Got a Great Idea? This Woman’s Got a $5,000 Check with Your Name on It
Like most people, you probably have some kind of dream, a big idea you stew over obsessively and can’t stop talking about—whether that be moving to Paris, establishing a nonprofit, or building some kind of solar perpetual motion machine in the garage. So why don’t you get off your butt and actually pursue your goals?
I’d bet many people would say money is one of the biggest factors holding them back. That’s why Nadia Eghbal is daring people to take that next life leap by giving away her own money to strangers via the internet, a decision she explained in an April 3 blog post titled “$5,000, no strings attached.”
Eghbal, who works at open source giant GitHub developing sustainability initiatives for free software projects, says giving away the money is her way of “paying it forward” years after her own career was buoyed by a grant she received from The Compton Foundation.
“I’ll never forget standing in the bank deposit line, staring at the check in my hand for $18,000,” wrote Eghbal on publishing platform Medium. “I was a college student with less than $1,000 in my bank account. I had never held a check like this before. And somebody had mailed it to me because they thought I had a good idea.”
Eghbal, who has been in tech for about seven years now, wrote that her grants are open to any kind of project and to applicants of any age or background, as long as the proposition is something that fund-seekers “can’t stop thinking about … whether that’s moving to the city of your dreams, building a better mousetrap, or bringing strangers together.”
Over email, she tells me she really doesn’t really have a specific process in mind for picking winners.
“The joy of using my own money and making it this unstructured is, I'm just gonna go with what moves me,” says Eghbal. “I don't have to justify that decision to a board or measure the impact. It's just me on the internet, giving some money away. I want to feel like I connected with the person and their story. That's all I care about.”
Effusive and inspired responses poured in, with hopeful grantees tweeting Eghbal questions about the grants, and whether they would qualify. Getting one of these awards would “literally change my life,” wrote one respondent. Another wrote, “Thank you for offering an opportunity to dreamers! I definitely am applying.”
“This is tremendous,” tweeted The Collaborative Fund’s Kanyi Maqubela “I've also been on the receiving end of this type of generosity before. It can really change lives.” Her original offer was matched by an anonymous donor, allowing for two $5,000 grants. Then, after seeing Eghbal’s postings, tech entrepreneur Eric Ries felt compelled to join in, adding another $5,000 for a third grant; Eghbal is now giving away a total of $15,000.
I asked her how she felt about the conversation she’d set in motion. “From the public response, I'm most touched to see people say things like ‘I can't wait until I can do the same someday’ or [those] who have even been inspired to start their own versions of these funds,” says Eghbal. “A lot of people have said even the existence of such an offer has given them hope. That stuff all makes me happy because I can already tell it'll be hard to pick just a few from the many amazing applications I've received. Those ripple effects—even if I don't directly fund them—are important.”
Eghbal says she was inspired by The Awesome Foundation, an organization which gives away small no-strings-attached grants. She is also generally a fan of “Kickstarters, Patreons, and whatever the internet decides to rally around.”
An advocate for open source—which she describes as “big, community-built public software projects”—Eghbal wrote Roads and Bridges: The Unseen Labor Behind Our Digital Infrastructure, a paper for the Ford Foundation outlining the need for investment in the open code that undergirds our digital world. Eghbal says the Ford Foundation, one of several groups that have funded her work over the years, also “really took a chance on me … I wanted to give that to others.”
The deadline for grant pitches (which had to be moved due to an overwhelming number of applicants) was April 12 at noon PST. On May 12, Eghbal will announce the final winners.
She says that the grant project has been a long time coming. “I've mulled on it for a while,” she tells me. “I've lived in San Francisco on very little income and it's made me really appreciate the generosity of others … I remember thinking I couldn't wait until I would be able to offer that same help back to someone in my position. I'm finally able to do that now.”