The Awesome Foundation isn’t technically a foundation. Its monthly grants aren’t technically “grants” at all — not in the formal sense, with paperwork and budgets and boards and final reports.
And yet the 8-month-old Cass County group is already making a difference … by presenting monthly $1,000 checks to projects so awesome they catch their fancy, one really good vision at a time. They’re the newest branch of a grass-roots philanthropy movement that’s catching on from coast to coast — the first between Minneapolis and Seattle.
“We call them ‘grants’ and call it a ‘foundation,’” says Brandi Malarkey, who admits to being the instigator of the radically different approach in Fargo-Moorhead. “But there’s no bureaucracy, no hard-and-fast rules, no red tape, no tax benefits … what we’re really doing is just giving gifts to dedicated people who want to make our community better.
“The Awesome Foundation is open to pretty much anything — big, little, helpful, crazy, all over the map — schemes that don’t fit into a neat prepackaged box,” notes the Fargo artist, whose totally nonbureaucratic board of trustees calls her the dean of all this awesomeness.
Fellow trustee Ron Williams of Moorhead agrees: “Our mission comes down to just one question: Is this something that would help our community?’”
The informal, unincorporated Awesome Foundation of Cass Clay was born a year ago when Brandi — a painter who’s also involved in continuing education — was browsing the Internet for art grants. She came across a quirky program that began out East in 2009, when several Bostonians set out to do good things, a thousand bucks at a time … no strings attached. She learned the movement has grown to more than 80 chapters around the world, 50 in the United States and the balance scattered as widely as Sweden, New Zealand, Chile, the United Arab Emirates and Singapore.
Each entirely volunteer chapter can be launched when 10 individuals and couples come together to pony up $100 12 times a year. They soar over all the legal strings that tie legal foundations down — incorporation, nonprofit tax status, rigid guidelines, demanding paperwork, agency oversight and final reports. Instead, the donors who’ve pledged to pitch in a hundred bucks whenever the calendar turns get together over coffee to hash over the notions that have been submitted to them … by formal organizations, by groups of friends or by people who’ve seen a need and had a brainstorm about how to meet it.
The lucky proposal warrants a check for $1,000. That’s the end of the transaction. “If they’d like to send a few photos and tell us how it all worked out, we’d love it,” Brandi says. “But whether or not they do it is entirely up to them.”
Inspired by what she learned about the national movement, she spent several months last year drumming up support among friends and friends-of-friends — whoever she thought might appreciate the Awesome approach and have resources to share. By midsummer, she’d found the right blend of trustees — community-minded people open to innovation who could afford to earmark $100 a month to the little group’s granting pot. Her polyglot group mostly live in Fargo and Moorhead, though one couple participates via Skype from Israel. Among their number are a chiropractor, therapist, retired college professor, geneticist, banker, administrator and others, ranging in age from their 30s to their 60s.
Trustee Katie Diiro explains that when their diverse group gets together to pore through applications, “it’s like a group of good friends. We have our own ideas and come from very different places. It’s a real education to hear everyone’s point of view.
“We’re very diplomatic,” she adds. “In the end, I don’t think any of us care exactly where the money goes. We all trust that it’s somewhere awesome.”
The Cass Clay Awesome Foundation’s first grant last August went to purchase an adaptive running stroller for Ainsley’s Angels, a group of runners who share the excitement of racing with physically challenged children and adults.
Since then, they’ve awarded Awesome Grants to Heart-n-Soul Community Cafe, which offers pop-up dining for people who pay what they can, and Project Help, a fund at Southeast North Dakota Community Action, which helps clients with emergency one-time needs that the public agency can’t cover.
They have supported the MPX Kids Club, an after-school kick-boxing program that helps kids reduce stress and improve mental and physical health. They’ve given grants to F-M Rainbow Families and the Joy Project, both funding social events that bring children and parents together.
The most recent — announced a couple of days ago — is called “Goats = Opportunities for North Dakota.” Their gift will underwrite a Marion, N.D., farmer’s retrofit of her pasture to wrangle goats especially for area refugees, who consider fresh goat meat a delicacy.
The professional foundation world would consider these amounts too picayune to consider. Awesome supporters, though, think of them as fertilizer to help fresh ideas and new approaches blossom. “Formal foundations aren’t likely to even bother with such small requests,” she says. Besides, “people who come to us aren’t necessarily eligible for those formal grants in the first place. Nor would they have the skills and resources to apply and manage them to the standards they’d require.”
This application process is awesomely simple. Got a brainstorm for accomplishing something worthwhile? Go go to www.awesomefoundation.org; select the chapter to which you’ll apply, and enter brief answers to three little questions: Who are you? How will you use the money? Tell us a little about yourself.
Sometimes, the awesome check for $1,000 may nourish a start-up project with the potential to grow into something much bigger. Other equally welcome proposals can be best described as sheer serendipity.
The autonomous Cass-Clay chapter has no firm guidelines — just a few general principles. They don’t fund religious or political groups (though those groups may generate ideas that themselves could qualify). They avoid giving to operating budgets, like salaries and rent and travel. Other than that … well, they’re open.
“A lot of very good ideas don’t come in a neat, easily defined packages,” says Ron, a retired MSUM professor. “They could have to something to do with start-up businesses, or kids’ activities, or art, or health, or education — whatever you’re excited about doing.” He points to projects recently ballyhooed by other chapters around the country, from raising native plants for natural dyes to vaccinating homeless people to saving bats (the furry, flying kind).
The Awesome Foundation thrives on that sense of adventure. While the 10 founding F-M trustees aren’t out looking to add to their number, they welcome interest from others who are intrigued. They also stress their doors are wide open to new proposals. To get started, go online to awesomefoundation.org and select “Cass Clay.”
“It will be interesting to see how this grows over time,” Ron muses.
Brandi adds, “People are giving us the gift of their own awesome ideas about what will make our community better. We’re get the gift of helping it happen.”