What really changes the world: A big-name philanthropist with deep pockets or several individuals working for good in their own small ways?

Surely the world needs both. But for Ariel (Ari) Nessel, founder and president of The Pollination Project, it’s the little guys and gals who warm his heart and inspire the greatest hope. Last year, he and co-founder Stephanie Klempner (who also happens to be his sister-in-law) began giving away $1,000 a day in seed grants to individual change makers around the world. People like Marilyn McHugh, who is helping farmers in India transition back to natural organic agriculture; Jamila Banks, who established an environmental training program for inner-city kids in Los Angeles; and Alhassan Musah, who is bringing computer access to his remote village in Ghana.

The Pollination Project’s guiding belief is that ordinary individuals have the power to do extraordinary things.

“We’re not really looking for the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Gandhi,” says Nessel. “America doesn’t become great when we have a better president or better politicians. It’s when every citizen is taking things into their own hands — that’s when our world changes. The Pollination Project is our attempt to encourage everyone to take their own individual actions. It’s something that really enlivens my heart.”

Extraordinary power of ordinary actionsAri Nessel and Stephanie Klempner

Nessel’s own awakening began when he was 14. While walking along Venice Beach during a vacation in southern California, he came upon a man sharing literature about the suffering of animals raised for food. He read it — but like many teenagers, he didn’t give it much thought.

Eight years later, as he walked along the same stretch of beach he saw the same man passing out the same materials. This time what he read clicked, and Nessel’s life changed. He gave up eating land animals and began an intense process of self-examination. Nessel (pictured right) experienced one of his biggest revelations — that even a brief encounter with one passionate advocate can change lives forever.

Determined to live his newfound values, he created Nessel Development, a firm specializing in green property renovations, and began practicing yoga and meditation. He also started donating regularly to his favorite causes, but somehow it didn’t fully satisfy his need to give back. “There was a disconnect between writing the check and the benefit it was creating in the world,” he says. “I wanted to feel a sense of generosity every day and to feel connected to the work being done, maybe even feel like the work wouldn’t get done if I wasn’t supporting it.”

Seeding goodness

The Pollination Project was launched in January 2013 to close that disconnect. The idea was to select and support individuals who "expand compassion" in areas of environmental stewardship, animal protection, social justice, community health and wellness, and arts and culture. Almost immediately applications began flooding in and have been on the rise ever since.

Some grant seekers come with only an idea, while others have a project that’s just gearing up. What they all seek is someone to believe in their dream and some cash to help make it grow.

Currently, volunteer grant advisors — some of whom are grantees themselves — review the 100-plus applications that arrive each month and make award recommendations. There’s even a youth grantmaking advisory board, made up of young people ages 13 to 23 who select projects focused on other young people. Of the 365 projects funded last year, 119 went to projects outside the United States, 77 of the grantees were non-U.S. citizens, and 10 of them were under the age of 18.

With so many applicants, not every project ends up with a grant. But that doesn’t mean they aren’t worthy or can’t be resubmitted. “Every single person who applies has a vision and dream for a better world, but we can’t fund everybody,” says Alissa Hauser, The Pollination Project’s executive director. “We try to encourage people who don’t get grants and tell them to keep going. We also encourage them to apply as many times as they want, and have often funded people who come back a second time after revising their application.”

Group photo

Ari Nessel (far left) and a group of Pollination Project ambassadors, grant advisors and staff hold banks, hand-painted by children from the slums of Ahmedabad, India.

This year, The Pollination Project is inviting others to pitch in with daily financial support for projects they want to see manifested in the world. Those who join the Daily Giving Community receive a bank made from used water bottles and painted by children from the slums of Ahmedabad, India (a grantee project). Cultivating a daily experience of generosity isn’t just for grownups either. Both Nessel and Hauser keep giving banks at home and encourage their kids to contribute loose change every day and select projects to fund.  

For Nessel, supporting goodness every day is really a spiritual practice — one that not only encourages more positive change in the world but also generates greater generosity in those who give. “The people we fund remind me that we’re all inherently kind, compassionate, and loving,” Nessel says. “The more I can support them, the more I feel like my life matters. This is a way for me to create more meaning and feel more connected and to grow my heart.”

Have a social-change project of your own? Read these funding guidelines to see if you qualify for a Pollination Project grant.

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Photos courtesy of The Pollination Project