How to make a project awesome



In July 2009, I helped start an organization called The Awesome Foundation in Boston. The basic idea is 10 “trustees” get together every month to pick the most awesome project submitted. That project then receives $100 from each trustee to create a $1,000 grant with no strings attached. We see this as filling a gap in philanthropy in which it’s nearly impossible to find small amounts of money for inspiring ideas that fail to fit into established categories of social good.

While we deliberately maintain no specific criteria for awesome projects, we have come to appreciate certain qualities that recur in the projects we fund. The following are five key qualities of awesome that I rely on, and how they are reflected in one of our earliest grants to Lee Altman’s “Eco-pod Armada” project involving easy-to-assemble aquatic phytoremediation devices to clean New York City’s East River.

Click, Meme, Hack, Change


We define Civic Media as the intersection of two spheres: civic engagement and participatory media. The read/write culture of participatory media suggests that issues of public interest and concern are now open to broader participation than in an earlier broadcast culture. We are seeing new forms of civic engagement emerge that go beyond voting and participating in political meetings, and involve techniques as well understood as online organizing and media creation, and as novel as protest through cyberattack.

Native to the participatory culture of the internet is the idea of the meme: ideas created by individuals that spread rapidly through acts of amplification and remix. Two years ago, discussions of memes mostly concerned lolcats and the occasional viral video. But memes now classify as widely-accepted political speech, receiving breaking news-like priority on television coverage of the 2012 US presidential election. Memes may have played a role in Obama’s victory, and certainly played a role in the Occupy movement’s media-based campaign against inequality.

Memes aren’t just clever phrases and funny words though, they are invitations to participate in behaviors modeled by others or to interpret through one’s own remix practices. The ramifications of this are starting to come clear in activisms like distributed denial-of-service (DDOS). Activist DDOS actions invite participants to engage with others across a distributed platform that joins their discrete actions into one coherent event, with strong implications for how these individuals identify as activists and community members later. The Low Orbit Ion Cannon (LOIC) is a tool for running a DDOS attack, designed and used by Anonymous in a variety of online actions. But LOIC is not simply a civic action tool; it has evolved to represent explicit strategies of media manipulation and identity construction for a community of activists under the guise of Anonymous.

But Civic Media is not all new tools; it’s also the traditional made new. has augmented the online petition with professional media outreach and top-tier strategists to make it a powerful force for building international campaigns. Successes include justice for Trayvon Martin and the selection of a female moderator for a US presidential debate. represents the growing legitimation of low barriers to entry online activism, disregarded as clicktivism or slacktivism, that provides access to powerful tools to those who may struggle to find their voice in most civic spaces.

These civic media practices all embody the participatory as accessible and inclusive practices, however their activations of distributed communities don’t fit neatly into accepted theories of change such as traditional organizing and lobbying. A theory of change for media activism hinges instead on winning the attention economy and pushing for cultural transformation. So what does this kind of framework for change mean in terms of civic media’s ability to scale or sustain? On which types of issues might it be most effective or least effective? And how are we able to study these practices quantitatively and qualitatively?

Associated Presentation

Binders Full of Election Memes: Expanding Political Discourse

Bots for Civic Engagement

Panel Description

From SmarterChild to the Low Orbit Ion Cannon to Horse_ebooks, humans have relationships of varying quality with bots. Mostly it’s commercial spam. But sometimes it’s less benign: for instance, the 2012 Mexican elections saw thousands of Twitter bots published by one candidate’s side denouncing the opposition with a flood of messages. There are countless examples of bots used for nefarious purposes, in America, Iran and elsewhere. What would a future look like where instead we see a proliferation of bots for positive civic engagement? Could we automate the distribution of civic information and education? Manipulate information flows to improve our welfare? Engineer reverse-Distributed-Denial-of-Service attacks? Should we? This panel takes a critical look at the discourse around, and architecture of, information overload to facilitate an important and timely debate around the engineering, usefulness, and ethics of bots for civic engagement.



An Open Letter to Patriotic Microphilanthropists

Originally posted at the MIT Center for Civic Media blog.

We applaud Bill Moyers and Arnold Hiatt’s “Open Letter to Patriotic Philanthropists” in the Winter 2013 Issue of Democracy. It’s an eloquent and timely call to action for “well heeled and well connected” donors to support work that is critical to the future of our nation and our world.

Political reform funding does suffer from an imbalance in resources between lobbyists and activists, caused in part by nearsightedness favoring quantifiable deliverables and risk aversion to innovative projects. However, we feel that we are only looking at one part of the reform movement. Many of the values we care about are as much cultural issues as they are explicitly political or legal issues. We should also be funding efforts to deliver cultural change, and doing so in a way that pushes cultural change itself.

An organization we are both affiliated with, The Awesome Foundation, likes to think of its model in terms of “slow funding,” like the slow food movement standing in opposition to “fast food,” by raising public awareness about, improving access to, and encouraging the enjoyment of funds that are local and sustainably grown.

With this in mind we offer an open letter of our own, a call to action for “Patriotic Microphilanthropists.”

Reading Moyers and Hiatt’s letter we couldn’t help but wonder what a Citizens’ United world means for us less well heeled folks. Is there any way for small dollar donations to have power in American politics when the entire population of San Jose would need to give $100 just to match Sheldon Adelson’s donations in 2012?

Yes, but only if small donors break out their thinking caps along with their credit cards. The changed political landscape requires that we combine the power of people and dollars in new ways. We need to find ways to create impact that is beyond the grasp of big dollars—whether they’re from Arnie Hiatt or Sheldon Adelson. There are an infinite numbers of ways to do this in politics and we are inspired by the incredible community of progressive organizers thinking about and working on solutions.

We think one of the potential best solutions comes from The Awesome Foundation, our own whimsical collection of small-time givers that has little to do with politics. Erhardt is one of the founding trustees of the original Boston chapter, and Sam is a trustee of the NYC chapter. Every month, we go to a bar in our respective cities and meet up with 10 fellow trustees. Each trustee puts in $100 of their own money to create a $1,000 communal pot. Then we read through submitted project ideas and try to reach consensus on which idea is the most “awesome” that month. Shortly thereafter, our chosen project organizer receives the one-time $1,000 grant with no strings attached at a little party in their honor.

The Awesome Foundation may be whimsical but it has an outsized impact. Founded in the summer of 2009, there are now 60+ chapters around the world that have given a total of $375,000+ in grants to 375+ projects. The impact is multiplied by access to local knowledge and projects, a community of supporters that grows every month, and a freedom to fund risky or whacky projects that would scare off traditional funders—all thanks to the power of “It’s Our Money!”

We call on Patriotic Microphilanthropists across America to start “People PACs” in their town. You won’t need any lawyers or money managers or snake oil selling political consultants.

You’ll just need to follow five easy steps:

  1. Gather together with 10 fellow patriots
  2. Ask everyone to put in $100
  3. Give all the money you collect to the politician, organization, or fellow citizen who is doing the most inspiring or creative work in your area to make sure the people get a fair shake
  4. Publicly announce and celebrate the project or individual endorsed by your city’s People PAC—parties encouraged
  5. Repeat every month

Over the past three years, The Awesome Foundation has funded an incredible array of projects from a giant hammock in Boston to youth street theatre in Edmonton to a Temple of Doom recreation in Washington, DC. In New York City, we spun out a new “Awesome Sandy” chapter just to support more of the awesome projects submissions we received related to hurricane relief. If we all work together, People PACs can start jumpstarting people power across the country by buying banners for the next Occupy, campaign signs for the next grassroots politician, and supporting a whole range of inspired people and projects who are otherwise marginalized by the focus on big money political machinery.

We hope that “well connected and well heeled” readers answer Bill and Arnie’s call to “fund the groups that fight for political reform.” But we also hope that the less well heeled readers do not read it as a call to sit back and wait for rich folks to start signing checks.

No! As The Awesome Foundation has proven in the philanthropic world, sustainably pooling small donations can be incredibly powerful. For too long, small donors have been relegated to bit roles in our nation’s political drama. Micah Sifry calls them the “suckers” of American politics “used and abused by campaign operatives who take their money, whisper promises of ‘you own this campaign’ in their thank-you email, and screwed by politicians who realize that these have no way to enforce their desires.” As Patriotic Microphilanthropists, we can never realize our full potential until we seize control of our own future instead of allowing ourselves to be donate-button-clicking zombies for the two major political parties.

It’s time to get money in. The irony would be far too sweet if it was cold hard cash that finally united citizens to fight back in a post-Citizen’s United America.

If you’d like to start a People PAC in your city send an email to

Sam Novey is an entrepreneur, organizer, and general troublemaker living in New York City. He is a Dean emeritus of the New York City Awesome Foundation

Erhardt Graeff is an entrepreneur and researcher at the MIT Media Lab and MIT Center for Civic Media. He is one of the founding trustees of The Awesome Foundation, and continues to serve as a trustee of the Boston chapter.