Too Big to Be Awesome: Big Giving and Its Discontents

    by Tim Hwang
    November 23, 2011

    At the Institute for Higher Awesome Studies, our latest research has focused on thinking about the origins of awesome ideas, and how organizations and institutions play a role in supporting (or inhibiting) the implementation of those projects in reality. The big, looming question in this work is simple: What does the current social infrastructure supporting awesomeness look like? And, how could we tweak it to make it better (or in the very least, suck less)?


    Obviously, the classic piece of social infrastructure that casts the longest shadow (and the biggest piles of money) over this discussion is the arena of Big Giving. This is a place familiar to anyone who has ever filled out a grant application, tried to get money for a community project, or otherwise interacted with a foundation or other non-profit.


    There are a few classic and well-tread problems in this traditional arena of philanthropy that are worth reviewing in thinking about the ecosystem of awesomeness. This is particularly true for thinking about the characteristics of projects that are likely to be systematically unsupported.

    The Challenges for Big Giving

    1. Big Giving is slow. This is partially legal, and partially a matter of organizational design. Where organizations are global, and with multiple layers of management, the processing of support to a project can take months, if not more than a year. Where needs are immediate, opportunity is temporary, and enthusiasm is high, the long latency of getting support to projects can grind the momentum of that project to a halt. Given a long enough time-frame, the window of opportunity might even close, making that support moot. The liquidity of money is important here: In certain cases, the $1 million that is impossible to actually access will be worth less than $10,000 you can use freely and immediately.
    2. Big Giving is risk-adverse. And who could blame them? The amounts given out are substantial, and non-profits are forced to answer to boards and donors that want to be satisfied that their money is going to a good cause. But that conservationism comes at a cost. Projects that are risky, that take a chance at something new, that are proposed by independent and unknown quantities, are less likely to be supported in such an environment.
    3. Big Giving is costly. Supporting staff and constant efforts to raise funds means that getting a grant from submission to actual funding results in large expenditures. Thus, evaluation of the quality of a grant tends to be invariant to the size of the amount requested. Whether $10,000 or $100,000 is to be given out, each entails similar processing costs. This tends, paradoxically, to mean that projects requesting resources below a certain scale (and thus less expensive) will systematically not be worth it for organizations to fund.

    However, even with all these weaknesses, it’s important to recognize that traditional non-profit work is an effective tool in its particular context. With massive resources to bring to bear on global problems, the 800-pound gorillas of the giving world can effect some significant changes. For the right project, having this type of institutional backing is a powerful and great thing.

    But the key concept is appropriate funding. By all means, not all projects require $100,000-plus level funding to make an impact. In point of fact, it’d be wrong to think that even the majority of insanely great ideas need that much money to be effective. Moreover, when you start to account for the fact that grants of money beyond a certain scale also begin to entail ever-increasing numbers of strings and red tape, it’s even possible that certain classes of projects are actually actively hindered from making a relevant impact as the size of the chunks of support they receive increases.


    Furthermore, even if a project eventually needs the level of support and funding that Big Giving can provide, it does not necessarily follow that it needs that level of funding right now! It’s wrong to think that great ideas (and the people that make them happen) appear instantaneously from the ether. Starting small and permitting organic growth gives a chance for a critical level of expertise and experience to congeal on a team, and gives breathing room to those projects to quickly try out many different things to see what works.

    Awesome is a lifecycle, not just a end goal. Correspondingly, support should be tailored for where in the lifecycle a project or an idea is, not necessarily where the granting organization imagines it to be.

    sustainable and innovative is tastier

    Like the movement around Slow Food is driving for a more careful consideration of agricultural cultivation — I think it behooves organizations to also think about Slow Funding, a more careful consideration of idea cultivation that eschews the forcing of engineered growth on great things. Organically grown awesome is more sustainable, more innovative, and is often tastier, to boot.

    What we need to do is think more precisely about the broader ecosystem and how the pieces fit together. Some of the rhetoric around the New Giving online platforms that have emerged in recent years — DonorsChoose, Kickstarter, Kiva, and so on — has been framed in confrontational terms.

    Big Giving is something that’s going to be rendered irrelevant by the rise of these new, distributed platforms, we might think. But that isn’t quite right. These platforms are funding projects that have systematically been unable to get funding from Big Giving in the past. Some of these projects will happily exist for their entire lifecycle within this new ecosystem of platforms; others will need a bridge to get them to the land of traditional Big Giving to scale ever larger. The important thing is that institutional and social links exist to allow this bridging to happen (and for big funding projects to cross seamlessly back into the land of New Giving as well).

    A focus on “slow funding” suggests that different projects will need different packages of support as they grow. What we’re hoping to do at the Awesome Foundation for the Arts and Sciences is to build precisely this locus of support. Beyond the $1,000 that chapters give out monthly in flexible, informal ways, we’ve increasingly seen those same chapters start funding at the very beginning — and to be a partner that continues to help support their projects as they grow by providing the link to supportive social infrastructure, both old and new.

    Image courtesy of flickr user CafeYak.com.

    Tagged: awesome awesome foundation big giving dinosaurs funding grants philanthropy

    Comments are closed.

  • Who We Are

    MediaShift is the premier destination for insight and analysis at the intersection of media and technology. The MediaShift network includes MediaShift, EducationShift, MetricShift and Idea Lab, as well as workshops and weekend hackathons, email newsletters, a weekly podcast and a series of DigitalEd online trainings.

    About MediaShift »
    Contact us »
    Sponsor MediaShift »
    MediaShift Newsletters »

    Follow us on Social Media