early '00s and decided to go in a different direction with their philanthropy? Instead of devoting their funds to studying genomics and curing cancer, what if they sunk their fortune into more absurd and quirky ideas like, say, renting a duck boat for a few months and dispensing false information to unsuspecting tourists? Or how about an ambitious winter-knitting campaign designed to put sweaters on the backs of Ben Franklin, Paul Revere, and the rest of Boston's statues?
Tim Hwang, a researcher at Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, has a lot less money than the Broads, but on June 5 he nonetheless declared his intention to spearhead a foundation along these lines. That day, he announced via his blog brosephstalin.com that he was looking for folks to help him create a monthly $1000 grant that would, quite simply, fund so-called awesome ideas. The money was to be doled out, no strings attached, to an individual who would also be given workspace for a month at the Cambridge technology co-op BetaHouse, where he or she could bring the "project, activity, or research" to fruition.
A thousand dollars may not sound like much when you compare it with the money doled out by more traditional foundations, but for one person it can go a long way. Besides, Hwang, whose project is officially called the Awesome Foundation for Arts and Sciences, intentionally designed his grant to be very different from the norm.
"I had been involved in applying for a lot of larger grants," he says. "Once you get into the process . . . it actually becomes hugely onerous and a lot of the grant structures are really not flexible at all. . . . We figured it'd be kind of neat if we could experiment with a model with absolutely no criteria."
In the wake of his June post, Hwang found 11 more local "microtrustees" to pitch into the fund each month, and on July 3 the foundation debuted its online submission form. Since then, the site has garnered more than 250 entries. Hwang admits that a couple of these were completed in jest — someone identifying himself as Mahmoud Ahmadinejad requested "funds [that] will go to paying people to vote for me, fixing votes . . . [and] getting my snazzy beard trimmed." But others proved to be just what the foundation was looking for.
"There's a guy who's really good at building buckyballs," says Hwang, who along with his fellow trustees will pick the first grant recipient before the end of the month.
"Basically his application is: 'It would be really neat if I got the money to produce one that was about thirty feet in diameter.' . . . His plan involved just rolling the ball around, in parks and on streets, stopping traffic and causing all sorts of trouble."
It isn't the sort of activity Bill and Melinda Gates would fund. But that's the point: the Awesome Foundation is not trying to fix the world. For them, a giant buckyball might do the trick.
The deadline for the first Awesome grant has expired. Applications will continue next month after the first recipient has been selected. To apply, go to awesomefoundation.org.