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Project Shine a Light (above) by Aaron Yeoh sets up two goalposts for blind students in Laos so they can pursue their passion for futsal.

Poets on Permits by Upneet Kaur- Nagpal is a documentary on five migrant workers who love poetry.

Dive without Barriers (above) by occupational therapist Alesia Koh introduces diving to people with physical disabilities.

Awe-inspiring giving

The Awesome Foundation's mini-grants fund ideas that uplift society.
Jul 1, 2016 5:50 AM

WHEN Christen Chen explains the concept of The Awesome Foundation to people in Singapore, most react with disbelief. "They look at me like I'm crazy," says the 35-year-old Taiwanese-American founder. "I guess it's difficult to understand why people would just give money to complete strangers."

The Awesome Foundation was started in Boston in 2008 to distribute mini-grants of US$1,000 to people with ideas who need assistance to get them off the ground. A board of trustees comprising nine or more people shares the cost of funding these ideas personally and equally, without any corporate backing or sponsorship.

It has since spread to 83 other cities around the world including Stockholm, Dubai and Buenos Aires, and was launched here in March.

Ms Chen, who moved to Singapore when she was nine, completed her university and post-graduate studies in the US before returning to Singapore in 2007. The financial services professional took a sabbatical in 2015, whereupon she encountered the Awesome Foundation in New York and decided to launch a local chapter upon her return to Singapore in January this year. She says: "The model of the initiative was so interesting to me because I'd never seen anything like it before despite my philanthropy background. When I sat down with the other trustees to discuss the applicants, I was also blown away by their creativity."

Her favourite project proposed the eradication of advertisement from public spaces such as bus stops.  She explains: "The applicant wanted people to choose what they saw in public places through a voting system instead. He argued that shared community spaces should be advertisement-free so people weren't subjected to the virulent marketing campaigns all around us anyway."

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"Although," she adds: "It wasn't a unanimous vote because some trustees thought it was borderline vandalism!"

The Taiwanese-American - who spent her growing up years in Singapore - moved back here and wanted to start a local chapter of The Awesome Foundation to supplement her already busy career in the financial services industry.

She says: "Every city is a good fit for this as long as it has people who want to help others and social issues that need addressing. The foundation isn't just a grant-giving organisation, but also a vehicle to promote creativity."

The Singapore chapter has received 10 to 15 submissions each month since it became operational, which Ms Chen is satisfied with "considering we're still young and haven't been able to dedicate our resources to marketing ourselves."

The nine full-time trustees, along with guest trustees, meet on the first Thursday of every month. Prior to the meet, each individual logs onto the foundation's online platform (through which applicants submit their proposals) and shortlists their top three picks. The votes are then tabulated and the top three submissions are discussed at the monthly meetings to decide who will receive the S$1,000 grant.

The one prerequisite? "It has to be awesome," states Ms Chen. "That's hard to define, but the whole point is to break down the barriers of traditional philanthropy, not to create new ones. But usually, projects that help others are awesome."

The first grantee was Upneet Kaur-Nagpal who wanted to make a documentary titled Poets on Permits about five migrant workers who took part in a poetry competition held last year at the National Library.

In Ms Kaur-Nagpal's application, she wrote: "With this documentary, I hope to lift weary perspectives on migrant workers in Singapore. Sharing their stories through their poetry will feature their talents, and also bring us closer as a society - realising that, at the end of the day, we may have different challenges but our goals are the same - of home, love and happiness."

The second project, Dive without Barriers, was proposed by occupational therapist Alesia Koh who wanted to introduce diving therapy to people with physical disabilities, while the third, Shine a Light by Aaron Yeoh aimed to set up two goalposts so visually impaired students at the Laos Association for the Blind can pursue their passion for futsal.

Once the trustees have decided who will receive the grant, they do a phone interview with the potential grantee. If they are satisfied that the applicant is sincere and will see the project to fruition, then the S$1,000 is released.

Ms Chen says: "It's actually quite easy to gauge the enthusiasm and sincerity of a person through a phone conversation. We don't insist on any timelines, or ask for a budget. It's about trusting people; you have to trust that these are good people who want to help others, so why make them work so hard for S$1,000?"

Financial assistance isn't the only thing the Foundation offers. With the differing backgrounds and social networks of each of the trustees, grantees are encouraged to seek their help if they need specific advice, marketing support, or even to tear down the red tape.

The biggest challenge Ms Chen has faced with this initiative has been in getting the word out, and making people understand that they're legitimate. The scepticism she has received was unexpected, to say the least.

She notes: "I think we need to change the paradigm. People think that you have to be a philanthropist or in a position of power to help others, and that's just not true.  We hope that the Foundation can help change that mindset and empower everyone to become a solution themselves."

For more information on The Awesome Foundation Singapore, please visit