Saturday, March 6, 2021

Cultivating Awesome Ideas: $1,000 monthly grants encourage creative thinkers to ‘take a risk’ and make the community a better place

Spud Marshall

Spud Marshall, innovation director of 3 Dots Downtown, describes the Awesome Foundation Grants this way:

“The idea behind it is you get a few friends together, each put in a hundred dollars a month, and then you pool that money to give out these grants, kind of no-strings attached, to people in your community who have good ideas to make the town a better place.”

The Awesome Foundation is an international initiative with 90 autonomous chapters in 13 countries. Marshall says the “foundation” is not really an organization in the traditional sense, but is “just a banner to formalize this process.

“Most chapters are just 10 friends, each giving $100, and so $1,000 comes in every month, and $1,000 goes out,” Marshall says. “There’s no centralized Awesome Foundation headquarters or anything like that. It’s a completely decentralized group of people who want to make things better, and they self-organize within their own community.”

So far, 3 Dots has helped facilitate about 30 diverse grants in 2½ years.

“One of our other hopes and intents is to encourage people to take a risk,” says Marshall. “Somebody’s project may completely fall flat on its face, and that is OK, because there are rarely funding opportunities to explore and create and tinker. If it doesn’t happen as people planned, that’s totally fine. Some of our projects don’t have as easy a pathway forward, but those are also ones we like to fund.”

People submit projects online, and those who put in the $100 each month serve as “trustees” to review projects (usually between six and 12 a month) and choose winners. Marshall says there are four questions trustees consider when judging projects: Does it impact the community? Is it pushing somebody to explore something new? Are they creating something tangible? Does it contribute to making our town an awesome place to call home?

“We then give them $1,000 and then let them go do what they need to do,” says Marshall.

‘Anything is fair game’

Marshall uses the “Art-To- Go (Fine Art Vending Machine)” as an example of an Awesome Foundation project that made a splash recently. The project creators re-furbished a vintage cigarette machine to provide “vendable works of art” with a threefold purpose (from the project description): “To bring visibility and future business opportunities to artists and the arts community. Build community. Provide a fun, safe way for people to purchase art as the pandemic stays at the forefront of everyday life.”

According to Marshall, trustees are often most excited by projects that involve promoting “community arts and culture and trying to get people outside and plugged into the region,” but “anything is fair game.”

“Not all projects are arts-related,” Marshall says. “There is no requirement from our end as far as what we ask of people. You never know what people are going to submit.”

Cindy Way, for example, wanted a safe way to connect with nursing home residents during the COVID-19 outbreak. Her ‘Sponsor a Window’ bird feeder project purchased several bird feeders and bird baths for community members to place outside nursing homes. When sponsors come to re-fill the feeders and baths, they interact with the residents stuck inside.

“It was a small way to spark some joy and relationship at a time when people were isolated,” Marshall says.

Recognizing entrepreneurial potential

Bill Zimmerman’s “Re-Start Centre County Seed Fund” project was awarded an Awesome Foundation Grant to be used “to help formerly incarcerated individuals with a potentially valid new product/service/venture idea to get funds to move from concept to making money and creating a better life.”

Zimmerman cites a disturbing report from the Brookings Institute that found that in the first full calendar year after being released, only 55 percent of the formerly incarcerated reported any earnings, with the median earnings being $10,090. “The Re-Start Seed Fund targets needs that, to date, had not been addressed locally,” he adds.

Zimmerman says Centre Peace, which provides jobs for inmates, has been collaborating with Penn State to provide education at local correctional facilities.

“I’ve been involved with a course called ‘Change: Where Do I Go From Here?’ in Centre County Correctional Facility,” Zimmerman says. “It’s essentially an entrepreneurial thinking course. We’re trying to introduce new ways of thinking (e.g. coming up with novel ways to solve problems; seeing yourself in a new light as an entrepreneurial problem-solver). There’s also a little bit of job skill training. Each six- to eight-week course ended on a high note with many students recognizing their entrepreneurial potential and the instructors taken aback with the creativity we witnessed.”

Zimmerman says he and fellow instructor Liz Kisenwether “recognized that a microloan program could provide funding for startup costs and training.

“This would also be accompanied by mentoring from business owners and academics,” Zimmerman says. “We looked to the Awesome Foundation to establish our Re-Start Seed Fund. Thom Brewster, former director of Centre Peace, supported the idea of a no-interest loan for entrepreneurial returning citizens. Sadly, he passed away before we were awarded the Awesome Foundation Grant, but he still inspires our work.”

Currently, the Re-Start Centre County project is in the “awareness stage,” Zimmerman says, and COVID-19 has limited the number of inmates who are able to work at Centre Peace. Zimmerman and his team have assembled a group of people to approve applications and coach recipients.  

“Centre Peace has offered additional support – along with a donation from one of the instructors, Jack Matson – now bringing the total fund to $5,200 that we can use to nurture these new business ideas,” Zimmerman says. “It’s in everyone’s best interest that people return from incarceration with some skills, some hope, and some idea of the resources that can ease their return to society. We want to encourage those who are willing to pursue an entrepreneurial path and maybe someday generate jobs for themselves and others.”

‘All about taking action’

Marshall says the State College Awesome Foundation chapter is recruiting for additional trustees and offers community members the opportunity to contribute for someone else to be a “trustee proxy.”

“People who want to donate money, but don’t want to attend monthly meetings, etc., we can pair them up with somebody in town who is excited to do more of the [work] and spreading the word and voting and all of that, and somebody else can put in the hundred a month,” says Marshall. “We have a few people and a few companies who have sponsored an employee or something to represent them in the votes.”

Marshall adds that the foundation tries to support projects in the entire Centre County region, such as Philipsburg’s Centre Film Festival, so “we are not just entirely focused on State College.”

“It’s easy to sit back and just wish that our community had certain things,” Zimmerman says. “Organizations like the Awesome Foundation and the people supported by the grants are all about taking action. If you’re ready to get off the sidelines and be the change you want to see, there’s support out there. And even if you don’t get the grant immediately, you’re definitely going to get feedback, advice, and possibly introductions to like-minded people. Past recipients are happy to offer advice, and persistence in seeking this can pay off. So much can come from just applying!”


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Teresa Mull is a freelance writer in Philipsburg.