TED has launched the $400 million Audacious Project, a Gates-backed annual initiative to back world-changing ideas.
Dr. Raj Panjabi is probably the last person to ever get the $1 million TED Prize — a sum of money given at the annual ideas conference to make someone's big, world-changing wish a reality. It's not that the prize given to Panjabi, a physician at Harvard Medical School and co-founder and CEO of Last Mile Health, a nonprofit that works with community health workers to expand healthcare access in remote areas, was somehow unsuccessful.
If anything, it was too successful. Panjabi's dreams were larger than a $1 million prize.
"To achieve the impact we wanted, we had to think collaboratively. The scale of the [healthcare access] problem is much bigger than one organization. I knew that firsthand as a doctor. I’d seen it," Panjabi said.
Starting this year, TED is scrapping the annual prize for something even bigger: a $250 million initiative known as The Audacious Project. Additional funders recently upped that number to $400 million, with the goal of raising $634 million in total.
Backed by funders including The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Dalio Foundation, the Skoll Foundation, and Virgin Unite, the project aims to deal with the fact that, as TED Curator Chris Anderson said, "Real change is expensive."
The $400 million is spread out among seven recipients, who each presented TED with a detailed budget for their project, ranging from $30 million to $100 million. The nominees were chosen by TED this year, but the organization will allow the public to submit ideas starting next year.
Panjabi is one of the first recipients. The other six, which include The Environmental Defense Fund (for a methane-tracking satellite) and Sightsavers (to eliminate trachoma, a dangerous eye disease, in less than a generation) were revealed this week on the TED stage.
After winning the TED Prize, Panjabi realized that his "world-changing wish" of growing a Community Health Academy — a global platform that offers online training courses to community health workers and leaders who support them — required more than $1 million. Last Mile Health teamed up with Living Goods, another nonprofit working with community health workers in Africa, to generate an even bigger plan.
Their goal in the next four years is to support six countries in West and East Africa (previously, Last Mile worked only in West Africa) by deploying nearly 50,000 health workers that can serve 34 million people.
Community health workers trained through the program will be equipped with smartphones loaded with an app to automate the diagnosis of deadly conditions. On top of that, the Academy platform will offer training videos to health workers so they can distinguish between life and death diseases (like severe and non-severe pneumonia).
"In reality, [Panjabi's] vision was much bigger than we could even support alone," said Anna Verghese, the executive director of the Audacious Project and former head of the TED Prize.
Under the auspices of the Audacious Project, Panjabi presented his plan to six undisclosed leaders in the business and philanthropy worlds, who will match up to $50 million, dollar for dollar, of whatever he can raise.
Here's how the Audacious Project process works: TED winnows down a huge list of potential projects to those that the team sees the most potential in. They do the necessary due diligence to ensure there is a real opportunity to make change at scale, and then make sure the recipients have the capacity to absorb large amounts of funds.
After that, they present the projects to small groups of donors, who work with the ideas that speak to them most.
"Really what we're trying to create here is a platform that matches visionary ideas with donors," Anderson said.
In the future, TED will go through Audacious Project applications and pick a few dozen projects yearly to be part of a more detailed due-diligence process.
The bigger idea behind the initiative, according to Anderson, is to "think of it as an attempt to imagine what an IPO for the nonprofit world might look like."
"The way in which social entrepreneurs usually have to make money is really challenging. There's no equivalent to venture capitalists, to an IPO. You have to raise money one meeting at a time, and many get burned out in the process," Anderson said. "That's a little heartbreaking when the world needs bold thinking and a big response to what's going on out there. The key we hope to offer is greater resources and the encouragement to dream big."
Now that the project has officially launched, anyone can provide additional funds on the Audacious Project website to the first recipients — or submit their own ideas.