About 10 months ago, the #CharlotteIsCreative team and I started giving away HUGs.
What are HUGs? Helpful Unfettered Gifts.
HUGs are $250 no-strings-attached microgrants we gift to Charlotteans with creative ideas that need a push – be they artistic, entrepreneurial, social, civic, educational, for-profit, not-for-profit, vocational, avocational, what-have-you. We know $250 isn't life-changing money, but it may be just enough to get a modest initiative going or keep an existing endeavor growing. That’s why we call it "nudge money."
More importantly, we designed the HUG Program in hopes that it would help Charlotte citizens sidestep two common challenges that tend to derail creative ideas: access to resources and fear of failure.
How can this approach help improve our city?
First, let’s look at the fear of failure. Understandably, some big-dollar funders can be hyper-focused on project success, leading recipients to slip into never-ending planning, elaborate projections or byzantine project management structures. While perhaps necessary for some projects, it’s the death of many others. And it presupposes that there’s no value in trying and failing.
Next, let’s address ease of access. More traditional grant processes can be daunting, especially when it’s your first time or you’ve been rejected. That can keep people – not to mention their ideas and change-making potential – on the sidelines.
As Charlotte wrestles with economic mobility, these two barriers are holding us all back – in part, because inaccessibility and fear of failure feed an even more insidious enemy: inaction. That’s why the “u” in HUG – “unfettered” – is so important. After all, generous funders like Knight Foundation and Reemprise Fund have been showing us that betting on our people is a good investment.
Is it possible that a new culture of strings-free philanthropy is a necessary element to push Charlotte – and other communities around the country – forward? We think so. And, we’re not alone in that.
This April, I sat on a feedback panel as part of the McColl Center’s Creative + Connected Charlotte program. As the participants presented their ideas about how to create a more collaborative city, one group’s radical prototype particularly resonated with me: a new societal system in which entities with power (money, resources, etc.) transfer a consequential amount of their power to entities without. No application, no metrics, no requisite project, no strings. Then, the gifting entity shifts into service to the receiving entity, helping them create whatever they want to create.
How amazing would it be if our city became a model of modern philanthropy, breaking all the rules of giving? We could do it by happily handing funds over to folks who don’t write the perfect grant application in fluent “grantese.” We could do it by empowering our communities to decide how best to use gifted resources, and by trusting them with self-oversight and self-accountability.
It’s a huge, exciting, unorthodox idea – one that would be uniquely additive and significantly disruptive to our current philanthropic system. Also, hard to imagine. Because how do you quantify passion? Can you track someone’s heart in a spreadsheet? Can you forecast social good? Sure, we're a banking town, but some vital currencies are hard to measure: generosity; belief; trust.
And small sparks (or tiny love-bombs of cash) can start a big fire.