A WEEKLY FEATURE FOUND ONLY IN THE CALGARY HERALD PRINT EDITION
Meet Lori Stewart, left, and Reg Tiangha of the Awesome Foundation — a group of regular Calgarians who have handed out thousands of dollars to fund great ideas and events with the goal of making our city a little more ‘awesome.’
Nothing’s off the table. We look for something different, something offbeat. If it can solicit a collective, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome,’ then it’s the perfect pitch.
The premise is simple. Every month, a group of ordinary Calgarians gather to hear “pitches” from local residents. An invention, a piece of art, a festival or community event — whatever your idea, the board of trustees of the Awesome Foundation is willing to hear it. And if you’re lucky, they may give you $1,000 cash to help make it a reality.
It’s a bit like the popular CBC television show Dragons’ Den, only with more heart, said Awesome Foundation trustee Reg Tiangha.
For one thing, the people handing out the money aren’t multimillionaires; they’re regular Calgarians who choose to contribute $100 a month from their own pockets for the cause. And, in this case, the goal isn’t to see a return on investment or find the next big thing — it’s simply to uncover great ideas, and make our city a little more “awesome” in the process.
“Nothing’s off the table,” Tiangha said. “We look for something different, something offbeat. If it can solicit a collective, ‘Oh my God, that’s awesome,’ then it’s the perfect pitch.”
The Awesome Foundation, which was first launched in Boston in 2009, has since expanded to include nearly 40 chapters worldwide. The Calgary chapter was founded by Lori Stewart and will celebrate its one-year anniversary this month with a celebratory “pitch night” on April 26, at Endeavor Arts and Design Gallery.
Stewart, who worked on Mayor Naheed Nenshi’s election campaign team in 2010, said she was looking for a way to shine the spotlight on what she calls “the vibrant subsurface of Calgary” when she heard about the Toronto chapter of the Awesome Foundation on the radio.
“There’s so much awesome in this city. My goal was to bring it up to street level,” Stewart said.
Stewart quickly formed a board made up of likeminded people willing to invest $100 of their own money each month.
Tiangha, a Calgary IT professional by day, said he joined because the microfinance concept appealed to him, and because he wanted to have a personal stake in his own charitable efforts.
“Sure, you can give $100 a month to a charity and get a tax receipt, but you don’t have a say in where the money goes specifically and you don’t know if it has an impact.
“This way, you’re funding an artist or a student with a great idea directly,” Tiangha said.
“What really sold the Awesome Foundation to me was the fact that it’s ordinary Calgarians of ordinary means allowing other people to pursue their ideas and dreams . . . no matter how wacky they are.”
So far, the Awesome Foundation has been a rollicking success in Calgary.
With no shortage of monthly pitches, the chapter has awarded $12,000 in cash since its inception, and the prize winners have been varied.
Examples of funded projects include a program aimed at teaching the art of documentary-making to junior high students, an event designed to celebrate the history of historic BJ’S Gym in Calgary’s East Village, and an “audiomob” aimed at highlighting the importance of public spaces in the city.
Even Timmy’s Only, the downtown coffee and doughnut delivery business launched by formerly homeless Tim Barber, received funding from the Awesome Foundation.
By now, the Awesome Foundation’s monthly pitch nights, called “Thousand Dollar Thursdays,” have become so popular that they have started drawing audiences.
Calgarian Matt Hamel, who applied to the Awesome Foundation last summer in hopes of getting funding for his “Free Classic Movie” idea, has first-hand knowledge of the organization’s effect.
After his proposal was embraced by the board of trustees, Hamel was able to get a projector, rent some speakers and offer a free screening of Casablanca under the stars at the Simmons mattress factory site in East Village.
He plans to continue offering Calgarians free outdoor movies throughout the summer of 2012.
“A lot of people may have a good idea, but they have a hard time writing a formal grant proposal. Ad grant money usually has to be used in a very specific way,” Hamel said.
“The Awesome Foundation has this idea that it’s ‘no strings attached’ money, and that’s great.”
In fact, Hamel said he is such a fan of the Awesome Foundation’s work that he hopes to become involved in the other side of the process someday.
“I’m hoping I can find the $1,200 sometime in the future to actually be one of the trustees,” he said.
It’s exactly that kind of re- ciprocal support that makes Awesome Foundation trustees believe they are part of something special.
While not every pitch ends up a winner, the publicity that people receive from the Awesome Foundation often turns out to be invaluable.
Sometimes, people in the audience at the monthly pitch nights even offer to lend their own knowledge and expertise to particular projects, or are able to refer a project to another source of funding.
In the end, Stewart said the organization is all about making Calgary better, by giving people the confidence to pursue their dreams.
“This is a lot less about the money and a lot more about believing in people and their ideas,” Stewart said.
“When you believe in someone, it’s the biggest support you can give them.”
The Awesome Foundation is always looking for Calgarians interested in taking a turn on the board of trustees. Individuals must be willing to commit $100 a month, for either a six-month or one-year term.