Sending Strength and Support Amid COVID-19

By Mike Kubzansky, CEO, Omidyar Network

Dear Omidyar Network Family,

We are now several months into the pandemic and accompanying economic shock. The early days of the lockdown were sown with confusion, fear, and frustration. And above all, loss, on a scale that few of us could have imagined. We collectively grieve for the nearly 100,000 who have died in the US, and for the millions of others affected either directly or indirectly around the globe.

For many of us, those early feelings have only intensified, or shifted into other more complicated emotions. Some of us have used this time to care for family members, whether it’s taking timeout for homeschooling help (we love seeing little ones pop up in our Zoom meetings), delivering groceries to aging parents, or supporting loved ones who have fallen ill.

Others are living alone and looking for connection, whether adopting or fostering pets (we really love seeing them on Zoom!) or signing up for more video calls to see family and friends.

And some are taking a necessary step back to deal with the harsh toll COVID-19 is taking on us physically, mentally, and emotionally.

We are strongly encouraging our staff to take whatever time they may need for themselves and their families. In fact, we are closing our “offices” June 29 — July 3 for what we are calling our “week of decompression”. Our primary focus — for our staff, grantees, investees, and partners — is taking care of their health and well-being. And we will continue to take advantage of the privilege of being able to do our work from home for the foreseeable future.

But one thing remains the same. The past few months has confirmed for us a deep sense of purpose and resolve in the face of unprecedented health, human, and economic toll. We continue to believe that we selected essential areas of strategic focus in 2018. The crisis is demonstrating that:

  • Modern capitalism is indeed in crisis, and in many ways contributed to the severity of the economic shock;
  • Tech is becoming even more central and powerful in our lives, and will indeed shape our new world to come, and
  • Pluralism is essential to address, or we will continue to see massive and unacceptable disparities ripple through our societies.

Much of our work to achieve these goals continues apace, as they are only made more salient and urgent by the pandemic and its effects in almost every facet of our lives. This note, however, focuses on our work as it specifically relates to the pandemic.

Omidyar Network Support to Investees and Grantees

Through all of the ups and downs, chaos and calm, I continue to be deeply impressed by how people are coming together — while remaining physically distant — to support each other with their time, energy, and resources.

It’s in that last category that Omidyar Network has been grateful to make a small difference to support the pivotal work of our partners and grantees that are doing everything they can to aid families, communities, the economy and our society, so we can rebuild a healthier, more resilient future and not return to the status quo that didn’t work for most.

We continue to encourage our grantees and investees to let us know how we can best help them — whether that’s flexible grant terms, extending timelines, or emergency, unconditional funds. So far, we have worked with 25 grantees and investees to provide grant extensions, acceleration of disbursements, additional funding, and other provisions to help ease them through the crisis. If you are an existing investee or grantee, and have not yet done so, please reach out to your program team. We hope you see us as your partner to help you get through this unbelievably challenging time, not only with capital but also connections, support, and flexibility.

Congress led an initial unprecedented response to the twin public health and economic crises, and no doubt there will be more legislation to address the pandemic and its fallout in the coming weeks and months. We continue to monitor and engage with those on the Hill to ensure that essential workers, frontline workers, small business owners, and those who are now unemployed, sit front and center in future legislation.

With one eye on the continued policy response, in the beginning of May, we launched our Economic Response Advocacy Fund. Since then, we received more than 90 applications from local, state, and national groups. To date, we have invested in eight organizations, with more in the pipeline. These organizations are already advocating for better worker voice at the workplace (and in the industry relief packages), inclusion of people who are typically left out and marginalized (particularly immigrant communities) in the stimulus, and increased broadband access during a time when many families are struggling to manage childcare, school, and their jobs.

Highlight: Our Grantees’ Responses to the Crisis

We remain proud to work with so many groups who have turned their attention to address the crisis and lay the groundwork to build a more resilient and inclusive economy and tech sector.

Our partners in civil society that work with our Beneficial Technology team have quickly adapted tactics to respond to COVID-19.

Providing information and combatting misinformation:

  • Aspen Tech Policy Hub’s Fellows Program has developed new projects, including a university team developing a risk-based algorithm to be embedded in popular navigation systems (e.g., Google Maps) that enables the public to make informed choices about where they visit, and a disinformation-focused news website building a COVID-19 search engine to enable journalists and researchers to find misinformation trends in coronavirus reporting.
  • Global Disinformation Index is tracking how Google is harming respectable brands’ reputation by placing their ads next to COVID-19 related disinformation.
  • Center for Humane Technology launched a COVID-19 microsite to show the best ways social media platforms can apply their strengths to fight COVID-19.

Protecting privacy, safeguarding data, and promoting guardrails on tech:

In our efforts to Reimagine Capitalism, the work of our grantees has had a profound impact on the response to the COVID-19 crisis:

Protecting essential workers, advocating for worker power, and building a more resilient economy:

  • At the end of last month, United for Respect (UFR), with support from the Athena Coalition, organized more than 500 people working at over 60 Amazon warehouse locations, to call out from work to protest working conditions and lack of transparency. Currently, about 150,000 Walmart associates are on a leave of absence for fear of being exposed and putting their loved ones at risk. UFR members have worked diligently to launch a COVID-19 tracker website to track infections and monitor Walmart store conditions.
  • As of April 23, the National Domestic Workers Alliance has raised more than $19.8 million in funding specifically for the Coronavirus Care Fund, to provide emergency cash assistance to more than 47,000 domestic workers, many of whom are not covered by federal relief efforts.
  • In partnership with Clean Slate for Worker PowerThe Roosevelt Institute recently released a proposal on how — and why — to empower workers in the COVID-19 response. The Roosevelt Institute also conducted a poll with Groundwork Collaborative that found that two thirds of Americans want policymakers to do more, on both immediate economic needs and on fixing deeper economic problems.
  • Measuring Real Income Growth Act, a longtime priority for the Washington Center for Equitable Growth, is now included in the Health and Economic Recovery Omnibus Emergency Solutions, or HEROES Act that passed the House of Representatives recently.

Holding corporations accountable, ensuring public support reaches true small businesses, and protecting consumers:

  • Better Markets introduced a “tracer” to track and monitor all coronavirus-related emergency actions taken by the financial regulators. It was the first to call on the financial industry to voluntarily suspend capital distributions and, failing that, for the Federal Reserve to prohibit all stock buybacks and dividends
  • Americans for Financial Reform is co-leading a coalition calling for tough conditions and accountability for any financial assistance given to large corporations or financial institutions. The coalition will play a watchdog role on the Fed’s lending to large businesses. They are also advocating for consumer finance protections in COVID response legislative packages including issues like foreclosure and evictions, credit reporting, and predatory lending.
  • The US Impact Investing Alliance was part of a coalition that persuaded regulators to slow down rewriting the US Community Reinvestment Act, to protect this necessary channel of support to hard-hit small businesses, particularly in underserved, low-income communities of color.

Omidyar Network’s Latest Response

As the health shocks and underlying economic weaknesses continue to impact our country, we have considered how we can best use our voice to not only support people who are desperately hurting, but looking forward, to fundamentally restructure our economy — and society as a whole — to be more inclusive, equitable, and resilient.

We expedited the release of Our Vision for the Future of Workers and Work, our blueprint for growing worker power. While we have been focused on economic issues for years, the COVID-19 crisis has brought into sharp focus why working people need more power. In our view, essential workers should not have to wait for an emergency act of Congress to get paid sick leave or basic PPE. If they had more power at work and in the economy, such measures would not be necessary.

Simultaneously, we released a survey with Data for Progress that shows broad US support for worker power; despite party affiliation, most Americans view unions as positive for working people, andat present, most Americans believe working people do not have the power and voice they need in the workplace.

Finally, alongside many of our grantees and partners, we signed on to support several letters:

  • An Essential Worker Bill of Rights that would ensure all working people deemed essential during this crisis receive hazard pay, a livable wage, workplace health and safety protections, universal paid sick days, paid family leave, free health care, support for childcare, protections for whistleblowers, and collective bargaining protections.
  • letter that urges Congress to include conditions in the next COVID-19 response legislation that require all organizations that receive federal financial support to retain workers, preserve workers’ rights, and institute policies and procedures to protect workers from exposure to the virus.

Despite all of the uncertainty, I remain optimistic that we can, together, help turn a moment of crisis into a better and more equitable world. I believe our future continues to hold tremendous promise. The unprecedented and sustained levels of cooperation, mutual aid, and support in our communities continue to provide grounds for hope amidst the wreckage.

I also believe in the words of James Baldwin, “The world is before you and you need not take it or leave it as it was when you came in.” Today, we are doing all we can to take care of ourselves, our families, and our community so that together we can rebuild a more resilient future. We are immensely grateful for your continued partnership and will continue to update you.

In gratitude and health,

Mike Kubzansky, CEO, Omidyar Network