Changing Gears: How $1000 makes a place 'awesome'

August 3, 2011

By Niala Boodhoo

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(Changing Gears/Niala Boodhoo)

The word foundation often makes people think of big money. But there’s a new group of philanthropists in Chicago that have a much smaller budget, but still want to change communities. This is the first of an occasional series by our Changing Gears team looking at innovation. Niala Boodhoo kicks it off with this story about 10 guys who want to change Chicago - $1,000 at a time.

The word awesome defies explanation. Ask people what it means to them and they have a hard time.

These guys should know the word - they’re just started the Chicago chapter of the Awesome Foundation.

Chris: The foundation thing, is, in my opinion, a joke, really, right? We’re not actually a foundation. We don’t have a huge amount of money to work from.

That’s Chicago Awesome Foundation co-founder Chris McAvoy. The amount of money he and nine other guys give out isn’t that huge – its $1,000 a month.

But that’s the point.

Trustee Matt Dorn explains how it works:

Matt: What we do is we bring 10 people together who all pitch in $100 and when we decide who to give the money to we just give them a bag of money. And it’s as easy at that.

And that’s it. The group doesn’t have rules, other than join for $100 a month, and find someone else to take your place if you want out.

The Awesome Foundation started in Boston two years ago, where one of the first $1,000 grants went to an artist who helped people hand crochet brightly colored basketball nets that went into empty hoops across the city.

It has since spread to 20 other cities across the world, from Melbourne to Zurich to Toronto.

Chicago’s the first Midwest chapter. Most of the guys who are in the group never even met before they came together – co-founder Derek Sherman is in advertising. He heard about The Awesome Foundation the same time McAvoy did. Together, they recruited 8 others. Some of these guys still haven’t even met – they just do all of their work via email. Another ten want to join.

Stacy Palmer is the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy. Big grant giving translates to about $41 billion in the US each year. But she says that doesn’t discount the Chicago Awesome Foundation – because they’re filling a gap in funding tiny projects that fly under the radar of big foundations.

Stacy (phone): So to have something small that could blossom into something big – it’s really fantastic to have somebody focusing on that.

The first project Chicago Awesome funded is outside the Langley Avenue Church of God in West Woodlawn, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side.

The group received about 200 applications for its first grant. It picked one from two Wisconsin men who run a nonprofit called the Little Free Library.

They build wooden hutches that look like giant birdhouses, but are full of books. Rick Brooks helped start the nonprofit:

You share your favorite books with other people. So it’s take a book, leave a book. You can’t steal them because they’re free. And what we found beyond anything else is that it’s not only the books that attracts the attention. It gives people a warm feeling of community.

Mitten: We’re not trying to change the world. We’re just trying to make a small difference, for that one moment of the day.

Mark Mitten is one of the Awesome guys.

Just before Mitten started talking to me, he saw two kids come over and pick out books from a little library that wasn’t even completely set up yet. They sat on the church steps, and started reading.

Because of the Awesome Foundation money, six little libraries will go up across Chicago. And now that the Little Free Libraries has teamed up with other local nonprofits in Chicago, they say that’s just the beginning.

For Mitten – and for almost everyone else I spoke with in the group – they say, that’s awesome. It’s about creating joy – and having an impact at the same time, even if it’s just something that seems small.

“Just putting a smile on somebody’s face, or getting to think about them differently, I think is a form of innovation.”

People tend to think of innovation as something that just relates to technology, Mitten says. But he thinks innovation isn’t just about technology - or business - it’s about changing ideas and communities.