Spreading awesomeness through small grants

Patrick Dunn
Special to The Detroit News

When Marshalle Montgomery got a call in 2012 from the Institute On Higher Awesome Studies, asking her to become a trustee of the Awesome Foundation Detroit, she thought it was a prank.

After Googling the unusually named organization, Montgomery said getting involved “wasn’t a hard sell.” Founded in Boston in 2009, the Awesome Foundation’s 10 trustees contribute $100 apiece to disburse a $1,000 grant to a different community-oriented project every month. The idea proved influential, spawning 75 local foundation chapters across the globe loosely organized under the Institute On Higher Awesome Studies. The foundation arrived in Michigan in 2011 with the inception of the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation, and Awesome Foundation Detroit followed in 2012.

The Awesome model is a simplified, smaller-scale version of traditional philanthropic foundations. Detroit and Ann Arbor’s trustees meet monthly to sort through anywhere from 10-30 proposals, funding whatever project best spreads “awesomeness” in their respective communities.

“We don’t follow any rules,” said Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation dean Mark Maynard. “We don’t answer to a board. People make a choice as to where they give their personal money, and then they do it.”

The process is simple on the applicant’s side as well. The application form consists of three questions, asking applicants to describe themselves, their project and what they would do with the foundation’s money in 3,000 characters or less. Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation trustee Linh Song said the streamlined approach makes funding available to those who might not meet some of the criteria for a more traditional grant.

“You don’t have to be a 501(c)(3) nonprofit,” Song said. “You don’t have to have a Ph.D. You don’t have to be the best in your field. You just have to have a good idea that you’re willing to share with the community.”

Samantha Szeszulski found herself in just that situation this year as she was looking for ways to expand her project Walk (Detroit), which uses way-finding signage to encourage walking. The Detroit grad student started Walk (Detroit) this summer as a project for her fellowship with Challenge Detroit, an organization aiming to retain Detroit’s creative young professionals. In partnership with the Villages Community Development Corporation, Szeszulski installed 20 initial signs in the Villages this July.

“The whole idea is they point you in the direction of destinations in the neighborhood and put a number on the time it takes to get there, which makes walking seem more valuable,” she said.

Further expansion of the project was beyond the limits of Szeszulski’s personal budget, so she applied for and received an Awesome Foundation grant in September. She said the award amount is “perfect” to fund more signs (which cost about $5 apiece) in the Villages which include Indian Village, West Village and English Village, and eventually in other “nodes” including midtown, Corktown and downtown.

Szeszulski’s project fits the general mission of Awesome Detroit, which focuses on funding news- and information-related projects. The Detroit chapter is more specialized than most Awesome chapters nationwide, and it’s also unique in that it was initially funded by a Knight News Challenge grant. However, trustees have recently begun following the usual Awesome model and contributing their own money in anticipation of the Knight funds running out this year. (They’re also organizing a screening of classic horror film “Nosferatu” Oct. 25 at the Masonic Temple, benefiting the foundation.)

The Detroit foundation is still relatively open-minded about what projects fit its niche. The organization has funded initiatives ranging from literary publications and documentaries to the Magenta Giraffe Theater Company, Ocelot Print Shop and a poetry slam.

“In so many ways, Detroit is a pretty fragmented city and has lots of smaller neighborhoods,” said Awesome Detroit co-dean Vickie Elmer. “This gives us a chance to help those neighborhoods, and help those people share information.”

To the west, the Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation embraces an even broader range of projects. The foundation’s portfolio of funded projects includes a prototype firefighting device invented by two high schoolers, a mini-art gallery in the Ann Arbor Art Center and a summer music education program for kids. The foundation’s most recent grantee, artist Jason Wright, used his grant to throw a community fall festival at Ypsilanti’s long-vacant Water Street redevelopment area. Wright said he’s avoided seeking grant funding in the past because he found himself ideologically opposed to the “art world terms” many foundations held him to.

“I like the Awesome Foundation because it’s micro-philanthropy, in that it’s just people from here in the community directly supporting something,” Wright said. “That I do believe in.”

The Awesome Foundation doesn’t require any kind of reporting from grantees, and the foundation generally doesn’t do much follow-up after delivering a grant. Ann Arbor chapter founder Lisa Dengiz said trustees aren’t “going to go breathing down (grantees’) necks for 1,000 bucks,” but most grantees have seen their project through to completion. Even so, the basic model of the foundation is focused less on finished products and more on taking chances on new ideas to see what happens.

“We just want to support awesome things in the community and not be too tied down to spending a lot of time on bureaucracy and those kinds of things,” said Ann Arbor Awesome Foundation chair Omari Rush. “We just want to kind of give on hope and trust and faith and belief in our community.”

Patrick Dunn is a Metro Detroit freelance writer.