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Awesome Project offers $1,000 grants for quirky ideas 

Wednesday, Aug 25 2010
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Things we can all agree are awesome: pizza, sleeping in, and the law of gravity. Beyond these universal truths, "awesome," like its distant cousin, "cool," has lost its luster through overuse; a stock reply for co-workers who feign enthusiasm over your boring weekend plans, floundering before settling on "Awesome!"

A new organization in San Francisco seeks to make "awesome" awesome again. Since May, the Awesome Foundation has been sifting through project proposals to decide which is most deserving of a $1,000 grant. Their definitions of "awesome" must jell, because 10 "microtrustees" each donate $100 of their own money every month in the name of awesomeness — the vague, sole criterion. Effecting social change or having a practical application would be nice (and awesome), but it's not a requirement.

The "Dean of Awesome," Jesse Taggert, ensures everything runs awesomely. She clarifies, sort of, what awesome means to her: "We aren't looking to fund just 'worthy' projects," she says. "We are also interested in some unique element, something that makes you step back and look again. Or chuckle. Or start talking to the person next to you."

Applying this loose guideline, the trustees have so far funded three projects they believe met their standards. The first, "A History of the Sky" by Ken Murphy, displays pictures of the sky taken every 10 seconds for a year from a camera atop the Exploratorium. The second recipient, Jonathan Foote, is in the early stages of engineering synchronized, Pixar-inspired robotic lamps that move and project any of several million colors based on commands from an iPhone application. Rounding out the local Awesome pioneers, Claire Schoen is creating audio tours for ferry rides across the San Francisco Bay that address the consequences of rising sea levels.

The Awesome Foundation was started in Boston in June 2009. Taggert's correspondence with the Boston members led to the San Francisco chapter, where demand to join spilled over into rumblings of making Awesome happen in Silicon Valley as well. Reed Sturtevant of the Boston group says,"It's a fairly low-key, casual approach to grant-giving, which is why I think it's spread so easily."

As grants go, $1,000 isn't a lot, but Kevin F. Adler, one of the San Francisco trustees, explains that the money mainly serves to bolster the entrepreneurs' efforts and confidence. Accordingly, the Awesome Foundation can afford to base its selections on a simple application in which people explain in a couple of paragraphs why their projects are awesome and how $1,000 would help.

"I love the fact that it's the only place I've applied in 30 years where I can say, 'I have a really awesome project,'" Schoen says. Foote echoes that sentiment: "I recall using the word 'awesome' and 'badass.'"

But because the grant process is as open-ended as a hotel guestbook, the foundation gets some eccentric requests. Taggert recalled one man who asked the foundation to indulge his desire to smoke pot at coffee shops — the selling point being that he'd also write about the experience. Now that's awesome.

About The Author

Taylor Friedman

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