our co-founder, Pierre Omidyar, sought a way to harness the power of individuals, technology, and community to create a new and unique kind of market. Over Labor Day weekend in 1995, AuctionWeb, the precursor to eBay, was born.
After creating eBay, Pierre and his wife Pam turned their focus toward philanthropy.
They share a strong belief that people are inherently good and capable, but don’t always have access to opportunity. Their philanthropy focuses on increasing that access and addressing inequities through innovative long-term solutions that empower individuals, cultivate accountable and adaptive institutions, and build healthier societies.
Pierre’s early belief in the power of markets and technology, and the accompanying imperative to think big about what’s possible, is a thread that runs through Omidyar Network’s history—as is a willingness to think creatively about how philanthropy operates across systems that impact our lives.
Omidyar Network’s early approach to change centered on making direct investments in (social) entrepreneurs who could have an outsized impact on their sectors, pursuing innovative solutions at scale, both directly and indirectly.
We often complemented this with grant-making that benefits the whole sector. Along the way, we learned three things:
Entrepreneurial innovations alone often cannot get us to where we need to be in our economy and society. Changing a sector to get to a healthy society requires multiple approaches at different levels in a given system for these solutions to succeed in delivering real inclusion and opportunity.
As a result, we need to focus not just on solutions within the existing system, but additionally on the root causes, rules, mindsets, and other upstream elements that shape a given system.
From 2018 to 2020, we decided that our initiatives that focused on specific issues like financial health, property rights, education, emerging technology, digital rights, civic participation, independent media, and other sectors would spin out to become their own independent entities (that continue to be a part of The Omidyar Group).
They continue their path-breaking work as Flourish Ventures, Omidyar Network India, Spero Ventures, Imaginable Futures, Luminate, and PLACE. We are proud to have them as thought partners and peers in this work (along with other Omidyar Group entities like Democracy Fund), spanning dozens of countries across the world.
1995 – 2008
Throughout the evolution of our organization, we have assumed a variety of structures to achieve one consistent goal: Build healthy systems that can foster innovation, scale solutions, and solve big challenges.
Pam and Pierre soon realized that the eBay experience was applicable to their philanthropy. They had seen firsthand how the eBay platform empowered millions of people to make a living as entrepreneurs. But our individual foundation grants impacted tens of thousands, at most.
These insights led to the creation in 2004 of Omidyar Network, a hybrid LLC and foundation entity that enabled for-profit investing alongside grant-making. This novel structure allowed us to support early-stage organizations that catalyze economic and social change, and gave us the autonomy to work flexibly across the returns continuum.
Our structure allowed us to adopt an “impact first, tool second” approach, centering systems and impact, and deploying relevant tools as needed.
OFF to ON: Omidyar Family Foundation becomes Omidyar Network
2012 – 2018
As the organization matured and learned from supporting entrepreneurial endeavors across the globe, we found that our flexible toolkit was particularly suited to certain sectors and supported the infrastructure that enabled them to replicate and scale.
In 2013, we reorganized the firm around specific “sectors” or “vertical” initiatives, each of which housed dedicated global teams and a distinct initiative strategy and theory of change. Our initiatives included Education, Emerging Tech (formerly Consumer Internet and Mobile), Financial Inclusion, Governance & Citizen Engagement, Impact Investing, Field Building, and Property Rights. Over time, we added an initiative on Digital Identity and explored opportunities in Consumer Solar/Energy systems, and did additional work to build out entrepreneurial ecosystems in developing country markets.
We developed a belief that there is a broad range of viable investment profiles, some of which involved a trade-off between social return and financial impact, and many which did not.
In 2016, we presented an investment framework, Across the Returns Continuum, that extends from fully commercial investments at one end to philanthropic grants at the other.
We evolved from our origins in Silicon Valley to teams based in Africa (originally Johannesburg), Mumbai, Bangalore, London, and Washington DC. We also built out our toolkit to provide our partners with more than investment and grant capital, giving human capital support and building out a research and intellectual capital team and practice to share our learnings back to the field.
As we approached the end of our first decade, we took stock of our successes and failures, impact and lessons of our first decade of work.
Initiatives for Sector-Level Focus
2018 – Present
Our world changed dramatically between 2005 and 2018. With multiple economic, social, political, and technological changes that fundamentally altered our operating context, these changes became too powerful to ignore. Sharp and rising inequality, worsening white supremacy and “othering,” a planet in crisis, technology’s increasingly pervasive role in our lives, liberal democracy under threat….the list of challenges and ills that surfaced, or were exacerbated, in the 2010s is long.
In order to continue to have a meaningful impact in the decade ahead, we decided to update and diversify our approaches to match these new challenges.
We launched several of our long-standing initiatives as independent sister organizations, allowing them greater control and decision-making authority over their work as they continue the high-impact original approaches they pioneered over the past decade.
At the same time, Omidyar Network turned our focus to addressing a core set of pressing, difficult, and inter-related issues that permeate our society today, and to do so by addressing the upstream macro root causes that shape and drive outcomes in three broad areas. The first two draw deeply on our prior history of working on economic inclusion and technology access issues, and the third is a critical issue for our society, but where we are in the nascent stages of our exploration.
A New Approach for a New Frontier