In Cincinnati, it pays to be awesome. Just ask Colleen O’Connell, the city’s first The Awesome Foundation grant recipient.
O’Connell devotes her spare time to concocting delectable dessert foods, catering specifically to those with allergies and dietary restrictions. She enjoys surprising people by bringing her baked goods to events she attends and distributing them to the public — a process she dubs Random Acts of Deliciousness (RAD). When a friend encouraged her to go bigger with her baking, O’Connell was introduced to The Awesome Foundation.
The Awesome Foundation is an organization of trustees who are seeking to help make their communities better, happier, more connected and — of course — more awesome. Cincinnati only joined the club this year, but the foundation was formed in Boston in 2009, and chapters already exist in 29 other U.S. cities and around the world. Roanne Lee, dean of the foundation’s Cincinnati branch, selected 10 trustees who are committed to donating $100 each month to one winning idea.
O’Connell was awarded $1,000 to fund a RAD happening. Her plan will come to life on an undisclosed day at a mystery location this month, when she and a group of volunteers will distribute cupcakes. Each cupcake will include a flag urging recipients to “Be RAD for a stranger today!” Cupcakes will also come with ingredient listings and information about RAD and The Awesome Foundation.
“Looking into the Awesome Foundation and their site, I thought it would be a really good opportunity to do what I wanted to do — to surprise people with kindness,” O’Connell says. “Just give them something to brighten their day and make them feel better about their city and more connected to other people.”
The organization’s guidelines are simple. To be considered for funding, Awesome projects must “bring communities together, casting aside social inhibitions and boundaries for a moment,” and “spark an instant of joy and delight and inspire a long-term hope for a more awesome future.”
Lee got involved with The Awesome Foundation after hearing about a project in San Francisco that involved a man, a bathtub and a dream.
Ray Oppenheimer wrote to his local The Awesome Foundation chapter that he had a vision of giving visitors gondola-style rides in a mobile bathtub along the Embarcadero Waterfront. His project was awarded the grant in May 2012.
“It was awesome!” Lee says. “So I was just like, ‘I need to do this!’ ”
And so The Awesome Foundation’s Cincinnati branch was born. Although Lee was new to the area, she managed to round up 10 trustees in a matter of months, including some of the biggest names in Cincinnati’s business community. “I am audacious about meeting people,” Lee says. “So literally one person would connect me to three people who connected me to three people and it was the first thing I did when I got here to the city in August.”
Once the lineup of trustees was in place, Cincinnati’s The Awesome Foundation was ready for its first grant recipient. The first search for local awesomeness yielded more than 50 eager applicants seeking financial aid to make their dreams come true. Any individual or business is welcome to apply for the grant online, but trustees are seeking someone with a clear, well-organized and executable plan.
The foundation’s process for selecting June’s winner was simple: Lee asked each trustee to read over the applications and pick his or her top three. She ranked each application by number of votes, and then opened up a discussion. Which idea was more awesome than the others? Who deserved $1,000 for their off-the-wall, groundbreaking idea?
O’Connell’s Random Acts of Deliciousness won the trustees’ votes and the foundation’s first grant for a number of reasons.
“It kind of opened the playing field that it can be anything that you could possibly want,” Lee says. “It sends a message about just being able to do whatever, and making sure your project was accessible to anyone. It doesn’t really matter what you do, it’s really just how you execute it.”
RAD wasn’t the only stellar idea that stood out from the pile of applications. One man wrote that he wanted to dress up in a suit that would give him the appearance of an old man. His project would involve wearing the suit and documenting his day in the life of an old person to create awareness in the community. Another memorable applicant envisioned preparing an enormous dinner for people who might have gone hungry over the summer.
Luckily, these ideas aren’t scrapped after the grant winner is named. The applications that weren’t selected to receive a grant in June will remain in the running for future grants. The goal is to keep the creative ideas flowing in order to keep making Cincinnati more awesome.
“It’s all about creating this new market to make sure that people are able, and encourage people to really go for really random ideas that they might not have the funds to support, but also as kind of a seed for bigger ideas,” Lee says. “We wanted to kind of instigate people to [start] thinking about what they can do with their resources and skills.”
O’Connell’s random idea transformed from a fun hobby to a large-scale community project thanks to The Awesome Foundation’s interest in making the city a better place. And she’s thrilled to be the first winner with the opportunity to spread the word about the organization.
“I think my biggest hope is that it will make people feel more connected to other people in their city and more likely to trust other people,” O’Connell says. “Food is kind of a window to other people and connects people on a very literal level. … I think that paired with gift giving is one of the most symbolic things you can do to join people in the community.”
Follow THE AWESOME FOUNDATION and grant winners at awesomefoundation.org. To get involved, email email@example.com.