PROFILE: Avi Caplan, dean of Awesome Ottawa, talks dance parties and cadaver machines in the pursuit of awesome

PROFILE: Avi Caplan, dean of Awesome Ottawa, talks dance parties and cadaver machines in the pursuit of awesome

Every month, members of the local chapter of the Awesome Foundation get together to present $1,000 to a creative endeavour that will — they hope — make the city a little more awesome. Avi Caplan is one of those benefactors on a mission. By Drew Gough

Money talks: Avi Caplan sees the Awesome Foundation movement as "an interesting experiment in philanthropy" — a way to connect with people more directly. Photo by Luther Caverly.

There wasn’t any money lying around anywhere. Not a penny. Not on the table, not on the floor, not even — I’d bet, if I’d had the nerve to check — under the couch cushions.

This was more than a little disappointing. I was standing in the living room of Avi Caplan, a philanthropist who refuses to see himself as a philanthropist. Every month, Caplan just gives some of his money away.

I figured him to be a careless spendthrift, a man without a bank account, a man with piles of coins stacked to the ceiling that he idly let fall between his fingers while talking. But no. The apartment is modest, neat, tidy. Caplan too. There’s no air of madcap millionaire, probably because that’s not his angle.

The 30-year-old is the new dean of Awesome Ottawa, the local chapter of the Awesome Foundation. Awesome Ottawa hands out $1,000 each month to a project it deems “awesome,” with each of its trustees ponying up $100 a month of his or her own money to contribute to the grant.

By January 2013, Awesome Ottawa will have contributed $30,000 to our city’s general awesomeness. Yet even though he’s a person who has made a hobby of giving away money, Caplan doesn’t like being called a philanthropist. “What’s interesting about the Awesome Foundation movement globally is that it’s an experiment in new models of philanthropy,” he explains. “I’m not thinking of myself as a philanthropist because, really, it’s a very small amount of money. I’m thinking of it, instead, as an interesting experiment in philanthropy. I’m seeing it as an experience in connecting with people more directly.”

The experiment has been manifested in a diversity of projects, from August’s dance party along Sparks Street (Dance Dance Office Revolution) to a cadaver machine to train dogs for the Ottawa Valley Search and Rescue Dog Foundation. Caplan grimaces while recalling that one. It’s one of the few times he gets emotional about the projects. Mostly, his is a cool amusement, a social scientist’s happy tinkering. “It is just fun. It was an experiment,” he says of his motivation to get involved. “It’s entertaining and useful at the same time. I certainly don’t believe that everything we have given money to has been universally a great investment, but that’s not the way to think of it. It’s not an investment. It’s a way of sewing some chaos and irreverence.”

Caplan was drawn to Awesome Ottawa from the moment of its inception, answering a Twitter call-out for people interested in awesomeness to meet to see if a chapter might fly in Ottawa. He met with nine other would-be philanthropists who aren’t philanthropists. They jointly decided, on the spot, to give their first award to an art flash mob. That was in May 2010, and Ottawa became the first Canadian city to have an Awesome chapter. It has since given money to The Capital Reading Garden, the University of Ottawa’s Quidditch Team (a real thing), the Hello Ottawa blog, a bus yarn-bombing, Hidden Harvest Ottawa, and about two dozen other projects.

The group meets once a month and debates projects until they reach a consensus. On average, they receive 15 applications a month. No votes are cast when deciding to fund a project. Instead, “It’s an exercise in negotiation,” says Caplan. Their idea of awesomeness is fairly subjective, but Caplan offers a basic outline of the types of projects the group awards. “It should be some, but not all of, these things,” begins Caplan. “Something that probably wouldn’t happen otherwise. Something that touches a lot of people, that reaches a lot of people. Something that makes you think about Ottawa or the world or something in a different way or leaves you smiling or entertained in some way. But there are no rules. All of these things are flexible on a case-by-case basis.”

He has a particular zeal for projects that are quirky and irreverent, schemes that add a splash of zany to Ottawa, his hometown. (Caplan grew up in the city, then left for university — first to Waterloo and then to Sussex in England — before returning in 2005 to work for Environment Canada.) But Awesome Ottawa isn’t seeking to correct a perceived absence in the city. Nor does it highlight an abundance of awesomeness that’s hidden from view. No, it just looks to support people for the good work they’re doing. “Part of the purpose of the money is that it’s an affirmation,” he says. “It’s kind of a big deal for some of the award recipients — a bunch of strangers wants to give them their money. It’s not coming out of some mysterious foundation. It’s just 10 people who want to give them money.”

This year Caplan attended a global summit in Boston — the originating city of the Awesome Foundation — and returned with a firm conviction in the spirit of the project. “One of the ideas that grabbed me is that everybody should be a trustee or member of an Awesome Foundation chapter. Everybody should be encouraging people to do things that they want to see in the world.”

This story appears in the Winter edition of Ottawa Magazine. Buy the magazine on newsstands or order your online edition.