Awesome Summit 2019: The Chicago Way


I'm just back from the Awesome Summit in Chicago, where I spent a weekend in the company of Awesome Foundation trustees from around the globe. Before my memory collapses and I start thinking entirely about JavaScript or how I would rewrite the Marvel Cinematic Universe, here's what I gathered from that event. This is also my second attempt since the editor ate my first draft.

Wait, what is the Awesome Foundation?

I've been a member of Awesome Portland for over five years. We're the Portland, OR chapter of the Awesome Foundation, which spreads awesome throughout the universe, $1,000 at a time. These microgrants won't fund a shelter or solve world hunger, but they will make the difference between a project existing or not!

Every chapter is a little different—some give out grants every month, some award grants on a quarterly basis, some whenever they can. How they give out grants also changes. Portland holds a party every other month, invites people to attend, and awards the winner with a wad of cash. Other chapters call the winner and pay electronically. Still others fund individuals and not projects. Every chapter is an experiment.

I often tell people that, "The Awesome Foundation is the most important thing I do with my time." After spending a weekend with trustees from around the world, I stand by this statement.

About the Awesome Summit

Since every chapter is different, and we like to get together to see how things are going. The original Awesome Foundation chapter was founded in Boston, and there are a few academic trappings that have stuck with the organization through the years. (Leaders of the chapters are called Deans, there used to be a Chancellor position, if you left you would get a Chair in that chapter, etc.)

Awesome Summit 2019 was in Chicago and hosted by the Chicago chapter. They invited us into their offices and homes, showed us all of what the city can offer, including pizza, tamales, popcorn, and (of course) Malört.

Key Takeaways

There are a few things I noticed over the weekend. Other people are going through the transcriptions and notes from the sessions and producing notes, these are just my general impressions.

Remaking Philanthropy

The Awesome Foundation isn't just funding weird ideas like an animated .gif festival or a cotton candy cannon. Non-whizbang projects are also cool—several chapters are making inroads into this.

For example, Brazil uses the Awesome funding model to distribute aid in disaster areas. Awesome Disability is not tied to a general area, and every trustee is disabled. They are funding projects for people with disabilities, by people with disabilities. "Every grant we make is a political statement."

These measures, combined with some work done by the Chancellors of the Foundation, have the potential to reshape how things work in philanthropy. I'd like to see more groups fund things the Awesome way than see Awesome start behaving like a massive organization with payroll, branding, and boards of advisors.

Chicago hosted several of their prior grant winners, and a consistent theme I heard was that the ease, brevity, and limited scope of the grant application helps people complete it. Winning Awesome grant is often the first step in a larger project. This has been the case with some of our projects—we open the doors to other grants.

History of the Awesome Foundation

The canonical story about the origin of the Foundation is that a group of people in Boston wanted to make their city more interesting, and pooled their money together. The first project was a giant hammock that people could lay around in and chat and whatnot.

What I did not know—and this is very much in line with the previous section—is that giving out money wasn't their first choice! They originally wanted to fund a space where people could gather. But, spaces are hard to maintain, require considerable cost and overhead, and it just wasn't tenable.

Their other idea was to pair with an existing foundation or non-profit. But when hearing the idea of funding giant hammocks, they were told flatly, "We don't fund awesome." That's a little Freudian, to be sure... So the Awesome Foundation was born, new chapters were started, and they made it up as they went along.

Learning From Each Other

Our chapter is fairly established, and I think I've been MC at enough grant parties to have a couple of strong opinions on how they should be run. It was really great to be able to share some of that knowledge with people who'd never given out a grant, or were still trying to figure out how to get trustees.

Many working sessions during the weekend involved learning from each other. What social media strategies were working? How do you retain trustees? How do you increase diversity, inclusion, and equity? What swag do people want? What can the website do better? What does the website already do that nobody knows about?

I questioned a lot of the things I had taken for granted. The idea of awarding an application without forcing people into public speaking is starting to have a certain appeal. There are a lot of things we could do to follow up that we're not doing now. I really need to get the Instagram account credentials back. The list goes on and on.

Better Communication

One thing that was new to me was a WhatsApp group specifically for people attending the event. That allowed folx at the summit to share pictures, recommend places to eat, and connect with each other. It strikes me that I'm not 100% sure I could reach all the trustees in my chapter if I needed to, we should look into this.

One thing that I found encouraging was the creation of multiple Working Groups to help fix things that need work. The Awesome Foundation Wiki is... Well, it's a wiki. They collect cruft, and they need guidance.

There are new digital tools coming up soon. The map of chapters and trustees will help everybody find one another more easily. I'm looking forward to a curated newsletter. Great things are going to happen to the website.

I'm especially delighted to see that the Slack instance is finally taking off. I was super-excited to learn of its existence at the Seattle Summit, but it never really had enough momentum to become viable. That changed this weekend. So far I see new people joining, ideas showing up, and a vibrant channel about animals. Every Slack needs at least one channel about animals or it's not worth having.

Next Steps

For our own chapter, I have a list of things we need to do in the near future. Your chapter's list will be different.

  • Go through the list of winners and see which ones are not on the site
  • Designate a second Dean so that we can have multiple people with the power to list winners, update the site, and so forth
  • Figure out if there's some way that Awesome Portland and Awesome Libraries can work together
  • Look into the email list we have and see which lists need to be created—I'd like to survey all past winners to see where they are and what we can do for them, maybe what worked and what didn't
  • Find some missing social media credentials and start a social calendar
  • Figure out some way to see the Awesome Chapters in other counties, for research and Tim Tam purposes

Final Musings

This weekend involved meeting old friends and new. There was karaoke, and I somehow forgot that "If I Had $1,000,000" is actually more of a duet (but still carried on somehow). I know the Summits are a tremendous amount of work, and want the Chicago chapter—and particularly Molly—to know that I had a tremendous time. Thank you for all that you did.

The Awesome Foundation has been through 10 years of growth, I can't wait to see where the next 10 take us!

Doug Hanke