Live from TED2018

The Audacious Project: Notes from Session 4 of TED2018, with 7 bold ideas for global change — and $406 million to support them

Chris Anderson and Anna Verghese introduce the Audacious Project — a consortium of funders who are getting together with TED to make change at scale. The project was announced at TED2018 on April 11, 2018. Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

The lights go down. A voice emerges — strong and hopeful. It’s Laurene Powell Jobs, the founder of philanthropic powerhouse Emerson Collective. “Among the many things I love about TED is the simplicity and clarity of its mission — to spread ideas,” she says. “But in order to create lasting change at scale, we need to turn the boldest of these ideas into action.”

Powell Jobs is here to introduce TED’s newest initiative: The Audacious Project, a model to do that.

Chris Anderson, Head of TED, and Anna Verghese, Executive Director of The Audacious Project, step forward to explain more. Change, says Verghese, is driven by individuals who are passionate about a cause and have a vision for how things could be different. But making their vision a reality takes resources. “The nonprofit world lacks many of the tools open to business entrepreneurs,” says Anderson. There aren’t venture capitalists or IPOs on the stock market. “They must try to raise money one donor at a time.”

The Audacious Project aims to be the nonprofit version of an IPO. Housed at TED, it’s a collaboration among some of the biggest names in philanthropy. Every April, the project will open applications, asking individuals and organizations to present their most audacious dreams. Project partners will do due diligence and narrow the pool to a group of semifinalists with thrilling ideas that are also actionable. These ideas will be shaped with public feedback, and presented to groups of donors. Then at the annual TED Conference, the five most promising ideas will be presented, with an open invitation for the audience and world to get involved.

How $1 million becomes $50 million. The first speaker of the session is a familiar one — physician Raj Panjabi, winner of the 2017 TED Prize. He was a part of a beta test of The Audacious Project. “Last year, I shared with you a wish: the Community Health Academy, a global platform to connect, train and empower community health workers,” he says. But he has a confession: “I was pretty scared.” The problem — a billion people around the world lacking access to health care because they live too far from a clinic — seemed to big for him and his organization, Last Mile Health, to tackle alone. But through The Audacious Project, Panjabi got a new partner — Living Goods, a like-minded organization that supports community health workers in East Africa. Together, they created a plan to put mobile technology in the hands of community health workers and designed an app that will allow health workers to better diagnose patients and learn new skills, as well as earn a living. The Audacious Project partners have committed $50 million toward this $100 million project. Meaning that In the next four years, they’ll be able to digitally empower 50,000 community health workers and bring quality health care to 34 million people.

A special guest appears on video to tee up the next speaker: Shonda Rhimes. There’s a lot of conversation about the criminal justice system, she says. “The scale of our brokenness is so vast. How do we fix this? Where do we start? What might actually make a difference? This next speaker has an intriguing idea.” She introduces public defender Robin Steinberg.

Robin Steinberg is a public defender who saw firsthand the cost of the US’ twisted bail system — which keeps half a million people in jail without being accused of a crime, simply because they can’t come up with cash bail. At TED2018, she pitched an audacious idea: What if we start a fund to just pay that bail and let the justice system work as intended? Photo: Bret Hartman / TED

The peculiar injustice of bail. Robin Steinberg still remembers the first time she visited a client in jail. “The heavy metal door slammed behind me,” she says. “That was the moment that I understood viscerally — for a fleeting moment — what incarceration might feel like.” This moment propelled her through 35 years of work as a public defender, where she became familiar with a pernicious injustice of the American legal system: that every night, more than 450,000 people spend the night in jail without being convicted of a crime, simply because they can’t afford to pay bail. The sums in question are often about $500 — easy for some to pay, impossible for others — and it means that 75% of people in local jails are there for this reason. “Bail was never intended to create a two-tier system of justice — one for the rich and one for everybody else. But that is precisely what it has done,” says Steinberg. Being in jail for even a few days has repercussions — it can mean losing your job, jeopardizing your immigration status, losing custody of children. Many people plead guilty just to go home. It’s for all these reasons that Steinberg and her husband founded The Bronx Freedom Fund, which paid people’s bail. What happened when they started paying bail? They found that 50% of their clients had their cases dismissed — while the other half received non-criminal charges like parking tickets. Now, with The Audacious Project, Steinberg plans to take the idea national. With The Bail Project, she says, “We are going to bail out as many people as we can, as quickly as we can.” In the next five years, they’ll open in 40 high-need jurisdictions with an end result of bailing 160,000 people out of jail, so they can have their day in court from a place of freedom.

Another video starts. This time, it’s James Cameron, director of Titanic and Avatar. In 2014, he released the film James Cameron’s Deepsea Challenge 3D, about his quest to explore the Mariana Trench. The submersible built for that mission is now housed at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “WHOI scientists do amazing things every day in probing the regions of the ocean that are still relatively untouched and unexplored,” he says, introducing ocean scientist Heidi M. Sosik.

Hidden wonders in the ocean’s twilight zone. Heidi M. Sosik whisks us to an “otherworldly realm” known as the twilight zone, the midwater region of the ocean, between 200 and 1000 meters below the surface. Sosik describes this place in the most beautiful way. “Tiny particles swirl down through the darkness,” she says, “while flashes of bioluminescence give us a clue that these waters teem with life.” The twilight zone is believed to be home to a million new species. It may have more biomass of fish than the rest of the ocean combined. But scientists don’t know, because it just hasn’t been explored. And as Sosik warns, if the fishing industry gets there first, with massive factory-fishing ships that strip-mine the oceans, it could have long-term effects for centuries to come — on the marine food web, and on the global climate system. “We need to get out ahead of fishing impacts and work to understand this critical part of the ocean,” says Sosik. Her vision: an unprecedented exploration of the twilight zone, leveraging WHOI’s incredible ability to develop technology for this purpose. The findings will be stunning, says Sosik. “This is not just a journey for scientists,” she says. “It is for all of us.” Recent studies have uncovered some unexpected facts — like the facts that sharks dive into the twilight zone to feed, and that tiny gelatinous creatures in the zone, called salps, might absorb carbon. “There’s an almost unlimited opportunity for new discovery,” she says.

Up next, Richard Branson appears onscreen. Branson is passionate about many causes, and he hears a lot of ideas from social entrepreneurs. “It’s incredibly rare to hear about a project where you can not just chip away at a problem but make history,” he says. “I’m honored to be a part of this mission and hope many of you will get involved too.” He introduces Caroline Harper.

The end of an ancient disease? Thousands of years ago, the ancient Nubians drew pictures on the wall of a terrible disease — one that turns the eyelids inside out, so the eyelashes scratch the cornea over and over, eventually causing blindness. This disease, trachoma, is still a scourge in many parts of the world today. “Trachoma is a strange disease,” says Caroline Harper, of the nonprofit Sightsavers. It’s a bacterial infection spread by flies and human contact, found in areas with poor sanitation and access to water. About 200 million people are at risk. “The crazy thing is, we know how to stop it,” she says. Her audacious idea: to eliminate this disease, one of the leading causes of preventable blindness. Sightsavers has already led a global mapping project in 29 countries that shows them exactly where trachoma is still a problem. With investment from The Audacious Project, they’ll focus on 12 key countries in Africa, as well as the Americas and the Pacific — where funding gaps are standing in the way of eliminating the disease. They’ll also scale up efforts in countries where need is most severe — like Nigeria and Ethiopia, which has almost half the world’s trachoma burden. In all of these countries, they’ll implement “SAFE,” the World Health Organization’s preferred method for stopping trachoma: surgery and antibiotics (when necessary), and face washing and environmental improvement (for all). “We are on the home straight of eliminating this disease from the whole world,” says Harper. She believes strongly we can consign this disease to the history books, where it belongs.

Actor Don Cheadle is the familiar face on video to introduce the next Audacious idea. “As we all know, climate change is one of if not the biggest threat to humanity at this time,” he says. “There are very few organizations with enough people power and reach to envision and execute on the scale that is required.” One of those is the Environmental Defense Fund. And he introduces its leader, Fred Krupp.

Our best chance to halt climate change. Fred Krupp is here to talk about global warming. He knows that, what with the floods and fires and earthquakes, people aren’t feeling a lot of hope. “When I leave the stage today, I don’t want you to have hope,” he says. “I want you to have certainty.” His big idea begins with methane. Methane causes 25 percent of the global warming we’re experiencing today — pound for pound, it’s 84 times more potent than carbon dioxide as measured over a 24-year period. The oil and gas industry is one of the biggest sources of methane emissions, yet when it leaks from wells and pipes and equipments, they’re losing a valuable product — natural gas. EDF launched a nationwide effort in the US to track methane emissions. “We learned that when you get information like that in peoples’ hands, they act,” says Krupp. Companies fixed faulty equipment; Colorado and California passed new laws. Krupp’s vision is to take this global by launching a satellite: MethaneSAT, which will track methane emissions with incredible precision on the global level. By taking data to corporations and governments, EDF will inspire quick action. Their goal: to cut methane pollution by 45 percent by 2025, which would have the same effect as shutting down one-third of the world’s coal-fired power plants. “This is our chance to see change in our lifetimes,” he says.

Darkness once move. And when the video screen comes on this time, it’s Oprah. “When we look at history, we know that some of the most potent change-makers are — let’s be real, people — Black women,” she says. “I’d like to introduce you to the seed planters, the co-founders of GirlTrek, Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison.”

The most powerful woman you’ve never heard of. T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison want to introduce you to someone who changed our world. Her name is Septima Clark, and Martin Luther King Jr. called her the “architect of the Civil Rights Movement.” With her Citizenship Schools, she taught people to read and to organize — so they could vote and become activists. She taught Diane Nash, co-founder of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee. She taught Fannie Lou Hamer, who registered 16,000 people to vote in Mississippi. “Her most famous student: Rosa Parks,” says Dixon. “When she sat down, she inspired a nation to stand.” Dixon and Garrison are the founders of GirlTrek, an organization that inspires Black women to walk regularly — to fight the health crisis that faces them, but also to lead cultural change forward. Their audacious idea: to create critical mass by establishing the Citizenship School for our own era. They call it Summer of Selma, and it will be an annual event that begins in 2019. “Imagine a revival-like tent festival, not unlike the teach-ins of the Civil Rights Movement,” says Dixon. “This is gonna be the Woodstock of Black Girl Healing.” At this event and ones like it, GirlTrek plans to train 10,000 women to lead a movement and organize walks back at home. Together, they will inspire one million to start moving — to heal themselves and their communities. Who among these 10,000 will be like Septima Clark?

With the five first ideas of the project revealed, Anderson and Verghese return to the stage. They reveal that Audacious Project’s coalition of foundations and individual donors has committed more than $250 million for these ideas. But funding on that scale has a way of creating momentum. Thanks to their catalytic effect, other parties have come in to support these ideas. The total committed so far is a hefty $406 million.

The total goals for these projects combined is $634 million — so there’s still quite a ways to go. No idea is fully funded, but all have what they need to move forward and launch. That’s pretty incredible.

A trip to New Orleans, by way of Vancouver. Dancer and choreographer Camille A. Brown is a TED Fellow who’s just come back from choreographing NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live. She’s brought a piano player and a troupe of dancers for a powerful dance that riffs on the New Orleans tradition of the second line parade. As the live piano plays against and with the song “New Second Line” by Los Hombres Calientes, the seven dancers, dressed in black, umbrellas twirling overhead, move and interact in stunning shapes on the red carpet. It’s a blast of excitement and movement fitting for the potential of these projects. And a reminder, too, of art’s power to inspire change, to invigorate and challenge and teach.

Before the session ends, Verghese wants to address an elephant in the room: Are these five organizations able to absorb this kind of investment? Aren’t there dangers to scaling so fast? “This is the biggest question we’ve been asking in our due diligence and it’s a critical one,” says Verghese. To answer, she invites out one final speaker, Andrew Youn.

The power of major philanthropy. Andrew Youn runs the One Acre Fund, a nonprofit that helps small farmers in Africa boost their productivity. Their work has real impact — by bundling seeds, offering training, and encouraging the planting of long-term crops, like trees, they help farmers increase income by 50 percent. One Acre Fund’s model is based on a shocking fact: 70 percent of the world’s poorest and hungriest people are small farmers. Boost their ability to feed themselves and their countries — and we put a big dent in world hunger. One Acre Fund participated in a beta test of The Audacious Project, and with the money committed to their cause, they have tripled in size in three years. “As an organization gets bigger, it gets harder to grow. Audacious changed everything,” says Youn. “By 2020, we … will directly serve over 1,250,000 families per year, with more than 5 million children in those families. This is the power of major philanthropy. This really works.” Since he was a kid, Youn says, he’s been confused by how little our society spends on social change. Among the wealthiest nations of the world, he says, less than 1 percent of income goes to nonprofits. What would happen if we increased that to just 2 percent? “We are what we spend,” he says. “So we can choose who we want to be.” He shows a photo of a mother — one of the many female farmers One Acre Fund serves —  and her child. “Join me in a world where this family’s future is more important than the latest consumer technology,” he says. “Let us choose a world where we fund this family as much as any company.”

Inspired by one of the ideas from this session? Head to AudaciousProject.org and join support communities for these bold visions, and find out how you can be a part of making each a reality.