How to make a project awesome

Erhardt Graeff ’06, ’07 (information technology, international studies) is a founding trustee of The Awesome Foundation. He lives in Somerville, Mass., and works as a graduate student and research assistant at the MIT Media Lab.

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.


The quality of unique or novel seems obvious, but what qualifies as unique is not necessarily wholly original. Remixes or mashups of ideas are strongly encouraged, especially art + science. Lee’s project blended community crafts with scientific activism, involving remote-controlled boats pulling water remediating plant pods along the Brooklyn Bridge Park coastline.


Real magic and learning occurs when you create something yourself. We have a strong preference for grants like Lee’s that are designed and built by the grantee. Even if you want to create a website for a cause, create the website yourself. Pouring your own passion directly into the project makes it awesome.


The other magic quality is fun. Playfulness and humor create spaces that invite more people to engage with an idea or project. Wild optimism is also encouraged to feed excitement and possibility. What could be a more enjoyable way to introduce others to environmental activism than by constructing floating gardens powered by remote-controlled toy boats?


We regularly encourage people to take one-off projects and turn them into events. Lee’s project was in part about a clever prototype for water remediation, but it was also about bringing people together around a cause. Think of any awesome project as a

platform that could be opened up to participation from others. If you are making something, teach others how to make it. Releasing your awesome into the world is a guaranteed way to create more awesome.


This quality has become more important as The Awesome Foundation has grown into a many-chapter network. But even when our chapter funds projects like Lee’s outside of Boston, we consider its connection to the location in which it’s situated—the community affected by East River pollution. Tailoring a project to a locality creates opportunities for greater impact and maximum inclusivity and increases awesome by coming full circle to enhance a project’s uniqueness.

The Awesome Foundation shares a lot of its philosophy of awesome with the slow food movement, which situates itself in contrast with “fast food.” For slow funding, we believe it’s important to raise public awareness about, improve access to, and encourage the enjoyment of funds that are local and sustainably grown. This drives our preference for local, DIY and open projects. A truly awesome project inspires others to participate and undertake their own awesome projects. Awesome should pay itself forward.

If you are interested in applying for an Awesome Foundation grant, go to To learn more about Lee Altman’s project, go to And to find out how to get involved or start a chapter in your area, visit our website’s FAQ. There are already 60-plus chapters around the world and growing. More awesomeness is our mission.

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