Will Omidyarism Conquer Philanthropy?
Remember when Pierre Omidyar was seen as an odd duck in the philanthropy world?
People used to scratch their heads, wondering just what the heck this eBay billionaire was up to as he and his wife Pam melded traditional grantmaking with for-profit investments. Omidyar was routinely referred to as a “philanthropist” who ran a “foundation,” but that’s not how he saw himself. Sure, his Omidyar Network, created in 2004, included a nonprofit foundation, but it also had an LLC—and, boy, did that throw people for a loop. It was hard even to find a term to describe the Omidyar Network. What was this thing?
To some, it was a threat. Omidyar was the Silicon Valley barbarian at the gates of philanthropy—a market fundamentalist with a heart so cold he was ready to profit off of micro-loans to the poorest people on Earth and challenge the thinking of the saintly Nobel Laureate Mohammed Yunus.
Today, all that seems like ancient history. Omidyar’s model for using his fortune to improve the world now seems pretty darn obvious: namely, that wealthy do-gooders should use whatever approaches are best suited to solving a particular problem. In some cases, that might mean backing a traditional nonprofit with a grant; in others it may make more sense to invest in for-profit enterprises with a social mission.
“If you’re trying to make the world a better place, doing so by only focusing on tools in the nonprofit sector is like operating with one hand tied behind your back,” Omidyar told the Chronicle of Philanthropy in 2011. In the past decade, the Omidyar Network, which calls itself a “philanthropic investment firm,” has made a long stream of grants and investments worth hundreds of millions of dollars.
To be sure, Omidyar didn’t invent this hybrid model; nor has he been it’s only high profile apostle—Jean Case has also been preaching this gospel for a long time, while Acumen has been investing in for-profits to fight global poverty for nearly 15 years now. I could name other pioneers, too. But Pierre Omidyar—tapping a vast eBay fortune that currently stands at $8 billion—has brought more resources to this new frontier than anyone else, scaling the model globally and across multiple issue areas.