Auto/Economy
11:36 am
Wed August 3, 2011

Changing Chicago, $1,000 at a time

The word “foundation” often makes people think of big money. But there’s a new group of philanthropists in Chicago who have smaller funds, but big hopes for changing communities.

They call themselves the “Awesome Foundation”. Except the foundation part isn’t exactly that serious, says Chicago chapter co-founder Chris McAvoy.

“We’re not actually a foundation. We don’t have a huge amount of money to work from,” he said.

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, said Matt Dorn, another “trustee” with the Chicago chapter.

“We bring ten people together who all pitch in $100,” he said. “And when we decide who to give the money to, we just give them a bag of money. It’s as easy at that.”

And that’s it. Everyone has day jobs – this is entirely a volunteer effort. The only real rule is to give $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 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. (In fact, some of the group didn’t even meet in person until I scheduled an interview with several of them at once).

Sherman heard about The Awesome Foundation the same time McAvoy did. Together, they recruited eight others from a variety of industries: technology, advertising, finance and hospitality, to name a few. Most of the work is done via email, or social media outlets. Word spread quickly, so since the first grant has been announced, another ten have signed up.

Big grant giving translates to about $41 billion in the US each year. But according to Stacy Palmer, the editor of the Chronicle of Philanthropy, she said that doesn’t discount the Chicago Awesome Foundation. After all, she pointed out, big foundations have been giving out billions of dollars for years and there are still many problems to be solved.

Also, she said the Awesome Foundation is filling a gap in funding tiny projects that would fly under the radar of big foundations.

“To have something small that could blossom into something big – it’s really fantastic to have somebody focusing on that,” she said.

Last Saturday morning, a group gathered outside the Langley Avenue Church of God in West Woodlawn, a neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side for the first Awesome-funded grant.

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.

Founders Rich Brooks and Todd Bol build wooden hutches that look like giant birdhouses, but are full of books. They’ve done this all over Wisconsin, but the grant has helped them make their first foray into Illinois.

Brooks explained how it works: “You share your favorite books with other people. So it’s take a book, leave a book,” he said, adding: “You can’t steal them because they’re free.”

Brooks said that what they have found is that it’s not only the books that attracts the attention, but the act of taking and leaving that gives people a “warm feeling of community”.

Mark Mitten is one of the Awesome Foundation Chicago members.

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.

“We’re not trying to change the world,” he said. “We’re just trying to make a small difference, for that one moment of the day.”

Because of the Awesome Foundation money, six little libraries will go up across Chicago. The money has brought the Little Free Libraries to Chicago, and to other local nonprofits like the Blacks in Green organization. BIG will be the ambassador for the Little Free Libraries in Chicago, helping take care of the hutches and select places for the little libraries to be placed.

When I first started working on this  story, there was much discussion about what the word “awesome” means. I even asked all of the Chicago chapter members what it meant to them.

For Mitten – and for almost everyone else I spoke with in the group – they say this first month of giving has been awesome. Mitten told me that it’s about creating joy and having an impact, even if it’s just something that seems small.

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

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

If you had $1,000 to change your city, what would you do? You can share them here. I’ll be publishing some of the best answers to that later today.