The Pollination Project: ‘seeding projects that change the world’

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed, citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.
– Margaret Mead, American cultural anthropologist

If you had the capacity to give away $1,000 a day for the rest of your life, how would you spend your money? If you’re Ariel (Ari) Nessel, a real-estate redeveloper, peace activist, and yogi, the answer is big-hearted and impactful: Award daily grants to change-makers – individuals who have a vision to change the world with the overarching goal of spreading compassion towards all life – the planet, people, and animals. Ari and his sister-in-law Stephanie Klempner founded and co-founded, respectively, The Pollination Project, a nonprofit committed to funding entrepreneurs – specifically not established nonprofits or organizations – whose projects advocate environmental sustainability, justice, community health and wellness, and social change-oriented arts and culture.

Alissa Houser, executive director of The Pollination Project, at Cafeina Organic Café.

Alissa Hauser, executive director of The Pollination Project, at Cafeina Organic Café.

Funding audacious visions and unreasonable promises
After my friend Pamela Braxton introduced me to executive director Alissa Hauser, we met up at Cafeína Organic Café (1389 Solano Avenue, Albany, CA, 94706, 510.526.6069) in July to talk about The Pollination Project and its amazing grantees and their projects. Guided by Ari and Stephanie, Alissa, who has a history of driving entrepreneurial startups, developed the foundation’s infrastructure from the ground up. She hired a second full-time person in the midst of awarding an initial 50 grants between October and December 2012. The wave of grants created a momentum that pushed up the target date for daily giving from July 2013 to January 1st of this year. As of early July, The Pollination Project has received upwards of 800 applications and funded more than 200 projects.

Organizational partners, outreach teams, and ambassadors help to vet applications, which can number anywhere between 20 and 75 a week. A team of at least six people review and score a weekly docket of applications. While applicants with unanimous support from the team are funded, others are wait-listed and carried over to the next week or applicants are contacted to provide more details or answer questions. Because of the volume, applications are handled within the week. Since the foundation was started, many people and organizations have stepped forward and offered to serve as partners. “That list is always growing,” Alissa said. In recent news, The Pollination Project partnered with the Earth Island Institute’s Brower Youth Awards program to provide funding for some of the top youth environmental leaders around the country.

Filmmaker Carolyn Scott (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Filmmaker Carolyn Scott (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

While topic is important, how the money is used is just as critical. For example, while The Pollination Project has funded documentaries in the past, the money needs to be applied at a particular stage where a thousand dollars can make the most difference, according to Alissa. Documentaries need to have distribution plans, partners, and connections to ensure that the documentary is seen. May grantee Carolyn Scott of San Rafael, CA, is at work on a documentary called Conversations with Unreasonable Women, which profiles four women who are fighting through direct action to save their communities from environmental destruction. Her goal is to “ignite a movement” in which women from around the country come together and implement solutions highlighted in the film in areas where the environment is threatened.

As a result of what they were seeing from applicants, such as requests to pay for their 501c3 nonprofit status, The Pollination Project developed an online resource, which, among other things, provides information such as crowd funding and best practices. The foundation has also become a destination for individual donors looking for projects to fund because of its access to hundreds of startups that most foundations aren’t soliciting or looking at, according to Alissa. “As we evolve, we’re really turning into a platform for others to be able to give in this way,” she said.

Compassion: The Common thread
The grants fund projects that address a wide range of issues, all with the common thread of compassion. Trust me: There are more than 200 – and that number is obviously growing daily – great stories to profile and all worthy of mention. With Ari and Stephanie being long-time animal rights activists, along with partners, team members, and ambassadors, projects focusing on compassion towards animals have been widely funded. Documentary filmmakers and grant recipients highlighted the largest animal rescue in the United States – some 50,000 hens were abandoned in a poultry plant in Turlock, CA. Several Los Angeles-based animal rights groups worked night and day to rescue the starving hens. “When you see something with your own eyes, it shifts your perspective on it,” Alissa said. “This is true about issues around animals because we don’t ever think about where our meat comes from, the animals that we consume – the eggs and dairy products. Most of it comes from profound cruelty and inhumane treatment of animals. Unless you see it, you just don’t know or want to know.”

Linda Beal (middle row, fourth from left) of Kids Five and Over.

Linda Beal (standing, sixth from left) of Kids Five and Over.

Numerous and diverse projects focus on compassion for people. It seems fitting that The Dress at 50 applauds grantee Linda Beal of Portsmouth, NH. Throughout her years of teaching in public schools, Linda observed the financial difficulties of parents who couldn’t support their talented children with instruments for band, shoes for dance lessons, or money to pay for lessons. She recalled a little girl who performed at a school dance recital and persevered in worn ballet slippers that kept falling off her feet. On her 50th birthday, Linda and her friends threw a party and raised money to purchase equipment and pay for lessons for these artistic kids, which was the beginning of the program Linda spearheaded called Kids Five and Over. The program, which also offers mentoring opportunities for the kids, has already gotten local support from volunteers and service organizations.

Shodo Spring expressing her civil disobedience (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Shodo Spring expressing her civil disobedience (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

The Pollination Project funds projects that expand compassion for the planet. Shodo Spring, a 65-year-old grandmother of four, Zen Buddhist priest, and spring grantee, is currently leading a group of supporters on a three-month, 1,300-mile Compassionate Earth Walk, which started in July in Alberta, Canada, and will end in Steele City, NE, in October. Back in 2011, she was arrested for protesting against the Keystone XL Pipeline (see picture at left). The intent of Shodo’s pilgrimage, which marks the route of the pipeline, is to draw attention to the development of the Canadian tar sands and its contribution to global warming and climate change. The Buddhist Peace Fellowship connected Shodo and her Compassionate Earth Walk with The Pollination Project.

Calvin Duncan (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Calvin Duncan (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Beyond the thousand dollars
“It’s about the money, but it’s also not about the money,” Alissa said, of the grants. “It’s about the credibility and recognition.” Many grantees have leveraged their $1,000 to gain momentum for their cause, do more good, and generate more change. Calvin Duncan of New Orleans, who was falsely imprisoned for more than two decades and trained himself to become a paralegal, got help from the Innocence Project to work on his exoneration. While he had gathered the evidence that proved his innocence, it took another eight years to get released. Duncan now trains paralegals to help prisoners with their legal needs and his grant is being used to support other falsely imprisoned inmates to gain access to documents that prove their innocence. To honor his perseverance and hard work, the Open Society Foundations recently awarded Duncan its prestigious Soros Justice Fellowship.

May Shea Penn (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

May Shea Penn (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Several grantees have been lauded by other organizations, including two youngsters whose passionate and tireless work on behalf of animals and the environment is nothing less than inspirational. A February grantee and 13-year-old from Atlanta, Maya Shea Penn not only is a seasoned entrepreneur – she started her eco-fashion website at age 8 – but is also a philanthropist, designer, artist, animator, illustrator, and writer. Her grant, which enabled her to discuss environmental issues in classroom visits using a book she had written and illustrated, is yet another validation for her work. Among her many accolades, Maya won the Black Enterprise Teenpreneur of the Year Award in 2013 and is scheduled to speak at the TEDWomen Conference in San Francisco in December. “She’s one of many who have leveraged the recognition to the next step,” Alissa said.

Thomas Ponce (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Thomas Ponce (courtesy of The Pollination Project).

Thomas Ponce, a 12-year-old animal rights activist from Florida and The Pollination Project’s 100th grantee, created a website called Lobby for Animals, which teaches people how to lobby their congressional leaders about animal rights. Already recognized by People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, he was given the Youth Animal Activist Award by the Farm Animal Rights Movement at the 2013 Animal Rights National Conference in Washington, D.C., in July. “The recognition from the grant means so much to them that it’s worth almost more than the money itself,” Alissa said.

“It’s fun to meet people and to see their beauty and vision,” Alissa added. “It’s important and memorable to me that we give people permission to dream about something and then make that dream happen. That’s what I love.”

Editor’s Note: If you have or someone you know has a project that would be a good candidate for a grant from The Pollination Project, you can access an application here.