Turning Breakdowns into Breakthroughs: How Omidyar Network is Contributing to Systems Change

Illustration by Studio J Lorne (Krystie Mariano and Jason Lorne Giles)


By Jessica Kiessel, Senior Director, Learning and Impact

We live in tumultuous times. From our environment to our social fabric, it can feel like things are breaking down all around us. At Omidyar Network, we are working to find breakthrough opportunities in the face of these breakdowns by getting curious about what is happening and adapting as needed.

When we set off on this journey six years ago, the world was a different place. But even before a global pandemic, the racial reckoning set off by the murder of George Floyd, and the insurrection at the US Capitol, we understood things needed to change. While we were proud of our work, we knew we needed to do more to address the root causes of the growing inequities and ever-widening societal divisions that would profoundly define our future.

After deep internal reflection, we dramatically shifted our focus and approach. In 2018, we set our sights on helping to reshape systems that hold our economy, technology, and society in place to be more equitable and inclusive. We also adopted a new approach to how we work.

A few years into this ongoing journey, we are pleased to share initial reflections about how we have changed our approach to learning and now hold ourselves accountable for progress. As it turns out, if you want to contribute to transformational change, you must be willing to commit to the hard, twisty work of transforming yourself. Here is our story so far.

Asking, what does this work need from us? And, stepping in

At Omidyar Network, we have always been willing to reinvent ourselves. We continuously assess what we believe is necessary to support social change and then modifying our strategies accordingly. In fact, Omidyar Network was launched in 2004 to test the idea that there may be an alternative approach to traditional family foundations. In 2018, we leaned into this legacy of adaptation, asking ourselves: 1.) What will it take to shift systems and address the root causes of inequity? And 2.) What role should Omidyar Network — and philanthropy at large — play in contributing to this change?

We understood that to contribute to a future in which people live in cultures of belonging, thrive in a more equitable economy, and experience technology as a positive force, we needed to work with complex systems and get comfortable with uncertainty. Looking forward, we knew we would not be able to drive change and predict cause and effect. The work of addressing root causes would be more relational and unpredictable than that.

As our CEO Mike Kubzansky noted at the outset of this work, we must continuously remind ourselves that social change is a team sport that requires us to be nimble and flexible. We knew we needed to experiment and learn with our partners and find our feet together. We also knew our understanding of current dynamics and what’s possible would only be as good as our listening and relationships.

We stepped into this change by shifting our strategic approach and organizational structure. We expanded the tools we use far beyond the impact investing we had previously been known for to include narrative and culture change, policy and advocacy work, participatory grantmaking, and so much more. We empowered teams to adjust their work as their external context changed and as they learned with partners — and to reward them for it. We began to share our emerging perspectives on the positive change we hope our strategies will support. Over time, we diversified Omidyar Network staff to bring in experiences and networks that better reflect the systems we work within.

Getting curious about breakdowns

Shifting our approach changed who we are and how we work. Nevertheless, we occasionally find ourselves falling back on old habits and outdated thinking that don’t serve us well.

We still have blind spots in how we see the world and imagine the future. Sometimes, we accidently slip into analysis paralysis looking for the right answers, expertise, and more certainty when instead we need to make smart, bold bets.

We find ourselves celebrating near-term wins or banner headlines that don’t signal sustained systems change. This can distract us from listening to the richer feedback we receive from the people who are on the ground working to change these inequitable systems. And, even though we know social change is a team sport, we still act at times as if we can drive change ourselves instead of moving through the world being one part of the change.

When these breakdowns inevitably happen, we stop, reflect, and get curious. We ask: What will it take to contribute to meaningful systems change? What is our role in this work? Then we try again.

Staying attentive to who we want to be

Reimaging how we work and our role in this work is not easy. Ultimately, it’s about people and relationships. We must consistently ask: Who do we want to be in this work? And how do we want to show up for our partners and for each other?

Disrupting personal routines and interpersonal patterns is uncomfortable even when you know it is essential.

I know this from experience. I was appointed head of Omidyar Network’s learning and impact work for my expertise in conducting randomized controlled evaluations. When I started in 2017, it was gratifying to help my colleagues and our partners with their technical questions as we honed monitoring systems and designed new program evaluations. I got an emotional high from rattling off guidance that made me feel useful.

But being a “knower” who provides technical answers is no longer the primary role Omidyar Network needs me to play. With our new approach, I needed to find ways to accompany my colleagues and our partners as they work to act and make decisions in the face of uncertainty.

So, I began experimenting with how to show up differently. I focused my attention on holding space for learning and reflection. To support my colleagues as they grappled with challenges and worked to incorporate lessons learned, I tried to set a good example by talking about feelings, naming and working through disagreements we formerly glossed over, and sharing my own mistakes. Just ask me about team learning plans or my muddled attempts to describe my new work to leadership. The first time I shared a big failure, the silence made me sweat. I still catch myself longing for the quick ego hit that comes from knowing a technical answer or the speed of implementing something alone.

When this happens, I force myself to stop and reflect and remember that the real work is staying attentive to the important role Omidyar Network — and in turn each of us as individuals — can play to create the conditions needed for the change we collectively want to see. Even, and especially, when it’s uncomfortable.

Evolving Omidyar Network’s approach to learning and understanding of progress

When you let curiosity and hope guide you, your journey is never done. Staying curious about what we can do to more meaningful contribute to systems change is helping us turn breakdowns into breakthroughs.*

As we continue to work toward breakthroughs, we are committing to strengthening our efforts in these three areas:

1. Celebrate learning and wise adaptation as progress. In the past, we thought about learning as a product. Now, we understand learning as being in service to decision-making. As we work with our partners in dynamic contexts, we know we need to create time for deep engagement and listening. We must adapt based on what we hear.

As we learn together — connecting the dots across our work and networks rather than distilling lessons for one person, project, or focus area — we must link partners and insights in new ways and build relationships outside our usual networks. These efforts continue to shift our priorities and expand what we imagine is possible.

At Omidyar Network, a measure of success is when we — or our partners — update our strategies in response to new information and lessons learned.

2. Share our perspective on successful outcomes and what we are learning. Being on the same team requires each of us to communicate how we understand our role and what we are learning from and with each other. We received clear feedback in our Grantee Perception Report that this type of transparency has not been our strength.

We are working to improve how we share our perspectives about why we are in this work and what success looks like, as well as the patterns and insights we are seeing across our work. We are doing this not only by publishing blogs like we did with Worker Power and New Economic Paradigm, but also by building trusting, dynamic relationships with our partners in an effort to more efficiently and effectively adapt our plans together.

We believe building trusting relationships that support shared learning is a powerful way to amplify our progress together.

3. Hold ourselves accountable for and learn from our decisions and actions. Ultimately, we are responsible for our decisions and actions. When we get in the way of progress, we must hold ourselves accountable and do our best to change course.

This means pausing during strategy milestones to understand how we are doing and reflecting on both confirming and disconfirming evidence as we assess our full portfolio of activities and investments. External evaluators help us collect feedback from a wide range of perspectives, including those who disagree with us, and weigh whether our decisions and actions reflect our commitments and values. We know there will be difficult things to hear (there already has been!). We commit to sharing what we are learning with you and shifting our approach based on those lessons.

While the social change we have committed to will take time, and we may never fully understand our contribution, we have a responsibility to keep asking what we can do to better meet our commitments and live in accordance with our values.

We know we have more to learn. To contribute to a future in which all people feel they belong, are included in meaningful ways in our economy, and can participate in a responsible technology system, we must embrace learning as central to our work.

As we continue to work to turn breakdowns into breakthroughs, we anticipate many more head-slapping epiphanies. We look forward to sharing updates with you as we learn and strive to be more effective partners.


* Much gratitude to Heidi Sparkes Guber for introducing me to the concept of breakdowns to breakthroughs in 2019.