Announcing Feather Grants
an extremely “micro” grant + can $500 make a difference?
This was originally supposed to be a post about why it’s often hard to do good things, with this announcement tacked on at the bottom. But like the other half-a-dozen essays I attempted this month, that question alone grew into its own multi-thousand word essay (gotta love scope creep), meaning it would be weeks before I ever finished it. And so you have this seperate, more direct bulletin instead. Which is perhaps for the better since it lets me add much more detail to the whole thing.
Note: At many points in this post, I say something like "This is not a big deal, it's just an experimental project that exists because I wish it did". Because that is the most likely outcome, and want to let people know that I know it. If it does end up being a big deal, all the better! But a low relative benefit is not something I'm discouraged by, there is still alpha in small things.
For those who would prefer to skip the thousand or so words that come after this, here’s the TLDR (I go over these points and more in the rest of this post):
Feather Grants (website, Twitter, firstname.lastname@example.org) is a microgrants program will fund people to whom small amounts of money would be sufficient capital and/or encouragement (obviously this will primarily be young folk), across a multitude of fields ranging from art to science to sport (and anything else worth funding).
The current grant amounts are $150 and $500 respectively. Ideally they’d be like, $250 and $1000 instead (and maybe they will soon), but I believe that even these amounts are large enough to matter significantly.
One way that we hope to find talent is through the Scout program, which is just a way for people to recommend individuals they think are worth funding, and even fill out applications on their behalf. Scouts aren’t a formal position, just people who’s judgement we trust enough to act upon. If you want to tell us who to fund, do it!
We try to be capital-light, in both our operations and fund-raising. We only actively seek funding if we have someone to fund, holding only $1000 in reserve otherwise. I’ve pledged $150 a month for as long as I can afford it.
We may be wrong about the effectiveness of such a “small” amount of money, and these grants will never actually make a difference.
I’ve not figured out what the best way to create and run a non-profit is in my country (India), amd I might never need to, if the project stays small. I’ll be holding crypto donations in wallets (yes, as USDC) while I figure out scenario-specific taxes and other details. Transferwise also works, and I’ll set up additional channels if necessary. Any advice here is welcome.
The (possibly) ugly:
It’s impossible to find people who would put money to good use, the world is filled with scammers and low-agency grifters. Grant organisations should give up.
Despite my stated good intentions and fairly trustworthy public profile, I should not be in charge of distributing money. Someone else should do this.
It is morally wrong to give money to anybody other than GiveWell. People are literally dying because we aren’t coughing up the required $5000 or so.
It’s incredibly hard to figure out the logistics of evaluating applications, gathering funding and sending money overseas, and I’m going to regret ever starting this project.
A question I’ve asked too many times already is “should this even exist?”
I was talking to Dwarkesh Patel about the rapid growth in the EA grant scene, the whether really tiny grants were kinda silly in comparision, and he said “It’s always guys at like, FAANG or places like that who think you need $100k to do anything meaningful. Everyone else knows you need far less.”
He’s right. I could have used this. And I’d be surprised if I was the only one.
And this is perhaps the main reason why Feather Grants exists. If it does get any bigger than a couple grants every month, great! That’s more people helped, and I can look for ways to source more capital. But even if there are just a handful of young folk who could use the money, I think it’s a good thing that there’s a place they could possibly get it.
Okay, but what can you even do with just a few hundred dollars?
In most third world countries, $500 is the average full month’s salary for a city-based white-collar employee. And even $150 is enough to fund:
Half a dozen websites
5 (really cheap) guitars, or 2 violins, or a Yamaha keyboard.
At least a year’s worth of training equipment for most sports
22 copies of Strang’s “Linear Algebra and it’s Applications” or 1-and-a-half copies of Spivak’s “Calculus (hardcover edition)”
But these are just material examples of what the money can buy directly. The thing I’m really excited about is the value that would otherwise go uncreated. Stuff like translations and personal experiments and writing and communities and art.
The difference between no money and any money is…pretty incredible. From what I’ve seen, most lucky breaks/cool things/serendipitous outcomes come from having the freedom to take a “free shot”: a throwaway attempt at something with minimal cost. A chance to chase go down a rabbit hole, without worrying too much about where you’ll come out or if the time was worth it.
But “minimal cost” is a factor that varies greatly between individual circumstance. I can afford to like, buy a textbook, or a trumpet, or a Digital Ocean droplet, without worrying too much if the plans for them don’t go anywhere. And in the long run, that is a big deal!
Sure, an abundance mindset can exist separate of material circumstance, constraints breed creativity, you can’t buy grit, etc. etc. But a few dollars go a long way, and the small size should self-select for people with a fairly specific plan to use it. $500 isn’t worth the time spent applying, unless you have a real need for it.
Another thing that makes me bullish on small amounts of capital distributed to promising young individuals is the fact that we’re only halfway to global internet access. 4 billion people are waiting to come online, of which, the vast majority come from exactly the sort of developing nation where $500 is a big deal.
This might make me sound like one of those poor chaps at McKinsey, pointing to an upward-trending graph and saying “100% predicted growth”, but it’s true nonetheless. Each of those billion people are individuals; of whom only a tiny, tiny percentage will ever hear about Feather Grants, but are worth creating this for.
There’s also people who’s judgement I trust who’ve said similar things. Here’s a couple samples:
In general, it’s usually not worth worrying about hypotheticals before you’ve even done the thing. In this case, a failed grant org would be better than no grant org.
Another question worth asking is “Does this already exist?”
And well, internet-first micro-grants are definitely not a novel idea. The best example of which is Emergent Ventures. But that’s usually a multi-thousand dollar grant, which necessitates more selectiveness. Here are a list of the ones that come closest to what I’d like Feather Grants to be.
• Inflection Grant (America-only)
• Gaur and Chopra Escape Velocity Grant (India-only)
• The Awesome Foundation (split into local chapters)
• The 1517 Medici Project: (the closest one yet)
As part of 1517 Medici Project, you and your collaborators will be granted a minimum $1K stipend to further your project. I love the way they used to do things before it became an official project:
“We continued to give out hundreds of $1K grants in a mysterious fashion — meeting wily young people in person on campuses at office hours, hackathons, frat houses, and high school classrooms across the country. Until today, we haven’t marketed our grants because there is a quality of magic that happens when giving these out on the road, serendipitously meeting a great teen to work with and surprising them on the spot. No application, no competition theatre, just seeing that glint of passion and excitement in a teen’s eyes to make something greater.”
To be honest, this is the ideal. I plan to look for ways to do this myself alongside a regular application process. Applications often suck, but are the only way to keep things open to new people.
Paras and Aakanksha also do good work with the Escape Velocity grants. They funded a microphone and guitar for my small band1 before I had the ability to pay for stuff like that myself. This let's us record an album with like, more than just an iPad microphone. It's great.
But even if there are other people/organisations in the same niche, there’s still a benefit to having more. Ingroup preference and other forms of bias are pretty much unavoidable; it’s hard to trust people we can’t legibilise through our regular lenses. And so an ecosystem of multiple types of organisations is a good thing if it means more variety in who gets funded.
If you can’t rely on other grantmakers or credentials, you’ll rely on prejudices and heuristics
When you’re truly lost in a giant multidimensional space that requires ten forms of expertise at once to make real progress, you’ll retreat to prejudices and heuristics. That’s what credentialism is, that’s what relying on other grantmakers is, and - when you have neither Harvard nor Patrick Collison to save you, you’ll rely on that one blog post you read that one time saying X never works. - Scott Alexander
The hard part is, of course, actually finding people for whom $500 is a meaningful amount, and who plan to use it well2. But I prefer that this exist so that when you do find those people, you know where to point them.
And now it does.
Because we are a relatively informal, exploratory organisation, we're looking to come in at as early a stage as possible. Even complete beginners are welcome to seek our support, as long as you can prove you're worth taking a bet on. Either through past proof-of-impresiveness, (even in unrelated fields) or sheer force of character.
That being said, having a body of (any) work makes it much more likely that we will fund you. We like people who've been in the trenches and are looking to play the long game. The money is only a small part of the value we're trying to build here.
Like I mentioned in the TLDR section, I’m putting $150 of my own money into this each month. This allowed me to launch without any outside funding. But since then, Dwarkesh and Pradyumna have both chipped in, which was really cool of them.
As with any project that matters, the long-run is the only worthwhile measure of success. The excitement of launching, or funding the first couple people, means nothing if there’s no continuous process to keep the program going.
Part of this process is the idea of scouts: people out there looking for talent in the real world, not just these corners of the internet. Think of it as a referral program, except referrers are paid in trust and goodwill. If I trust your judgement, I can fund people you tell me are worth funding without an application process, or them having to hear about Feather Grants directly.
This could be the most important part of all. Few of the “very online and ingroup” demographic are in need of capital, but they might know people who are. Promising young folk with their heart in the right place for whom a little bit of money + encouragement would go a long way. The bright kid on your street, the girl at the book club, the thoughtful volunteer at the shelter; tell us about them.
A couple months after I first thought of the idea of scouts, I saw something similar proposed by Adam Mastroianni over Experimental History, a program he calls Trust Windfalls. Which is what the scout programme could look like, if this thing got bigger.
The funder identifies a trusted individual who knows good potential grant recipients. This person becomes their anonymous Agent.
The Agent gives unrestricted grants––Trust Windfalls––to people they know well. The recipients don’t know they’re being evaluated.
The Agent then passes the baton to a second Agent, ideally someone on the edge of their social network, who knows a different set of good potential grant recipients.
Repeat Steps 2-4.
We also scout for scouts. Keeping in touch with people with contacts and good taste to find more promising young people with capital constraints. But being a scout itself isn’t a big deal. Anyone can refer people, and we’ll remember the good ones.
In the future, we could also expand to a model of modern patronage. Connecting people with a sponsor that remains involved with funding and other assistance over a longer time period. Lots of ideas here.
Sure, in some way, I’m claiming that we're among the greatest funds ever. With the incredible ability to find people and projects that can be encouraged by a measly $500, with payoffs worth multiples of that. But this is just a question of the existence of diamonds in the rough.
I believe this low-hanging fruit exists. And is way more common than billion-dollar company ideas! Traditional funding looks for things with really high (mostly financial) payoffs, but there's an order of magnitude more projects that lie just under that bar. You see examples of it all the time, usually prefaced by the words “it was a ridiculously small gesture but…”.
And this is a weird thing to think about. The cruelty/kindess of raw chance, the unexpected course change. If small nudges can create incredibly powerful shifts in outcomes, it places a rather large burden of responsibility on all our actions. Which is not something that’s particularly fun to live with.
It isn’t something that lends itself well to cost-benefit analysis either, there are simply too many counterfactuals to consider. How many small moments of serendipity lead to amazing outcomes? Would a phone call have saved your grandmother? I don't know, but it's probably enough to drive the chaos theorists insane.
Things might move mountains, they might go absolutely nowhere. But it’s worth considering both those possibilities nonetheless.
I may intially have had irrationally large hopes for what this could be, but now I think it’s best to start of small. And am grateful to all the people who provided feedback on the proposal all those months ago. And all the ideas they had for how small amounts of money could help.
In particular, I’m glad Uzay kept asking me how the project was going. Not just because it got me to decide that a less-ambitious version was a good thing in itself, but because knowing at least one other person thought this was worth doing is what made it worth doing.
Even with these grants, things aren’t really about the money. Sometimes (very often, in fact), it's enough to know that there are people out there who care about what you're doing. And want you to continue enough to fund you.
That might just make all the difference.