New $250M Audacious Project from TED announces first recipients

Photo by: Betsy Brown / Devex

OXFORD, United Kingdom — The Audacious Project, a collaboration between funders who have pooled their resources to raise over $250 million to scale up big ideas, announced the first recipients of their funding on Wednesday.

The recipients were announced live from the TED stage in Vancouver, Canada. TED, the nonprofit behind talks presented onstage and posted online as part of its mission to share “ideas worth spreading,” is housing the joint endeavor between the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, the Dalio FoundationThe Bridgespan Group, the MacArthur Foundation, and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This year, its annual TED conference coincided with the annual Skoll World Forum in Oxford, and both events highlighted this new model for philanthropic collaboration.

The Audacious Project aims to tackle an issue that comes up often at gatherings focused on social entrepreneurship: the idea of impact at scale. These donors are coming together to provide entrepreneurs with the resources they need to turn ideas into actions. The Audacious Project builds on a number of other efforts to bring together funders, such as Co-Impact, which provides systems change grants of up to $50 million over five years, and was launched in Nov. 2017.

“Our goal here is to build a platform for ideas so audacious, but also so well prepared, that they can attract large amounts of financial support pooled from multiple donors,” said Chris Anderson, TED curator, in a press release. “This could and should allow us all to dream more creatively, more boldly, and more confidently about possible routes to a better future. We’re deeply excited by these inaugural projects and invite the world to join us in carrying them forward.”  

The newly announced awardees include SightSavers for its plan to eliminate the eye infection trachoma; the Environmental Defense Fund for its work launching a satellite to track methane emissions; the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution for its work to uncover an unknown layer of the ocean; as well as two organizations focused on the United States: GirlTrek and The Bail Project.

For the past 12 years, TED has offered the world-famous TED Prize, which provided $1 million to leaders with bold ideas for social change. Last year, the prize went to Raj Panjabi, who was also selected as one of the 2017 Skoll awardees. His organization, Last Mile Health, was part of an idea that allowed The Audacious Project to beta test its model, which will now replace the TED prize.

On Wednesday, Panjabi took the TED stage to share the details of his collaboration with Chuck Slaughter, fellow social entrepreneur, Skoll awardee, and founder of Living Goods. They’re aiming to deploy 50,000 community health workers to reach 34 million people. Devex attended a breakfast at the Skoll World Forum, where Slaughter and funders — including ELMA, which is focuses on children in Africa, and the Children’s Investment Foundation Fund — discussed how The Audacious Project is committing a $50 million matching grant to the partnership between Last Mile Health and Living Goods. Now, Panjabi and Slaughter need to secure $50 million more in funding in order to unlock that commitment.

Slaughter gave a “long distance shoutout” to TED’s Chris Anderson and said this team was the “matchstick and magic” behind The Audacious Project.

Sir Christopher Hohn, who established CIFF, talked about his own interest in this collaborative effort to digitally enable community health workers. First, management is strong, he said, and second, the model is based on key factors that are not usually present in the community health worker system, including financial incentives, technology at the core, and value for money.

Representatives from ELMA and UBS, the investment banking company that is involving its clients through its Ultra High Net Worth Philanthropy Center, talked about what led them to support this effort.

But Slaughter also made it clear that The Audacious Project money is “a matching offer not a lottery ticket.”

While there is sure to be a lot of excitement around The Audacious Project, there is also the risk that “the gloss and glare will diminish the urgency” of the issues these funders are coming together to address, said James Nardella, principal at the Skoll Foundation.

The Living Goods and Last Mile Health partnership was a pilot project of The Audacious Project together with the One Acre Fund, a nonprofit social enterprise working to support smallholder farmers, which is also a Skoll awardee.

Every year, the initiative will invite social entrepreneurs to suggest big projects, vet those ideas to figure out which offer the best path to impact at scale, and present them globally, inviting people to support them.

“Having spent a decade mobilizing globally impactful projects with the TED Prize, we now have a coalition ready to support some of the world’s most heroic and devoted social entrepreneurs as they’re asked to dream and collaborate at the most transformative scale possible,” said Anna Verghese, director of The Audacious Project. “Collectively confronting these daunting challenges is what The Audacious Project is all about and our team is here to support this critical work.”

Editor's note: Devex traveled to the Skoll World Forum with the support of the Skoll Foundation. Devex retains full editorial independence and responsibility for this content.

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    Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology and innovation in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported from all over the world, and freelanced for outlets including the Atlantic and the Washington Post. She is also the West Coast ambassador for the Solutions Journalism Network, a nonprofit that trains and connects journalists to cover responses to problems.