In perpetuity of ‘awesome’

By Darryl Holliday

For anyone with dreams of starting a project, with little means of funding such an endeavor, a new Chicago group may be the missing link between idea and action.

Since the first Awesome Foundation began in Boston in 2009, 11 more chapters were added worldwide, including its most recent incarnation in Chicago in April.

Submissions, ranging from fun creative projects to social activism, have no particular guidelines and are chosen by foundation trustees on the basis of “awesomeness”—a process in which foundation members contribute $100 each, totaling $1,000, and pick a winner from submitted project ideas from the public.

A giant 10-person hammock in Boston was the first project to win the Awesome Foundation award. More recently, small paintings of dinosaurs have been commissioned through the foundation grants—they are currently being hidden around San Francisco with online clues to their location.

The proposals explain a lot about each foundation’s mission—“funding awesomeness in the universe,” according to Tim Hwang, member of the group’s San Francisco chapter.

“There’s no clear strict definition of what we’re looking for,” said Mark Mitten, Chicago chapter trustee. “But it’s basically to challenge and expand our understanding of individual and communal potential—how we can bring the community together and make people just have a better time.”

Mitten, a creative strategy consultant, former head of marketing for the city’s Olympic bid and self-described “alchemist,” got together with 10 other local residents to fund one project of their choice per month in Chicago—which they hope to continue on a monthly basis.

With a submission deadline set for May 15, the local group is currently in the process of deciding its first award winner. The Chicago chapter has already received more than 128 ideas, though the trustees declined to give examples—preferring to wait until the winning project is announced at the end of the month.

“I think this is something fun, something people can get behind,” he said. “I think once we showcase the first couple submissions, it’s only going to grow exponentially.”

Another trustee, Chris McAvoy, vice president of technology at the independent clothing company Threadless, explained that because the group’s funding is based on individuals providing the money, the foundation will never have to rely on official corporate sponsorship to introduce local ideas to the city—ideas that might not obtain funding otherwise.

“[The Awesome Foundation] proves to the city and to the world that, even if you aren’t a member of a gigantic foundation, you can make a difference in your community,” McAvoy said. “You don’t have to rely on giant corporations to make the world better. You can do something on a small scale and still have a big impact.”

While past award-winning projects have been purely altruistic, such as the creation of a diaper bank in Washington, D.C., others are for collective fun, such as a giant ice slide in Berlin.

While Hwang, also a former member of the first Awesome Foundation in Boston, admits the whole thing began almost as a joke, the three trustees agree it has become much more in recent years.

The decentralized structure allows the various groups to create a framework best fitting local circumstance and thereby, keep up with local projects and people, Hwang said.

“The Awesome Foundation encourages people to submit projects with their heart in the right place,” he said.

The other 11 chapters, located in cities such as Los Angeles, New York, Sydney, Berlin and Zurich, among others, received good public response, according to Hwang. One such project involved a combination of balloons and LED lights set off to recreate constellations in a starless London sky.

“People tend to be really into [the projects],” Hwang said, also noting the benefits of trustee membership. “One of the nice things about being part of something called the Awesome Foundation is that it’s hard for anyone to be against it—almost by definition that would make you not awesome, right?”