AF origins

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The origin story of the Awesome Foundation.

Original trustees

There were 11 or 12 original trustees, including Alexis, the spirit animal. In attendance: Tim Hwang, Jon Pierce, Reed Sturtevant, Evan B., Erhardt Graeff, Dave Fisher, Keith Hopper. Not in attendance: David Nunez, Emily Daniels (now part of Awesome Food), Matt Blake, and Mac Cowell. The original premise was "How to make Boston more awesome" - all of the awesome was there, but atomized around the area. We were coming up with really complicated ideas originally.

Noteworthy grants

The first grant

The first grantee was a textile artist and professor at RISD. The idea was a giant hammock in a park that held 15-20 people at a time, which was installed at a park for about two weeks during certain hours. It took about 14 months from the time of the grant to when it was constructed. The other finalist, a lightning gauntlet, had greater legal risk (legal questions about liability come up frequently). The project ended up costing about $20,000, and part of it required lots of legal insurance and obligation. She kept it going in part of because of the grant, despite the challenges. There were a lot of things to consider: it involved something giant, it involved the community, it was making something from scratch. A major questions was what does it mean when we say no strings attached? Do we just let it go if/when it gets done?

Hansy came back to speak and talks about the obligation she felt after getting the money. It became about an entire community - it takes a village to raise a giant hammock.

Favorite projects

Tim's Favorite: A project to have a device that pokes you in the back of the head to remind you to keep being happy.

Jon's Favorite: Hacker type projects - a DIY kit to put up a balloon and map geography, and open source software to stitch stuff together. This kit was also used in the gulf oil spill.

Reed's Favorite: A guy named Ripley from Idaho had recently retired and was gardening on 1000'. He said if he had gear he had enough land to cultivate 10,000' to give away more food (Ripley's Garden for others).

Evan's Favorite: Danger Dinner. The grantee wanted to go have dinner on the top of a mountain with custom made dishware that would break at low temperatures to see if it would kill them. Not funded, but a good reminder of weird.

Erhardt's Favorite: The Eco-pod Armada, water mediation plants towed by remote control boats as a community event to clean up the East River.

Dave's Favorite: The grantee wanted to hang glide in a bear suit and shoot at cars, or dress up as a monster and hide near the highway in upstate New York and try to cross the road when cars were coming, and see how many newspapers he'd get in before getting either caught or hit by a car. He was very specific about his idea and wanted to make the arms long. We unfortunately didn't fund it.

Initial concerns


Is it feasible to do something with about a thousand dollars? What if there's a million dollar thing to do? We figured that we were being the initial funding, and this would help projects raise additional funding.

Orphans vs. Flamethrowers

Erhardt: I'd go home every month and tell my girlfriend what we funded. This was the litmus test of if we were helping people or not.

So, he felt compelled to bring in a voice of what was doing something good for the world. We're always battling between wanting to fund flamethrowers, or wanting to fund something for orphans. The flamethrower-orphan paradox.


Every new chapter is trying to find its identity/soul. How much do we control the process of chapter formation and impose the structure of Boston on other chapters?

Preventing problems

Don't try to fix problems before you have them. This has interesting repercussions - we still haven't decided what happens when people do things or speak on behalf of the organization.


Radically different viewpoints help drive discussion and grants. In Boston, the founding group was mostly tech people. When it started, there were awesome tech projects that were not funded because the chapter didn't want to signal that they were only for tech. They wanted to signal to all of the other groups as well.

It's important to shake things up every so often to keep the whimsical aspect. Funding things there was no other source of support in the world for - like a cotton candy gun. There are a lot of things that fund social good, but not as many people funding flamethrowers. There are some that are both, like laser space heaters. Another good one was a guerrilla stickering project. The grantee designed semi-transparent handicapped layover stickers, for example showing an active disabled person rather than a chair with a head. Another was a community project to crochet basketball nets and hang them up on the backboards that were empty all over Boston.

Another signal thing was giving grants to places that weren't in Boston, for instance the grant to a peer to peer network in Australia, and now there are more chapters in Australia. Granting other places helped plant seeds that grew.

Supporting without money

We've talked about featuring other things that we couldn't give $1000 but we give a stamp of approval, to make the community more aware of awesome projects. We've given some Kickstarter invites and held Awesome hours, sometimes we just help people come up with better ideas that they go out and do. We also have a trend where people start to champion ideas - if the idea doesn't get funded, that person will go back and helps them in some way.