Nancy Edmonds Hanson
Brandi Malarkey was surfing the web at 3 a.m. when she came across an offbeat way to make a difference. It was a grassroots approach to making good things happen, fueled by one man’s frustration with finding formal funding for a novel project he had in mind. Instead of supplications to formal nonprofits and foundations, he put together a group of 10 friends who each contributed $100 to take a chance on his idea.
Malarkey, a woman with a creative mind that runs in all directions, tried the idea out on nine of her own pals and acquaintances here in Fargo-Moorhead. In August 2016, they declared themselves the Cass Clay chapter of the Awesome Foundation, and they were off and running. They presented their first $1,000 grant to Ainsley’s Angels, a local group that proposed to buy “freedom chairs” or running strollers, enabling children with limited mobility so they could have the opportunity to roll with the wind.
On Wednesday, the Awesome Foundation – a band of do-gooders bound by good hearts rather than by-laws – presented its 100th thousand-dollar grant to local artist Franklin Ugochukwu to support murals around Moorhead. The total given away to a melting pot of wild ideas and good causes in almost seven years: $100,000.
“Legally, we don’t exist,” says the cheerful woman who calls herself the dean of the foundation. “We’re not a nonprofit. Technically, our checks are gifts, not grants. This is a no-frills version of philanthropy. We have a very low-effort approach. This is for people and groups that don’t have ready access to other funding. It’s a way to try out good ideas.”
Good ideas have found their way to the foundation primarily through word of mouth. Applicants answer four questions on the group’s website: Tell us about your idea. Tell us who you are. Tell us what you plan to do with the money. And, finally, what is the deadline to make your idea happen?
A revolving roster of donors, currently 17 (including several couples), gathers online once a month to review the ideas that have been submitted. Using ranked-choice voting, each casts ballots for their top three choices. The winning submission is presented with a check for $1,000. The money is gathered from the $100 donations each trustee puts in the monthly pot. When excess money accumulates, that too is channeled into grants.
Malarkey says that while trustees come and go when their life situations change, the roster has remained fairly stable over the years. There is no pressure, no active recruitment. If the idea of free-form philanthropy appeals to someone, he or she is welcomed into the fold.
The “mother ship” of awesome giving is the Institute of Higher Awesome Studies, a playful center point for the 78 chapters that have formed themselves in 11 nations. Almost none are formally registered. All operate on their own terms, from the spontaneity of the Cass Clay group to more structured programs in other locales. Three others have taken shape in the Upper Midwest – one in Sioux Falls, two in the Twin Cities.
The Cass Clay chapter’s beneficiaries run the gamut so widely that they’re impossible to sum up in a neat list. They have ranged from a woman who raises goats for meat in need of goat-proof fencing, to a winter clothing drive for chilly young Spuds; from Red River Valley Kids Read, a book project in the F-M area, Grand Forks and Wahpeton, to a nature camp for preschool and elementary kids; and from Fargo-Moorhead Rocks, artists who paint rocks and hide them in parks as unexpected day brighteners, to “welcome home” baskets for formerly homeless people moving into their own apartments.
The ideas come from young, medium and old dreamers. Three 11-year-olds have received grants, including a girl who presented musical programs in assisted living for the elderly and people with disabilities. Ogochukwu, recipient of the 100th grant, is a Nigerian-born artist who plans to create a series of murals around the community.
“Some months, we get a ton of applications,” Malarkey reports. “At other times there’s a lull – maybe we get two.” They can remain in the waiting pool for up to six months. “By then, things have usually changed for them,” she explains. “But they’re welcome to reapply.”
The largest number of applications come from traditional nonprofits, though the funding is intended for those who don’t have access to other support. Recipients, she says, have been evenly split between NPOs, individuals, small businesses (often start-up) and community groups.
The foundation, says Malarkey, always welcomes awesome ideas – most of them centered around Moorhead, Fargo and West Fargo, but occasionally farther afield. For more information on past projects and to submit an application, visit the international website www.awesomefoundation.org and search for “Cass Clay.”