The Audacious Project is a little-known philanthropic nonprofit collaborative that funded the U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence to the tune of $80 million. The U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence is the newest election administration brainchild coming out of an organization known as the Center for Tech and Civic Life (CTCL). CTCL played a prominent role in funding local elections in critical areas in the 2020 Election, arguably tipping the Presidential election in favor of Joe Biden.

The Audacious Project: Socially Conscious Philanthropy

Focusing on social impact projects, the Audacious Project is housed at the idea factory organization called TED and is run by the TED Prize team. The TED Prize team has spent 16 years “identifying some of the world’s most gifted change-makers and scaling their imagination about their work.” TED’s Prize Team member, Anna Verghese, is the Executive Director of the Audacious Project.

First announced in April of 2018, the Audacious Project had already attracted $250 million in financial commitments from a “coalition of individuals and organizations” who were committed to funding and realizing “ideas that matter.” The Project represents a relatively new model of philanthropic fundraising aimed at making it easier for social change non-profits and “social entrepreneurs” to secure the funding they need to realize their dreams. TED Curator Chris Anderson explains the fundraising structure and “launch plan” in his blog after the 2018 announcement:

“We would like to suggest a new approach we’re calling The Audacious Project, the result of four years of dreaming and experimentation with an extraordinary group of collaborators. You can think of it as an attempt to imagine what an IPO for the nonprofit world might look like. Or simply as a thrilling way for private individuals to pool resources and work together in service of entrepreneurs who could change the world.”

Anderson then goes on to explain the three ingredients needed to power the Project:

    1. Invite the world’s greatest change-agents to dream like they’ve never dreamed before. To create ideas that are truly audacious. Ideas that truly might impact millions or even hundreds of millions of people, or have environmental impact at planetary scale, or can be transformative for science or for our long-term prospects of surviving and flourishing.
    2. Vet the ideas to search for those which genuinely offer a path to execution, scale, and impact. Pick the best of them and help shape them into actionable multi-year plans that are viable and sustainable.
    3. Present them to the world in a single moment with as much visibility and excitement as possible and invite people to support them … together. Use that momentum to build a community of committed supporters around each project who will sustain them over multiple years, contributing ideas, time and influence as well as money.

Harnassing the forum, tools, and PR of the well-known TED enterprise, the Audacious Project gives social justice entrepreneurs the springboard and financing they need to make their projects a reality.

Their initial five projects included “creator’s” ideas ranging from “ocean exploration, to climate change remediation, to rethinking criminal justice, to empowering communities and expanding public health.” The creators shared their ideas in TED Talks, and attendees and investors were invited to contribute. The 2018 TED Conference allocated $1 million to attendees to distribute among the various projects.

The Audacious Coalition And The Bridgespan Group

While some of the coalition’s philanthropists are well-known in social justice circles, others are not. The press release indicates some of the coalition members:

“A remarkable group of individuals and organizations have come together and are playing a key role in facilitating the initiative. Among them are the Skoll Foundation, Virgin Unite, the Dalio Foundation, Scott Cook & Signe Ostby, Laura & John Arnold, ELMA Philanthropies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation will draw on 100&Change, its global competition for bold solutions to critical problems, to identify and vet high-quality projects. And the Bridgespan Group, a leading global social impact advisory firm, is playing a key role in supporting this collaboration and working with entrepreneurs on investment-ready plans.”

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which gave $5 million to The Audacious Project in 2020, the Skoll Foundation, and Virgin Unite may be well known to many. Still, one of the philanthropic members listed in the press release is not widely known—The Bridgespan Group. While they may not be widely recognized, the Boston-based Bridgespan Group is a pivotal member of the coalition both from a funding standpoint and because it lends critical manpower, structure, and years of business acumen to the Project.

In 2021, The New York Times reported on the impact and reach of little-known consulting outfits like Bridgespan in the world of philanthropy. For example, mega-donor MacKenzie Scott— Jeff Bezo’s ex-wife—often uses Bridgespan to inform her philanthropic choices.

“Bridgespan may not be a household name, but its reach in philanthropic circles is significant. The group advises the biggest names in the field: the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Ford Foundation, and the Rockefeller Foundation on the philanthropy side and the YMCA of the USA, the Salvation Army, and even the Sesame Workshop on the nonprofit side.”

“And for donors looking to outsource overhead while still giving responsibly, consultants fill the gap between Jack Dorsey’s spreadsheet of gifts and a full-blown foundation with offices on Fifth Avenue.”

“Spun out of the consulting firm Bain & Company as a nonprofit, Bridgespan is one of a host of groups that arose in the early 2000s as a new wave of giving led by tech billionaires was beginning to crest.”

According to the NYTimes, Bridgespan is a 501(c)(3) started by “three men with ties to the for-profit management consultant Bain & Company, including Bain’s then-worldwide managing partner Thomas Tierney. The founders received $1.3 million from the consulting firm and $5.5 million from a group of foundations to see if a dedicated nonprofit could do a better job than for-profit consultants dabbling in pro bono work.”

Their 2020 client list is three pages of nonprofit advisories, philanthropy and investor advisories, projects, and collaborators.

The Bridgespan Group also writes articles on a variety of socially conscious topics, including subjects like—how to overcome racial bias in philanthropic funding, nonprofit planning during a crisis, Black injustice, philanthropic response to COVID-19, various stories on overseas collaboratives, population and climate control, social change, and more. They have 70k subscribers, numerous publications and blogs, speaking engagements, and 2.5 million page views on their website. They are very active on multiple social media platforms. They have offices in San Francisco, New York City, Boston, Mumbai, and Johannesburg. They employ a total of 267 employees worldwide.

Bridgespan 2020 Annual Report

Their balance sheet in 2019 was impressive for a non-profit because they did not spend more than they took in. The nonprofit’s revenue for 2019 was $54,704,306 and the 16 “key employees and officers” all earn three figures. Bradach’s salary was $566,173 per the Group’s 2019 990 form.

Their Board of Trustees shows several individuals from Bain & Company; Mark Nunnelly, Kara Gruver, and Bob Bechek are among them. The CEO of the board is Fred Blackwell. Cheryl Dorsey of Echoing Green and John Donohoe of Nike, Inc are also trustees, among others.

The 2020 roster of Bridgespan funders includes Bain & Company, MacKenzie Scott and Dan Jewitt, the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Pritzker Foundation, The Omidyar Network, and many other socially conscious individuals and foundations. In 2020 alone, their total assets were $136 million. According to the NYTimes, Bridgespan’s 2020 tax filing shows “contributions and grants leaping to $74.7 million” from $12,497,902 in 2019. The Group reportedly nearly doubled its assets in 2020.

Bridgespan Group Funders

Bridgespan is a different model in the world of nonprofits because the group looks at its consulting practice from a business perspective. The NYTimes writes:

“Giving away money used to be approached as a distinct enterprise from making money. The strategies, language, and reams of analytics do not always translate to the nonprofit world, where “return on investment” could be harder to quantify.”

Bridgespan consultants take a business model approach to philanthropic giving, taking a brutal look at nonprofits to ensure they stay in the game for the long haul. They help donors assess where to invest their donations, encouraging them to go big rather than “spreading the money around.” Bridgespan encourages the targeting of creators and nonprofits that have a high potential for long-term success. It is often elusive for entrepreneurs in the nonprofit world to find funding. Bridgespan provides the manpower, assets, and business acumen to analyze the quality of the investment and then make the necessary connections between dreamers and philanthropist donors. Bridgespan helps pair nonprofits with investors like MacKenzie Scott.

“Ms. Scott has made it a priority to give to such previously underfunded groups. But she has no website or headquarters or way to apply for grants, leaving groups scrambling for a way to get on her radar.”

Bridgespan, in effect, bridges the gap.

2022: The Audacious Project’s New Cohort of Investments

The Audacious Project community came “together to catalyze more than $900 million for nine bold projects” in 2020. CTCL and its U.S. Alliance for Election Excellence benefitted from $80 million for the Project.

The full 2021-22 Audacious Project grantees are as follows:

“These projects reflect continued collaboration between a group of global partners, philanthropic organizations and determined individuals who believe in the power of pooling significant, long-term resources in service of impact. Our hope is that this inspires others to engage in the work too.”

The existing Audacious portfolio consists of “39 projects, with over $3.1 billion of philanthropic dollars catalyzed since 2015.”