How to give away $5,000 on the Internet

Earlier this month, I announced that I was giving away $5,000, no strings attached.

I purposely made the terms of the grant open-ended (“whatever you can’t stop thinking about”) to see what people would come up with.

Nearly 2000 applications later, I learned that the scope of people’s dreams is wonderful.

The application reading process

When I first posted the announcement, I expected to receive roughly 200 applications in a month’s time. Instead, I received nearly 2000 applications in a week.

When I filtered out those who missed the deadline or otherwise didn’t follow the rules, I was looking at a pool of just over 1,600 applications to review.

Once I recovered from the shock (and upgraded my Gmail storage), I realized if nothing else, I wanted to make sure people felt heard. So I decided to read every application.

I blocked off evenings and weekends, poured some tea, and immersed myself in email. I listened to the music and YouTube videos that people sent over in their applications. And I read a lot of stories: some of which were deeply sad, others that made me laugh.

What did people propose? There was everything from driving lessons, to taking a special trip, to community organizing, to studying genetics and fossils and dreaming up space missions. I was heartened to see that many people wrote in on behalf of someone else: a spouse, a friend, a coworker.

(I wish I could share more specifics, but I want to respect the confidentiality of the applications.)

I was impressed by the multitude of backgrounds among applicants. Gender was evenly balanced. Applicants were as young as 13 and as old as their late 60s. Every continent besides Antartica was well-represented, with countries ranging from Colombia to Nigeria to Mongolia. And a lot of people identified as immigrants or first-generation children.

I did not receive a single scammy, spammy, joke-y, troll-y type email. Instead, my inbox was filled with an incredible level of sincerity and vulnerability from my fellow humans.

The internet, even in its humor, is often masked in sarcasm and stoicism. This felt…real. Super real.

Money is psychological, not transactional

In addition to reading people’s stories, I also learned about how people relate to money.

Firstly, there was a lot of talk about emotions. Money gives people “breathing room” and space to think and figure things out. Money helps people relax and not feel stressed out. Money helps people get into a creative, productive mindset. Money lets people plan ahead.

Secondly, quite a few people said the simple act of writing their ideas down, and vocalizing it to a stranger, was motivation enough. Others said it helped them just to know that funding like this existed. In a few cases, that was enough to get started.

Finally, a lot of people were looking for accountability. Being selected wasn’t so much about needing money as having someone believe in them. The $5K would signify that their idea was worth pursuing.

If nothing else, I was glad to see that the application process was in itself valuable. It made the difficult task ahead of me slightly easier.

The selection process

Given that there were only 3 grants available, the chances of winning a grant were <0.2%. To put that into perspective, it’s about 30x easier to get into Harvard, and about 8x easier to get into Y Combinator.

Given the volume of applications, I immediately gave up on the idea of finding the “best” one. It’d be impossible to pretend that I had complete information to make that decision.

More importantly, the sheer breadth of proposals forced me to think carefully about what I wanted to accomplish with this grant.

As I went deeper into the applications, I thought about two dimensions:

  1. Has this person worked to change their circumstances, despite facing challenges? (character)
  2. If they succeed, would I personally be excited by the project outcome? (this is, after all, a personal funding experiment)

I had planned on doing a lottery once I got down to the last 100 applicants, but paradoxically, the smaller the pool, the more I became personally attached to each application. So, I just embraced process of elimination and eventually whittled it down from 1600 to less than 10.

Quit burying the lede, Nadia. Who got the grants?

After several video interviews with the finalists, I settled on the following three people:

Brandon Martinez Gonzalez, who wants to accurately predict the U.S. immigration process based on real, reported data.

Brandon came to the U.S. from Mexico when he was 3. When he was 18, his life was put on hold while waiting for green card approval. What was supposed to be a 5 week process turned into 5 months in Mexico, a country he’d never lived in, unsure whether he’d be able to attend Columbia University, where he’d been accepted. Eventually, he found a few Facebook groups where people were sharing real-time information about their visa process, which helped him figure out what to really expect. Brandon recently graduated with a computer science degree and works at an immigration law firm.

Taylor Vinson, who’s moving to Washington, D.C. for an internship.

Taylor grew up in St. Louis, Missouri, the first in her family to attend college. Since high school, she’d wanted to move to a city like D.C. She applied to, and was accepted to Howard University, but couldn’t afford the tuition. But she kept busy at her alma mater of Missouri State, finding her own voice, founding a poetry collective, and starting an arts program in her local public school district. She kept looking for ways to get out to D.C., and through a lot of relationship building, found an internship opportunity that could finally help her build a set of connections in a new city.

Anton Sekatski, who needs to finish his bachelor’s degree in order to emigrate to Canada.

Anton grew up in a village in central Russia, and discovered, through reading and watching internet videos, that there was another world he wanted to be a part of. He went to college, but halfway through his degree, he had to drop out to support his mother and brother. Anton taught himself English and software development in order to make a living. He now lives in St. Petersburg and works as a JavaScript developer, but he wants to move Canada, where he thinks he’ll have more opportunities. Applicants with bachelor’s degrees are significantly more likely to get visas, so he’s going to complete his degree in Prague.


I realized that the most impactful thing I could do with these grants is to invest in human potential. All three recipients demonstrated: 1) an ability to think big, 2) a self-starter attitude, and 3) compassion for the world around them.

Enabling others resonates deeply with my personal life goals and mission. And that’s what I’m excited to fund moving forward.

…moving forward, you say?

Yes! There’s going to be a next year!

I’ve decided to call these Helium Grants: http://heliumgrant.org. Why helium? Well, in addition to its buoyant properties, helium is a lot of fun. 😃

I’m still keeping it informal: this is just a personal project without a tax entity, plus additional grants from whomever else would like to sponsor next year (winkwink nudgenudge), but a number of people suggested naming the grant to make it more “real”, so. I’ve named it.

If you’re a curious bystander who’d like to be reminded when applications open up next year, add your email here and I’ll shoot you a note in 2018.

Want to run your own version?

I was able to fund two extra people this year thanks to the generosity of others. A very special thanks to everybody who sponsored a grant: particularly An Anonymous Donor(TM) and Eric Ries, as well as Nathan Sokoll-Ward, who offered to donate $1K into my $5K grant.

A few other people also started their own versions: namely, Nat Friedman, who put up $25K for five grants, Yurii Rashkovskii, who put up a $5K grant, and Saad Hamid, who started a $1K community fund. And there were many others who schemed with friends to crowdfund something similar, or brainstormed ideas for a recurring microgrant fund.

I honestly hadn’t expected anybody else to chip in, but this ended up being one of the best surprises of the whole experience.

Even among the applications, I noticed a spirit of selflessness rather than competition. A cynic might have expected free money on the internet to unlock the latter, but instead, most people expressed a desire to do the same for someone else one day.

If you want to run your own version, go to town. Feel free to use any of my grant terms. I’d love to hear about it if you do.

I’ve also collected a list of microgrant programs that others have mentioned to me. It’s pretty short right now. If you know of others, add them to that list!

You don’t have to be rich, to rule my world

In the beginning, I wasn’t sure whether $5K would be enough money. In Silicon Valley, people raise hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for their ideas.

This experience has reminded me that $5K is, in fact, a life-changing amount of money for a lot of people. I think we tend to forget that, the more money we make.

You don’t need to be extraordinarily wealthy to kickstart someone else’s dreams. I am financially comfortable right now, but I am not a high net worth individual.

You don’t need a huge audience to reach people, and it doesn’t need to be a large amount of money. For example, Ben Yu is giving away $100 per week on Facebook for similar purposes.

Next year, I may try smaller grants, so I can reach more people. Many applicants proposed ideas in the realm of $2–3K. $2500 is enough to buy a MacBook or pay for a Udacity Nanodegree (two unusually common requests that I received).

If you’re fortunate enough to have extra cash in your pocket, consider giving someone else the financial security and validation they need to take a chance on their ideas.

Thanks, internet, for taking part in this experiment with me!

Want to be reminded when Helium Grants open up again next year? Add your email here: https://goo.gl/forms/iN4o2eZyC81YPXh93