What it takes to support big, bold, audacious ideas for social change

Lessons learned from the first five years of The Audacious Project
Audience at TED talk
Bret Hartman / TED

When I was a little girl, growing up in the UK, I had a bit of an obsession with American soul music. I was captivated by Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, Mavis Staples, Aretha Franklin. They all seemed to have lived through something and, somehow, come out the other side with even more belief in humanity. That’s how I often feel in my role as the leader of The Audacious Project. I'm consistently surrounded by indefatigable people who have gotten up close to the brokenness of the world and are even more convinced that change is possible as a result.

This project started with a tactical goal: what would happen if we gave changemakers the support they needed to achieve the biggest possible impact? After years of working with ambitious thinkers on $1 million social impact projects for the TED Prize, I’d come to realize that, while $1 million might sound like a lot, when it comes to big ideas, the money goes quite fast. These organizations were in a tricky place, doing so much of their fundraising incrementally or one specific program at a time, in a way that was eating into the work itself. By pooling resources together, TED Curator Chris Anderson and I saw an opportunity to support these organizations in a more sustained way and enable them to give us their biggest, most compelling idea for real and lasting change.

So starting in 2018, we flipped our model. Instead of TED directly funding one project a year, we set out to use our curation and convening power to bring a handful of vetted, thrilling social impact ideas with the potential for sustained, systems-level change to a group of donors aligned in mission and values.

It’s been a wild ride ever since.

I’ll start with the numbers — in our first five years, The Audacious Project’s donors have pooled more than $4 billion for 49 social impact projects, from the Broad Institute and African Centre of Excellence for Genomics of Infectious Diseases’ vision for a global surveillance network to stop the next pandemic before it starts to Glasswing International’s sweeping plan to reach 9.7 million people in Central America’s northern triangle countries of El Salvador, Guatemala, and Honduras with critical mental health support using community-based approaches.

The number of projects we support a year has expanded from five to 10; our staff has grown from six to 15 full-time members. Each cycle, we’ve gotten better at identifying and supporting credible changemakers, working in partnership with The Bridgespan Group to help them craft plans that marry bold thinking and proven tactics. More and more of our projects come from members of the communities most affected by social problems and from organizations poised to leverage the scale of big philanthropy.

But the real story is in the number of lives, communities and industries impacted as a result of this work. By 2020, GirlTrek had tripled its membership, reaching its goal to get one million Black women across the US walking daily; resulting in positive health outcomes for members such as improvements in mental health, weight loss, and decreased reliance on prescription medication. ClimateWorks Foundations’ Drive Electric Campaign has achieved significant electric vehicle policy wins in some key markets for global vehicle demand, including the US, European Union, China, and India, and has influenced over 822 businesses to make commitments to shift to 100% zero-emission transportation. The International Refugee Assistance Project has surpassed all initial targets, serving nearly 736,000 displaced people, 29% of its six-year Audacious goal in the first two years of the project.

And the impact on the social entrepreneurs who’ve been through the process also can’t be understated. In an evaluation by Intention 2 Impact in March, participants shared how much our ideation workshops and the proposal development process pushed them and their team to think with an abundance, rather than scarcity, mindset. They come for the funding and leave with strategic clarity, capacity, and confidence. Even the opportunity to work with other finalists has been meaningful, offering leaders a unique platform to build a community where they can find support for shared challenges and foster unexpected opportunities for collaboration and connection.

This, to me, has been one of the most surprising parts of the program. As has been the community that’s formed between our donors in coming together to support these big ideas. Their mindset is expansive, letting the scale and ambition of these organizations be their guide.

Over the past five years, we’ve learned some lessons I hope will help anyone interested in launching or expanding a collaborative giving platform.

  1. Make applying rigorous — and also as easy as possible. Think about what you truly need to know about an organization, its model and leadership to make a decision on whether they’re a fit, especially in the early stages. Applying for programs and grants takes up an incredible amount of social entrepreneurs’ time, so we’ve narrowed our initial application to just four questions that help us understand their idea and its potential. As finalists move through the process, we ask for more detail.
  2. Think about what you have to share beyond dollars. Bringing together donors is, clearly, important. But also consider the soft power and value you have to offer. What unique expertise does your organization have that can help nonprofit leaders going forward with their work? What can you offer in terms of professional development, community, connections, or publicity?
  3. Iterate, iterate, iterate. After each part of our cycle, we ask for thoughts from the social entrepreneurs we worked with, in feedback sessions and surveys, to help us keep improving. Gathering these learnings and building on them has been the key to making this project better over time. Whenever possible, build that muscle of humility. Trust the changemakers closest to the issues you care about to know how to solve the problem — and to know how they can be best supported to do the work.

In the years to come, The Audacious Project will work even harder on curation, to seek out those social entrepreneurs and projects our networks might miss. We’ll be looking for new ways to help finalists prepare for the growing pains that inevitably come with rapid scale-up, and testing new approaches to being the bridge between resources and their dreams.

Like any good soul song, we’ll keep on building, always striving to hit that perfect note. Having seen how hard change can be, and angling ever harder toward it.

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