Donor aims to fulfill startup dreams with seed grants

Alissa Hauser
Alissa Hauser

Jill Warren Lucas

Alissa Hauser has enjoyed many opportunities in her long career as a nonprofit leader to help passionate individuals improve their communities. Like others in the field, she sometimes yearned for a magic wand that would give more struggling startups a chance to succeed.

Now, in a way, she’s got one. Last July, Dallas-based real estate entrepreneur Ari Nessel recruited her to launch the Pollination Project. Through his generosity, Hauser today enjoys the pleasant task of notifying individual “social change visionaries” that they’ve been selected to receive $1,000 to jump start their projects. Soon, she’ll be contacting grateful recipients daily.

“Ari’s vision shows the power of what one person can do,” says Hauser, who is energized by the determination of her boss to provide $1,000 a day to individual change makers. “I thought that was the most incredible thing I’d heard in a long time. It’s crazy in the best possible way.”

Giving $365,000 annually to philanthropic causes is not especially uncommon among affluent donors, but the long term intent to seed hundreds and perhaps thousands of startup projects with these modest grants is unusual, Hauser says.

“If what we were doing was to just give away money, we’d give one big grant,” she says. “Our approach is more nontraditional and out of the box. It’s giving a nod to a person with vision and an idea. Ari sees the value of the ripple effect, one small thing leading to another. The exponential impact of that is incalculable.”

The Pollination Project’s mission reflects its sponsor’s spiritual core as a lifelong yoga practitioner. Grants are awarded to endeavors that benefit people and animals and which focus on concerns like environmental sustainability, community health and wellness, and social justice.

So far, funds have been awarded to diverse projects located in California to New Jersey, and as far away as Amman, Jordan. No grants have been awarded yet in North Carolina, but Hauser is working with a Durham-based consultant to promote opportunities among worthy upstarts. Applications are accepted daily.

Among the newest recipients is a 17-year-old high school junior from Texas who started a project called Paint the World. “I could hardly contain myself when I realized the applicant was so young and determined,” Hauser says. “Art expression is what helped him come out of his shell, and he saw that a lot of students don’t have exposure or access to art. He recruited friends to help and they do pop-up art programs at homeless shelters and elementary schools.”

The Pollination Project also funded a graduate student who is developing an environmental literacy program at California’s San Quentin Prison. “She’s developing data on prisoners who have access to gardening to determine if they have a lower recidivism rate,” Hauser says. “There is evidence to support that it works in other settings. We’re committed to helping her find out.”

Assuming the Pollination Project achieves its 2013 goals, Hauser says there is a good chance that it will continue awarding grants in 2014 and beyond.

“Really, Ari wants to give a thousand dollars a day to change-making individuals every day for the rest of his life,” Hauser says, adding that the project is collaborating with grant-making partners and sponsors to expand its mission. “Given the commitment and the need, I think we’ll be here for a long time.”

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