Seed stage philanthropy
January 8, 2019
It’s been nearly two years since I started doing Helium Grants, so I thought it’d be good to reflect on what I’ve learned about personal giving, and where I’d like to go next.
Funding individuals, not organizations
When it comes to supporting individuals, philanthropy has a huge funding gap. What’s more, incentives are lacking to address that gap.
From a tax perspective, institutional funders (i.e. foundations) in the United States can only give money directly to 501c3 nonprofits. Giving to individuals doesn’t count towards the charitable spend that qualifies foundations for tax exemption.
My original inspiration for Helium Grants was a $36,000 grant from the Compton Foundation that I got right out of college, paid out in the form of two checks. The simplicity of this program belies a lot of operational complexity under the surface. Because foundations can’t fund individuals, the money had to be distributed through my alma mater. The Compton Foundation partnered with a handful of universities to solicit applications and disburse the funds, which meant that if you didn’t attend one of these colleges, you couldn’t even apply.
In 2016, I received funding from the Ford Foundation to support my research. Again, this wasn’t as easy as it seemed. Because I was an unaffiliated individual, I was funded through a special contractor designation, which fell outside of their actual grantmaking budget and was subject to a bunch of other limitations. I’m extremely grateful that Ford was able to work with me on these terms, but this isn’t a common experience.
The idea that groundbreaking work is driven by individuals probably makes sense to a lot of people, yet in practice, there’s no readily available funding for individuals. That’s crazy! The availability of funding pushes people towards organizations (whether nonprofits, companies, or academia), yet oftentimes, unfiltered creative work is particularly suited to not being at an organization. Sometimes, an individual just needs a check, and a vote of confidence from someone they respect, to keep going.
Until the mid-to-late 2000s, venture capital funding was only available in large amounts, and for seasoned entrepreneurs. Institutions like Y Combinator popularized the idea of funding younger founders with higher risk profiles. After a few boom cycles and a flush of capital returned, we saw the emergence of seed funding: smaller amounts of capital, earlier in the game. Now, it’s hard to imagine the startup ecosystem without it.
Similarly, I hope that philanthropy starts to move downstream, so that we see more seed- and pre-seed funding made available to individuals early on. We still need bigger institutional funding to support “growth stage” efforts. But there’s a ton of uncaptured opportunity at these earlier stages. 
Because of the incentive structures, I expect that seed stage efforts will come from private, rather than institutional giving. But you don’t need to be a high net worth individual to experiment with personal giving. Unlike investor accreditation, there’s no minimum threshold for how rich you need to be to give privately. If you have money, and you want to support someone’s work, just reach out to them and do it.
Unlike startups, with clear financial measures of success, I imagine that desirable outcomes will vary widely for individual funding. Maybe the person will start an organization, or join an existing company. Or maybe they’ll just keep writing weird stuff on the internet. Like venture capital, I expect that a patron’s “portfolio” would yield a lot of nothing and a couple of big hits.
Sending money should be frictionless
The legal requirements in philanthropy put an incredible amount of bureaucracy over what should be a frictionless transaction today. Ask anyone who’s received a grant from a philanthropic organization, and they’ll roll their eyes and groan and tell you how it’s been 9 months and they’re still waiting for their check, and they sure hope it arrives before they run out of money.
One of the things I’m most proud of about Helium Grants is the lack of bureaucracy. It’s really easy to give money to people on the internet today, and we should do more of it. As a recent example of this, Vitalik Buterin made a seemingly spontaneous decision on Twitter to fund several people’s efforts in cryptocurrency, to the tune of $300K.
Venmo, in particular, makes it easy to raise money in all sorts of creative ways. The first time I noticed this was in 2016, when a freshman named Albert Wu held up a sign during a televised presidential town hall debate, asking people to Venmo him to cover his college debt. More recently, Mask Oakland used Venmo to raise money to purchase and give out masks to vulnerable populations during the 2018 California wildfires.
There is no legal organization or entity associated with Helium Grants. I typically send money via PayPal, Venmo, or TransferWise, and in most cases, money arrives within a few days. Between those three services, I’ve been able to fund nearly all grantees, including in countries like Russia, Kenya, and India. 
The ease of sending money applies not just on the giving side, but the sponsor side, as well. $25,000 of Helium funding came from other sponsors. I didn’t actively solicit any of this money, and frankly don’t even know how some people found it. Some were friends, some became friends as a result, and some were complete strangers.
The internet-first nature of Helium Grants makes it possible to find and fund people all over the world. I’ve received over 3500 applications and funded 22 people in 9 countries, working in areas from cancer research and brain-computer interfaces, to weightlifting and music theory.
In the same way that modern political movements have been organized around Twitter hashtags, I think that lightweight payment tools help organize the funding of ideas and people. The escalating political controversies around payment providers these days only underscore the critical role they play.
I came into Helium Grants with a bunch of assumptions about how personal giving should work. While some of my views only strengthened with time, others were challenged and adapted.
Formalizing the program
Giving money away to strangers willy-nilly can come off as a sort of weird flex. One critique of Vitalik’s aforementioned giveaway is that he was too public about it, adding to the confusion around Twitter Ethereum scams. Dan Elitzer commented that: “It would have been so easy to support those teams/individuals and NOT post about it on Twitter. The blindness to unintended yet obvious consequences in return for a little ego stoking may make this act a net negative.”
Originally, I tried to downplay the formality of Helium Grants, precisely because I wanted to make a statement about how personal giving shouldn’t be a big deal, and more people should do it. In the end, however, I think this had a reverse effect of making it more personalized. These days, when I meet someone new, they’re just as likely to ask me about Helium Grants than my actual day job, which kind of weirds me out, given how rarely I talk about the former. My desire to give grants quietly felt at odds with being able to reach more people. (If you want to read more about this topic, I wrote about it in detail last year.)
I found that formalizing the program actually helped to decouple it from my identity. It’s either that, or just go off the radar entirely and fund opportunities privately. I hadn’t planned on giving these grants a name at all, but a friend suggested I should, because it would make it something that the recipients could be proud of and take ownership in. After seeing a few more grant cycles, I think he was right.
Following along with people’s stories
I wanted Helium Grants to be “no strings attached” (hence the name of the program!). My original reasoning for this was that redistributing money was the most impactful thing I could do. In my ideal world, we’d cross paths, I’d hand off the grant, and we’d each go about our merry way in the universe.
Eventually, though, I found myself wanting to follow along with the grantees’ stories. If I care about what someone is doing, why wouldn’t I want to know what happens next?
“Grants” is a misnomer; like angel investing, personal giving is, ideally, an investment into another person. Otherwise, you might as well scatter $100 bills off a rooftop: most people could use the extra money.
Getting out of the way of someone great doesn’t mean never following up with them again. If anything, it’s the opposite. I was surprised to learn how many applicants said that the validation mattered more than the money. I truly didn’t understand that this would be so important to others.
It took me awhile to understand the idea of abundance in the context of philanthropy. There will always be an endless number of grant opportunities. The hard part is figuring out what I can uniquely support or contribute to. These days, I’d rather give to fewer people, but be able to follow their journey more closely.
The importance of social validation also made me realize that I should share the names of winners going forward. I kept the names of the 2018 recipients private, unless they chose to self-identify, because I got squeamish about the perception of doing it for the likes. But I now realize that amplifying others’ work is a wonderful gift.
Finally, this experience helped me understand the difference between being rich and being wealthy. Wealth isn’t really about money, but influence. Lots of people have cash to give away. Social capital may, but doesn’t always, correlate to net worth. If I can help validate someone’s idea, amplify their work, or connect them to others, that’s often more meaningful than capital.
Narrowing my focus
Part of the appeal of Helium Grants early on was that I wanted to fund “whatever you can’t stop thinking about”. Initially, I found this delightful, in a chaotic sort of way; it was exciting to see the crazy ideas that flooded my inbox.  Casting a wide net expanded my mind on all the amazing things people do or want to do in the world. And the process of reading applications helped refine my own mental models.
But over time, I noticed patterns in my thinking. There were some things I was just never going to fund, and other things that I was much more likely to fund. As it turns out, I am only human.
Going broad might work if you’re an intermediary platform, trying to match lots of different sponsors to grantees. But as the primary decisionmaker, I’m going to have things that resonate with me more than others. Over time, this began to feel unfair. It’s not fair to say I’m funding “whatever you want” if there are some things I am categorically not interested in funding.
Going broad might also make sense if I had a very large grantmaking budget. But I don’t have that much money to give away: these are $1,000-$5,000 microgrants. Less than 1% of Helium applications are funded; it can feel demoralizing (to me, and to others!) to only accept a tiny % of applicants.
Finally, going broad made it harder to work with sponsors. Some sponsors had me choose the grantees, but others chose their own. At their request, I tried to provide a framework for decisionmaking, but still, different stories often resonated with different people.
For awhile I figured this was okay, because at least I was connecting a sponsor with a grantee who wouldn’t have found each other otherwise. But if personal giving isn’t about money, but validation, connecting people with funding somewhat randomly dilutes the meaning of getting a Helium Grant. I’d rather be more targeted in my ask, which is helpful to both me and potential applicants.
Next steps for me: funding independent research
Overall, Helium Grants have been a positive experience. In addition to funding 22 grantees, this experiment inspired other versions of these grants, some of which are captured here. I’ve also had many conversations with people who’ve told me they incorporated this approach into their private giving. In some ways, I consider these conversations to be the biggest impact.
My original plan was to stop doing Helium Grants in 2019, and instead continue to give these sorts of grants privately. But when I consider the challenges I’ve run into, I think they mainly stem from ambiguity around whether I’m doing this as a personal or programmatic effort.
If I wanted to turn Helium Grants into a proper program, it would mean actively soliciting sponsors - ideally recurring - and developing a review process, which could eventually split into chapters or working groups, based on types of applications. Awesome Foundation, for example, is a great model for this.
I also keep thinking about the need for something like Patreon, but “Patron”. Basically, a platform that inverts the ask, so it’s not just grantees soliciting money, but patrons who advertise their giving interests, like angel investors on AngelList. I think this could address two issues. One, a number of people have expressed interest in starting a similar program, but don’t know how they’d get applications, aka (in investor parlance) “deal flow”. Two, given the number of sponsors who’ve asked to remain anonymous, I bet that a lot of people, like me, want to give money away, but are uncomfortable with advertising it the way I did. A platform could help depersonalize this sort of giving.
I think these are potentially good ideas. I think someone ought to pursue them. But when I consider what gives me energy, I realize I have no desire to scale anything up here. I like having enough skin in the game to help me think about interesting questions in philanthropy, but this isn’t my full-time focus.
Thinking of Helium Grants, instead, as a personal effort, helps me understand how to realign my goals. I’ll continue to accept sponsorships, but I also don’t feel the need to heavily advertise. My only real responsibilities are to 1) make myself public, in order to attract the types of grantees I’d like to support, and 2) pay attention to who my peers are supporting, and who they find interesting, to uncover emerging talent.
Most importantly, I’ve decided to narrow the criteria to focus on what I’m excited about, which is funding independent research.
Independent research refers to anyone digging into hard questions because they want to know the answer. Ideally, they document their process in public: whether it’s a book, blog post, tweets, code, or developing a new product or organization.
I strongly believe that social progress is powered by individuals, often outsiders, who look at intractable problems in a new light. It’s hard to come by funding for this work, because finding new ideas means traversing the edges of mainstream thinking.
Independent thought also suffers from a lack of social validation. The process of making new ideas legible to others is emotionally taxing. Someone once described research to me as “traumatic”: your job is to fail, over and over again, without knowing whether the problem is even really worth working on. It’s easy to drown in this existential maze. And yet, this is how groundbreaking ideas are born: as a seed of madness, germinating in one person’s brain.
A lot of Helium Grant applications that excited me in 2018 were related to research. I’m inspired by people who are obsessed with seemingly odd or niche problems, or who have a crazy idea but need a bit of funding to validate it.
So that’s what I’ll be experimenting with this year. You can apply here; grants are awarded on a quarterly cycle. I am also going to start publishing the winners, because I think more people deserve to know about their work!
To this day, I have no idea how people find out about Helium Grants. I’ve thought about asking on the form, “How did you hear about this?”, but I’ve decided that not-knowing is more fun. ↩