April 28, 2022
Last week, scanning the Chronicles of Philanthropy’s daily update email, I was drawn to a story titled “Audacious Project Awards $900 Million to 9 Social-Change Groups.” The item said that these large grants were the product of “the TED Conferences’ funding collaboration of major donors and philanthropic organizations to support innovative projects for social change.“
Just what was the Audacious Project? And who were the donors behind it? And what made these donations about social change?
I wanted to understand if this was a side of modern philanthropy that I was ignoring. Perhaps one that, like Mackenzie Scott, was showing a new approach to philanthropy, or one that was less a reflection of the power of men and women interested in protecting their wealth and status. Was this an example of philanthropists ready to support the systemic changes in giving that are long past due?
On their website, the Audacious Project describes itself as “a collaborative funding initiative catalyzing social impact on a grand scale. Every year we select and nurture a group of big, bold solutions to the world’s most urgent challenges, and with the support of an inspiring group of donors and supporters, come together to get them launched. Housed at TED, the nonprofit with a long track record of surfacing ideas worth spreading, and with support from leading social impact advisor The Bridgespan Group, the funding collective is comprised of several respected organizations and individuals in philanthropy.”
They describe their process as one that brings together the right people to take on the right problems with the right solutions. “Every year, we work with proven changemakers to surface their boldest ideas for tackling global problems…The Audacious Project attempts to address a major frustration faced by the world’s change-makers. Without access to venture capital or stock markets, social entrepreneurs have to pitch donors one by one, a very inefficient process that can detract from the work itself. The Audacious Project invites change-makers to dream bigger and bolder and works with them to shape their wildest ideas into viable multi-year plans that are ready for action. The Audacious Project presents these ideas to groups of donors and shares them at the annual TED Conference, inspiring supporters to come together and make them a reality. By removing the barriers associated with funding and exposure, The Audacious Project lets social entrepreneurs take on the world’s biggest and most urgent challenges in the way only they know how. (Emphasis added)”
The Project has been able to bring together an impressive cast of characters that contributes, “as donors, thought partners, in project sourcing, due diligence…and more…“ It is a list that includes the Gates Foundation, the Clara Wu & Joe Tsai Foundation, Dalio Philanthropies Laura & John Arnold, the MacArthur Foundation, Mackenzie Scott and Dan Jewett, the Skoll Foundation, the UBS Optimus Foundation and many more.
The funding cycle they have just completed was their largest since the effort began. So, which organizations made the cut and now have large checks to cash?
- Code for America: Harnessing technology to transform the US social safety net
- Center for Tech and Civic Life: Strengthening local election administration in the US
- ClimateWorks: Drive Electric: Accelerating the end of the polluting tailpipe and transition to clean transportation
- Glasswing International: Building critical mental health support in Central America’s Northern Triangle
- The International Refugee Assistance Project: Unlocking legal rights so that refugees can resettle safely
- myAgro:Equipping smallholder farmers (editor’s note: A smallholder farmer is a producer who rears livestock, raises fish or cultivates crops on a limited scale: In the developing world, a smallholder farm is a family-owned enterprise operating on up to 10 hectares or 24 acres) with the power to invest in themselves
- Noora Health: Training family caregivers to help their loved ones heal
- Tenure Facility: Securing land for Indigenous peoples — for justice and our climate
- Woodwell Climate Research Center: Integrating permafrost into our global solution for climate change
Each of is doing good work. Yet are they really Audacious, defined as taking a surprisingly bold risk?
What this project has not done is really be audacious; it has not invested in efforts that will challenge the system that has allowed the problems being addressed to fester and worsen. What this effort has not done is invest in the deep and needed systemic change that will allow public, not private, investment in problem-solving. What this effort has not done is invest in examining a broken system and making changes that may impact the wealth and power that this list of supporters represents.
I was recently reminded of two parables that capture my quandary with this new philanthropy, the philanthropy of Ms. Scott and the Audacious Project.
The first is a tale of an old man “walking along a beach that was littered with thousands of starfish that had been washed ashore by the high tide. As he walked he came upon a young boy who was eagerly throwing the starfish back into the ocean, one by one. Puzzled, the man looked at the boy and asked what he was doing. The young boy paused, looked up, and replied “Throwing starfish into the ocean. The tide has washed them up onto the beach and they can’t return to the sea by themselves,” the boy replied. “When the sun gets high, they will die, unless I throw them back into the water.” The old man replied, “But there must be tens of thousands of starfish on this beach. I’m afraid you won’t really be able to make much of a difference.” The boy bent down, picked up yet another starfish, and threw it as far as he could into the ocean. Then he turned, smiled, and said, “It made a difference to that one!” (adapted from The Star Thrower, by Loren Eiseley (1907 – 1977))
This is the Audacious Project. $900 million, invested in projects that may prove to be successful and meet their expectations, might be saving a lot of dying starfish. It is a gamble but should we argue with innovation and risk-taking?
The other is a story about a man who “took a daily walk along the river’s edge near the waterfall. On one particular day he heard a shout coming from the water and saw a kid caught up in the current, about to go over the waterfall. Springing into action, he swam out to the kid and pulled him to safety. The next day he was on his regular walk when he heard another shout and saw another kid in the current. As he pulled this one to safety he heard yet another shout from the current. The people of the village began to realize that there were an overwhelming number of kids caught in the current being swept towards the waterfall. They began to get organized; they trained lifeguards, built watchtowers, and trained everyone in CPR and mouth-to-mouth resuscitation. They saved a lot of kids but they weren’t able to save all of them, some still went over the waterfall. One day the man started to walk upstream. The others began to say to him, “Where are you going? We need you here!” He replied “I’m going upstream to see if I can keep some kids from falling in the river in the first place.””
This is what the Audacious project and too many other enlightened philanthropists are not.
I do not want to damn what the Audacious Project is doing. But I do not want to glorify it either. Good is being done. Lives are being aided. Harm is being abated.