“Do you have an ambitious idea for tackling one of the world’s biggest problems?”
June 8, 2018: The application
Tyler: On Friday, June 8, 2018 I was doing my regular Friday review of funding opportunities. One of the emails I look at every week is the Tech Nonprofit Leaders Weekly from Fast Forward. An opportunity popped out at me: “Do you have an ambitious idea for tackling one of the world’s biggest problems? The Audacious Project has set an audacious goal to fund 7 world changing ideas that are truly bold and truly actionable. Learn more”. As is quite usual for us, we put together an application - with an hour to spare before the 11:59pm deadline!
August 31, 2018: Rejection
Tyler: So, this arrived. For better or worse, we’ve become quite accustomed to this type of email. We let the disappointment sink in for all of about 30 seconds, then moved on with other tasks for the day.
May 16, 2019: An unexpected surprise
Tyler: Then, a year later, we get an email following up on our prior year’s application! I read, “Thank you again for the time and effort you put into sharing an inspiring application with The Audacious Project last year! In our first public process in 2018, we received a significant volume of high-quality ideas, more than we could possibly support in a single year. This year, while we are welcoming new candidates, we are also revisiting some promising ideas in the existing pool to see how they have progressed. With that in mind - if you are still interested in The Audacious Project, we would like to invite you to share an application for this year.”
We re-submitted and within a week were invited back for Round 2! I’d like to say our Round 2 application was a team effort, but Rebecca completely re-imagined the text I had originally drafted - to think even bigger and help readers not familiar with our mission to truly feel the magnitude of the issue our community is taking on.
Rebecca: Over the few days I was working on the proposal I was in Barranquilla Colombia, so I was quite literally sweating over every word. The word limit was intense on all the questions, particularly: “Please describe the key steps necessary for this idea to be successful. Be as specific as possible about your intervention, as well as about what other factors are required for this to work.” Word limit: 250 words. 250 words? How can we be specific about a five year plan in 250 words! Nonetheless we battled through trying to be both specific and succinct, and submitted our application under the title: What if…we could map one billion people currently missing from the world’s maps?
July 30, 2019: Holding our breath
Rebecca: We bumbled our way through a nerve-wracking online meeting with Head of TED, Chris Anderson and Executive Director of the Audacious Project Anna Verghese, ending the call with zero idea if they loved or hated our idea.. were their facial expressions interested or bemused!? A few days later, we found out we made it through to the shortlist!
September 11-13, 2019: Ideation workshop
Rebecca: We’re invited to a three day ideation workshop in NYC with the other finalists, and after travelling 4am-midnight the day before to make three flight connections, this day started with a lot of nervous energy! We kicked off with a 1:1 meeting with Chris and Anna, during which it became radically clear to us we hadn’t spent enough time in Excel modelling numbers. Starting on this nervous “we don’t have Silicon Valley pitching experience, what are we meant to do now” note, we dove into the workshop drawing things on whiteboards, erasing them, then drawing again on repeat.
Despite a nervous start, the warmth and kindness of the Audacious Team really shone through, making us feel so much more comfortable by the end of the day. Chris and his wife Jacqueline kindly hosted us at their apartment, and Chris somehow managed to facilitate 25 people to have one single conversation over dinner. During this, we got to learn about the inspirational journeys of our fellow Audacious applicants. I truly felt like I was in the presence of brilliance, but the imposter syndrome really set in: We aren’t founders. How are we “inspirational”? How could we possibly compete? Lying awake in the hotel that night, I realised that was actually our strength in this process: HOT isn’t about any one individual or a single story: HOT is about hundreds of thousands of people coming together to create a different future: the spirit and action of every one of those stories is important. I felt incredibly fortunate to be one of the two people representing HOT in this process, but the pressure was ON to not let the community, or the big vision of what this could be, down…
After this, we flew straight to Heidelberg Germany and into the flurry of the HOT Board meeting > HOT Staff meeting > HOT Summit > State of the Map > Missing Maps Gathering…
Tyler & Rebecca during their hour long wedding-style photoshoot on a New York rooftop
Rebecca: Then the real hard work set in. Two months to prepare a detailed proposal and meet with potential donors. So many days spent in Excel. So much time spent writing and rewriting. So many hours spent on the phone with Tyler. So many hard questions to answer. That said, for me, this is the unique part about the Audacious Project: they fund big ideas that have their head in the skies but their feet on the ground. It’s tantalizing to talk about “dreams” and “vision”, but we can’t forget all the collective hard work and time spent in the trenches to make sure it all adds up… 16 December rolled around and we hit send on our proposal, feeling hopeful but also terrified.
January - The Talk
Rebecca: January was a blur of trying to catch up on all the work I’d missed while we’d been writing the proposal, but Tyler and I also set about the task of distilling the HOT journey into a nine minute talk. Then, after absorbing as much as I could from Chris Anderson’s book ‘The official guide to TED public speaking’, I walked up into the hills above my idyllic Cusco home and repeated the talk over and over again to my dog…
And then, 26 January 26 rolled around and another Sunday taking that 4am-midnight journey to NYC. I’d recorded the talk on my phone and listened to it on repeat the whole way, repeating the words over and over.. Filming the talk was… intense. I had a horrible cold and took literally every cold medicine I could find in NYC. In the practice filming I don’t think I breathed once for the whole nine minutes. I spilled bright purple juice all over my top one minute before filming and had to borrow clothes from our wonderful TED Curator Helen. But then the moment came, the nervous laughs were over, and I walked onto the red dot, and somehow it all just tumbled out…
Practising the talk online with our TED Curator Helen Walters
February: hearing from the donors
Tyler: One of the things that makes the Audacious Project rare is that donors come together to make investment decisions collaboratively. After watching the TED talk and going through our proposal they would call us to talk about our idea. In advance of this call, Rebecca and I received instructions: Be sitting together (which wasn’t possible given Rebecca was in Cusco, Peru and I was in NYC). Have flawless internet connectivity. Be available at any time to receive a call. Needless to say, it was quite an unusual and high-pressure situation. As HOT’s ED, I felt especially responsible for the outcome on behalf of our entire organization and community.
When we received the call, they were sitting in chairs outdoors arranged in a semi-circle. After brief introductions, the questions streamed in. Concrete use cases and examples. Stories of how HOT and OpenStreetMap changed lives. Questions on how we would actually execute. How could we do Microgrants in some of the world’s most challenging contexts. Sixty minutes later, it was done. We hung up. And waited…
Later that evening we dialed back into the conference line and we waited, making nervous conversation between ourselves, unsure if anyone was actually listening… finally one of the donors got on the line and announced: “On behalf of all the donors and myself, we are committing to a 5-year investment in your Audacious vision…”
Rebecca: After a few hours on a slightly manic FaceTime with Tyler, we settled down. A lot of times over the past few months, I wasn’t sure if we’d ever get through it!
Tyler: By manic, Rebecca means pacing back and forth in our respective houses for about three hours, making late night phone calls to our senior management team and Board President in Europe, and barely containing the excitement!
What was it like telling the team?
Tyler: Frankly, from the moment we found out in February, it felt like we had a secret burning inside us that we desperately wanted to share with our colleagues and community. A huge factor in this success was that our staff and community had quite literally worked for 10 years to build the foundation that helped donors to believe our vision was now achievable. Colleagues in our Uganda country office had organized an elaborate onsite donor visit, team members had been pulled off other work to contribute to data needed for the proposal, working long and extra hours. Many had done this without having certainty over their own contracts beyond a few months. We owed it to them to thank them and celebrate together.
But we had to wait a bit longer. We were still finalizing grant agreements with donors, and the official announcement wasn’t slated to happen until April at the TED conference in Vancouver.
Between the donor retreat and April, the Covid-19 pandemic happened. Our launch was delayed and replanned multiple times. We finally were able to tell our entire team, community and voting members in June. Our staff are in 19 countries. We did this on a global Zoom call. Almost every single staff member of our 112 staff across all levels and roles was there. Being able to share my joy and excitement was special because of what it was going to mean for our team – helping us to unite around a single vision over an unheard-of timeframe – 5 years.
Rebecca: The TED Conference I’d been idolizing attending for so long happened virtually, and I watched the talk stream from my sofa. Not being able to share the news with the team immediately was one of the hardest parts about the process, so the moment of launch was filled with excitement. The way the HOT community and particularly the staff team have pulled together to keep their work on track through this time is phenomenal: every person has gone the extra mile, and we’re fortunate this Audacious news has given us a sharper focus.
Telling the team and moving at speed into planning phase reminds me of one of my favourite quotes from the final episode of The American Office: “I wish there was a way to know you’re in the good old days before you’ve actually left them”. When we started this process we were nervously daring; wanting to believe this could be possible - but none of it felt real. And with the belief and enigmatic spirit of the Audacious Team and donors we got there. And now, this is it for us: these are the good old days. This sort of thing doesn’t happen to non-profits, but it’s happened to us. This is our chance to make a real change: the hard work has only just begun…