Opinion: Richard Branson on why philanthropists should club together

A community health worker collects data on a child in Liberia using mobile technology. Photo by: Last Mile Health

To bring about radical change, sometimes you have to be audacious. Bold innovation has today brought us closer to a new space age. Back on earth, that same daring entrepreneurial spirit can also be a powerful force for social change. Yet, too often, the really big ideas just don’t get the backing they need and fail to get off the ground.

“For The Audacious Project, the sky is the limit.”

A few years ago, an idea dreamed up by myself, Jeff Skoll from the Skoll Foundation, and Chris Anderson from TED, turned into an initiative for philanthropists who wanted to join forces to make a difference in the world.

Over two events, we raised $250 million for world-changing ideas and The Audacious Project was born. Now managed by TED and supported by a number of charitable organizations including Virgin Unite, this collaborative approach to philanthropy seeks to turn ideas into action and is already helping to tackle some of the world’s biggest problems.

One example is an initiative to improve access to health care, such as childhood immunization, for more than 34 million of the world’s poorest people by 2021, by putting digital technology into the hands of community health workers.

Every year, 1.5 million children under the age of 5 die from a vaccine-preventable disease. Despite huge progress in recent decades, 19 million children around the world are still missing out on basic life-saving vaccines every year. This is often because they live in remote rural areas, hours or even days from the nearest doctor or clinic.

One way to reach them is through community health workers. Based in the communities they serve, community health workers can provide life-saving health services to their neighbors, effectively extending the reach of the public health system. However, not only are we facing a global health worker shortage, but too often they don’t have adequate training, equipment, or management to succeed.

The project is not only working to boost the number of trained community health workers, but also to extend their reach through digital technology. Equipped with smartphones, they will be able to carry out automated diagnoses of deadly diseases and to capture the immunization status of every child in real-time and with a time-stamped geo-location identifier.

This will help to build up a record of children that are not being reached, making it easier for vaccinators to pinpoint them and ultimately close the gaps in immunization. And in addition to capturing data, the project will transform the way community health workers, and the people who manage them, learn through digital training courses and tools through the Community Health Academy.

For most of us, digital mobile technology has already transformed modern life, revolutionizing the way we do everything from banking to hailing a taxi. But for community health workers, it will radically enhance their impact, and for millions of vulnerable people living in remote African villages, it will literally become a lifeline.

The initial aim of this project is to mobilize 50,000 of these community health workers across Kenya, Liberia, and Uganda. Working in partnership with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, this will extend immunization counselling and referral services to an estimated 8 million people. By integrating immunization information into the daily routines of community health workers, the system will enable governments to optimize the performance of thousands of far-flung health workers in real time.

The two organizations behind this idea, Last Mile Health and Living Goods, already have more than a decade of experience in working with governments in Africa on community health worker programs. Yet, despite this, they would have normally struggled to get an idea on this scale funded. Without access to venture capital or stock markets, social entrepreneurs have to pitch to donors, one by one.

The Audacious Project provides a more efficient process that actively encourages people to think bigger and brings them together with a groundbreaking coalition of funders, including philanthropists, donors, and the public.

As part of The Audacious Project, six philanthropists, including Virgin Unite, the Skoll Foundation, the ELMA Foundation, the Children’s Investment Fund Foundation, and others, have committed $50 million to this bold idea. That is contingent on Last Mile Health and Living Goods raising a further $50 million from other funders.

For the 1 billion people around the world for whom health care isn’t a given, this is great news as it creates a much-needed avenue for radical ideas to be properly financed. And from this, new opportunities will emerge — not just to bridge the gap in health care, but also to solve some of the biggest challenges our planet faces.

With more than $450 million already raised for seven projects, this is just the beginning. For The Audacious Project, the sky is the limit.

About the author

  • Richard Branson

    Richard Branson is a businessman and philanthropist. He is the founder of Virgin Group and co-founder of the Audacious Project.