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What would you do if you were told you were being given $30,000 out of the blue by an anonymous donor? You’d probably think exactly what Royal Nunes thought: “It’s a scam.”

“They called me while I was playing basketball and I said, ‘You are lying.’ I almost hung up the phone,” he laughs.

But the call was real, and so was the money. With the first year’s installment of $10,000 Nunes paid off student loan debt so he could return to school and continue his education. He was also able to buy a car, which allowed him to drive his nephew to school.

Nunes was the recipient of grant through a unique program called the Boston Neighborhood Fellows Program. Funded by an anonymous donor, the program recognizes “individuals of unusual creativity, vision, and initiative who are quietly making the community a better place.” Each year, six individuals — who are found and nominated by volunteer “spotters,”  — are chosen to receive $30,000 no-strings-attached awards.

At the time Nunes was nominated, he said he was in a “tough financial situation.” He had previously attended Bay State College, majoring in criminal justice, but had to drop out for a semester due to the cost, and was instead enrolled in a community college. He was working at The City School, a chapter of the Boston Youth Organizing Project, where he recruits and trains youth to be active in their communities and solve the problems that might otherwise lead some of them to become involved in gangs, drugs or violence. But the pay wasn’t great, and he didn’t know if he could afford to continue working there.

On to top of that, he was helping his mother care for his nephew. And he frequently volunteered for his local capoeira group, Columbo Nova, where he often served as the “spaceholder,” the person who keeps keys and prepares the place in which work is going to be done, while creating an atmosphere of safety and a supportive culture.

According to his nominator, Nunes “meets people where they’re at and not only shows them a better way, but takes them there, step by step. Best of all, he does it with an infectious smile and joy, and with a seemingly boundless love.”

The idea behind the program is to think about philanthropy a bit differently.

“Inspiring donors to create programs like the Boston Neighborhood Fellows is a great example of the kind of high-impact philanthropy we’re most proud of,” said Jamie Jaffee, managing partner at The Philanthropic Initiative, an organization that helps corporations and foundations maximize the impact of their giving, and which helped create this program.

“When the anonymous donor of the Boston Neighborhood Fellows Program started working with us 24 years ago, we knew it was important for us to gain a clear understanding of our client’s motivations, values and goals,” she says. That donor wanted to move beyond ordinary grant-making so, in partnership, we designed an innovative program that recognizes exceptional individuals who are quietly making their communities a better place. The Boston Neighborhood Fellows Program has had tremendous impact on the lives of its recipients, and also reminds others that hope and possibility exist, even in difficult times.”

As for Nunes, he continues to juggle his busy schedule of school, work, family and volunteer activities. “One of my biggest fears was not to be able to continue the work I love. There is not a lot of pay in doing community work (but) it’s work that is needed and it’s valuable. I was in a situation where I was forced to choose between helping out my family and help my community — my extended family.”

Now, thanks to the generosity of an anonymous donor, he doesn’t have to give any of it up.

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