Making Miami awesome, one grant at a time

When Natalia Martinez Kalinina moved back to Miami after a decade in the Northeast, she knew she had to do something if she was going to make the experience a little more… awesome. “I was trying to figure out how to feel connected here, since so much time had passed since I had lived in Miami,” she said. “I knew about The Awesome Foundation and knew some of the people that had started it in Boston, and what really resonated with me was the idea to start small.”

Founded in Boston in 2009 by Internet entrepreneur Tim Hwang, The Awesome Foundation is dedicated to advancing projects that make the world more awesome by awarding $1,000 microgrants each month to a project of their choosing. Individual chapters of The Awesome Foundation are funded by a group of trustees — usually no more than 10 or 12 people. Each trustee contributes $100 on a monthly basis in order to support that month’s grant. Each chapter functions entirely on its own, and they decide together what projects are “awesome” enough to get their money that month. Since its founding, The Awesome Foundation has grown to include 82 chapters across 18 countries, raising more than $1.7 million to support roughly 1,700 projects. Kalinina founded The Awesome Foundation’s Miami chapter two years ago.

Small investments, surprising results

Unlike traditional backers, who often require a rather lengthy review process and can sometimes micromanage a project once it’s received funding, The Awesome Foundation likes to keep its parameters for funding quite loose. Since the sum of each microgrant is relatively small, the stakes aren’t as high. Projects don’t necessarily need to have a profound impact or a very defined roadmap for what’s next — a unique, even quirky, idea can often times be enough.

And while $1,000 may not seem like a whole lot of money when you’re trying to get a venture off the ground, Kalinina says that even a little bit can go a long way. “What I’ve found, and what I think Awesome Foundation proves, is that $1,000 injected in a mindful way at a critical stage of a project can actually have a substantive impact, and veer projects in very awesome directions,” she noted.

In some instances, a small contribution to an unconventional project has lead to far greater heights for budding awesomeness. Take, for example, the Ph.D. student who asked the Miami Awesome Foundation to back his analog method for testing liquids for contamination. “When we were reviewing his pitch, we all looked at each other and said, ‘We don’t really know exactly what’s going on, but it seems kind of awesome,’” Kalinina said. “We gave him $1,000 for his second pilot, and when we checked in with him a few months later, he had closed a crazy round of funding, raising like $800,000, which is really wild. We gave him the money to keep testing, and before long he was able to achieve a dream.”

Funding more than the “usual suspects”

Since awarding its first local grant in January 2013, the Miami chapter of The Awesome Foundation has doled out over $54,000 – quite an impressive number, considering the New York chapter, which has been in place since 2010, has only raised $45,000. In fact, the Miami chapter is one of the most successfully run chapters in The Awesome Foundation — which Kalinina credits to her “corporate brain” (“the other chapters all make fun of me,” she said) and the chapter’s mission to partner with local organizations in order to provide additional grants. That mission is twofold. Not only does it allow the Miami Awesome Foundation to grant additional funds, it also allows them to gain access to individuals who aren’t what Kalinina considers the “usual suspects.”

“We want to fund anybody and everybody. Not just the same people who are always doing cool stuff in Wynwood, but the housewives in Kendall, too,” Kalinina explained. “Those people might not necessarily come to us in the most natural way, so we seek partnerships and award additional grants through these partnerships.” Past and current partners have included the law firm Akerman and community services organization Catalyst Miami.

The Miami chapter also tends to take a somewhat different approach to funding projects. Rather than bankrolling random (though awesome) projects – like the New York chapter’s recent backing of a sandwich conference — the Miami chapter tends to look for projects that hinge on impact. “You can make your case, but we’re not interested in a random project where you can’t weave a narrative on making an impact in the Miami community,” Kalinina admitted.

According to Kalinina, the 12 or so trustees of the Miami chapter of The Awesome Foundation “did not know each other, so that it would remain diverse.” Together, they often scout idea makers in the community, and present those ideas to the Awesome Foundation for possible funding, though the organization also has a steady stream of applications every month. “We are not idea generators, we are idea supporters,” Kalinina said. “The whole idea is for people to come to us with ideas and think of us as a resource.”

As for whether founding the Awesome Foundation in Miami helped Kalinina settle back into Miami life, the answer is an unequivocal yes. “What makes me feel invested and go to bat in this community is my monthly Awesome Foundation meeting,” she says. “Doing what makes people feel like their ideas are worthy, that we’re a community that’s interested in their ideas? Now that feels awesome.”


Disclosure: The nonprofit organization of WhereBy.Us, The New Tropic’s parent company, received an Awesome Foundation grant in 2013.

By Nicole Martinez
Nicole is a freelance writer and crop top enthusiast based in Miami Beach. A lifelong 305-er, she loves finding new stuff to love in her city everyday.