Inside the Omidyar Network’s Push to Build a “Culture of Belonging” in America

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“Everyone knows that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. may have uttered these words back in 1964, but for Omidyar Network Senior Vice President of Programs Michele Jawando, the sentiment still rings true today.

“Here in the U.S., we have great diversity, but we have great silos, and we’re very comfortable with them,” she said. This detachment feeds what Jawando calls “the demonization and the dehumanization” of others, which is precisely what ON seeks to “interrupt” through its newest focus area, Building Cultures of Belonging.

Publicly announced in October after four years of planning, the program will invest “in the people and institutions equipping our increasingly diverse society to turn toward one another rather than against each other” over the next decade. ON, which is the primary giving vehicle of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, will commit a total of $35 million to $40 million to the program across the next four years.

The focus area is textbook Omidyarism. An added focus on reshaping the contours of the body politic rests comfortably next to ON’s other two priorities, Reimagining Capitalism and Responsible Technology. It’s a reminder that ON isn’t shy about tackling society’s complex structural underpinnings — even a seemingly amorphous concept like “belonging.” Yet at the same time, the program applies the kind of robust performance management rigor that we’ve come to expect from an outcomes-oriented tech donor. “This work is rooted in science,” said Director David Hsu, who leads the program. “There are some very real cause-and-effect patterns.”

With Building Cultures of Belonging, ON joins a growing number of funders finding their own approaches to healing America’s divides at a time of profound social, economic and political upheaval. It’s a complex issue, and a source of ongoing disagreement in the nonprofit and philanthropy world, with differing opinions on how exactly to diagnose and treat the problem.

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