Ariel Nessel makes a lot of money, and he wants to give away as much of it as he can. So late last year, the 39-year-old Dallas real-estate developer decided to provide a $1,000 grant every day of 2013 and beyond to support individuals’ small, grass-roots efforts.
Mr. Nessel has long been making regular gifts to charities that focused on social justice, animal rights, and promoting plant-based diets. Over the past five years, he says, he gave more than $700,000 in total.
By his mid-30s, however, he found himself longing for a deeper philanthropic experience.
“I was writing, say, 12 big checks a year, but that form of being generous didn’t leave me feeling nurtured inside,” says Mr. Nessel. He wanted to be more directly involved in the causes he cared about, so he thought he would sell his company and go to work for a charity himself.
However, he says, when he approached nonprofit leaders, they each responded the same way: It was great that he wanted to help them, but what they needed most was his money.
So he kept working at his company, making money to give away and writing the same big checks to the groups he had always supported.
But he also decided to adopt a new and highly personal approach to giving.
“I thought, instead of giving a few times a year, why not give every day, and right to the people who are doing the work?” Mr. Nessel says.
A Grant Maker Blooms
Mr. Nessel turned his idea into a grant-making foundation called the Pollination Project, with the help of his sister-in-law, Stephanie Klempner. (She now sits on its board.)
He has pledged to provide enough money from his personal fortune to pay for the $1,000-grant-a-day approach, plus the salary of Alissa Hauser, a veteran of traditional nonprofits, who was named executive director. Mr. Nessel says he plans to provide the money well beyond a year, but he hasn’t been more specific. The Pollination Project has also attracted a $25,000 donation from a family foundation, though the fund doesn’t want to be named.
Ms. Hauser comes to the Pollination Project after five years running the Engaged Network, a group she co-founded that seeks to train citizen activists to be more effective.
In recent months, she and Mr. Nessel made sporadic “beta test” gifts (two to three each week) to early applicants so the project would be ready to kick off formally on New Year’s Day. Leah Lamb, a filmmaker, received the first award of 2013 for her short pro-environmental videos made for broadcast via social media.
The decision to give small grants directly to individuals comes from Mr. Nessel’s belief that “power is no longer with organizations as much as it is with people.”
He points to the Occupy and Tea Party movements. “Individuals with passionately held views and values are free to make these concrete in innovative and creative ways,” he notes. “When you give them funding to put behind these ideas, it’s a very powerful thing.”
And indeed, the Pollination Project grantees look to be as different from conventional grant seekers as the foundation itself is from traditional funds.
In October, the organization’s first “beta test” grant went to Alex Sandoval, a 17-year-old senior at a Los Angeles high school who last year organized a performance troupe that gives lively multimedia safe-sex presentations at high schools throughout the city.
Ms. Sandoval used some of the money to buy props for the group’s shows and some to have T-shirts made for troupe members to wear while performing.
“We are technically a school club, and our request for T-shirt funding was turned down because the design features a condom,” she says.
Receiving the Pollination Project grant was an enormous boost, says Ms. Sandoval. “Because we are teens addressing sex, our group is hard for some people in the school community to support or even acknowledge.”
She says that the Pollination Project’s public investment gave her group credibility and meant it didn’t have to dumb down performances to get money.
Even though the Pollination Project just started its grant-a-day project, it’s already seeking to expand by attracting new donors beyond Mr. Nessel.
One possibility, says Ms. Hauser, is for the foundation to assemble lists of projects so donors “could look over and pick one to fund, maybe in honor of a special day like a birthday.”
As it seeks to grow, it is already thinking about ways to make its process more efficient.
To reduce the costs of assessing how to award each of its 365 grants for the year, it is giving large chunks of money to a few well-established organizations that can pick the best grass-roots recipients.
One such award went to Youth for Environmental Sanity, a San Francisco charity, which disbursed a $10,000 grant to 10 people who run projects in its global network.
Shilpa Jain, the group’s leader, says that the Pollination Project approach is extremely useful for small projects in developing countries because the relatively small award will go a long way.
She also praises the organization’s willingness to support a wide variety of programs.
“Many foundations are so narrow in what they’re willing to fund, and the reporting requirements can be burdensome,” Ms. Jain says.
Groups like hers, which work with a large number of nonprofits doing simultaneous small projects in many places, can spend a disproportionate amount of time documenting expenditures and results, she says.
The only drawback to the Pollination Project’s current grant-making approach that Ms. Jain sees is that the award amount is potentially too small to create impact in countries like the United States and Canada.
Most of the grants will not be disbursed to large groups, however. The foundation is committed to giving money to individuals, whether their projects are officially registered as charities or not. (Pollination issues a Form 1099 to individuals if it awards more than $600 to them in a calendar year, because a grant not given directly to a charity is taxable income for most individual recipients.)
The foundation’s board members select grant winners from a pool of applicants. People who work on projects involving environmental, social justice, and community health get highest priority.
Anyone can apply directly through the group’s Web site, and the project is spreading the word about the grants on social media.
But the project has thus far been so low profile in philanthropy circles that when The Chronicle asked two big grant makers in Mr. Nessel’s hometown about it, neither the Communities Foundation of Texas or the Dallas Foundation said it had enough knowledge of the effort to comment.
Trust and Reporting
Mr. Nessel is giving recipients $500 immediately, then the rest after grantees provide a progress report stating what they have accomplished.
After that, beneficiaries must file a short report detailing how they spent the money, their accomplishments, and what they have learned; photos or a short video of the project in action are also required.
“We are, of course, interested in accountability and outcomes, but if you require too much measurement, there is a risk of crushing the very effort you’re attempting to support,” Ms. Hauser says.
“So we are approaching this from, trust the person and believe they will use the money to make amazing changes.”
Mr. Nessel understands that his checks by themselves are not enough. “Money is such an underachiever on its own,” he says.
But given at a propitious moment, even a small amount can “exponentially expand and magnify work that is already being done,” he says. “We don’t want to build the plane. Our aim is to be the air under its wings, so it can get liftoff.”