Perhaps no couple captures the breadth of tech giving as much as eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam. Visit the Omidyar Group’s website and you’ll see 10 organizations they’ve founded, spanning fields like education (Imaginable Futures), governance and civic engagement (Democracy Fund and Luminate), and media (First Look Media).
Several years ago, we even coined a term for the couple’s giving—Omidyarism—which finds them combining traditional 501(c)(3) grantmaking with the political giving and impact investing of an LLC. Their primary vehicle, the Omidyar Network (ON), has committed more than $1 billion since 2004 under this hybrid model.
In some ways, the Omidyars are an embodiment of tech donors’ tendency to defy easy categorization—something we explored in our recently released deep dive into tech giving. Tech givers vary widely on things like their key priorities, when they choose to embark on active giving and the operational machinations they use. And they’re in the news a lot lately. Across a two-year stretch defined by a global pandemic and national racial reckoning, massive gifts and commitments from tech billionaires proliferated, adding fuel to the debate over their wide-ranging influence.
The Omidyars, on the other hand, were comparatively quiet on the public front, despite the fact that Pierre’s net worth jumped from $7 billion in early March 2020 to $12 billion a year later. Add it all up, and the Omidyars’ giving over the past couple years both corroborated and refuted prevailing narratives about tech giving. They employed probably the most unique giving strategy of any tech donor, while at the same time refraining from the kind of major public announcements that define the ecosystem.
But a closer look into the couple’s philanthropy underscores the fact that public mega-gifts aren’t always the best metric by which to gauge a donors’ largesse, efficacy or impact. It’s also a reminder that tech billionaires’ largesse is often tied to company stock performance. And judging from the pounding many tech firms have taken in the market so far this year, the high-flying sector may be due for a correction.
Seed then cede
The Omidyars typically fund their organizations with stock contributions. For example, a review of the Democracy Fund’s 2019 Form 990 shows that the Pierre M. Omidyar Trust contributed a combined $62.9 million in shares of PayPal and eBay stock that year. (Omidyar owns roughly 5% of eBay and 6% of Paypal, according to Forbes.)
Once the contributions are made, the organization sells the shares and Omidyars step back and let leaders do their thing. A few years ago, Omidyar Network CEO Mike Kubzansky told IP that while Pierre managed the organization’s big-picture issues like its 2018 strategic refresh, the eBay founder wasn’t involved in day-to-day grantmaking decisions.
The Omidyars’ “seed then cede” strategy—to shamelessly paraphrase MacKenzie Scott—isn’t revelatory in and of itself, as many donors aren’t intimately involved in their foundations’ grantmaking. This approach can also lead observers to conflate an entity’s grantmaking with the donor’s personal giving, since the donor seeded and funds these organizations (another case in point: CZI giving versus Zuckerberg and Chan’s personal gifts.)
As far as the Omidyars are concerned, a Democracy Fund gift may not have Pierre’s fingerprints all over it, but it clearly has his philosophical imprint. As we’ll see, this strategy can create some ambiguity around who is writing these checks to build worker power, curb Wall Street excesses, and bring tech companies to heel.
Hunkering down in Honolulu
We didn’t uncover any truly massive commitments, either from the Omidyars personally or from their organizations, across a two-year span in which Pierre’s wealth exploded. This didn’t come as a total shock. With a few exceptions, the couple has generally shied away from splashy mega-gifts.
Moreover, if the past 24 months taught us anything, it’s that a tech donor’s swelling portfolio doesn’t necessarily translate into unprecedented generosity. Even the most generous donors had trouble chipping away at their surging fortunes, while others—Larry Ellison, Larry Page and Sergey Brin come to mind—have been missing in action entirely.
The Omidyar name did pop up from time to time. The couple publicly pledged at least $18 million in pandemic-related support through their organizations and voluntarily disclosed a hefty $62 million in donations made to 501(c)(4) entities in 2020. Last October, ON announced it will invest at least $10 million over three years to support organizations through a new focus area within its Reimagining Capitalism program.
On the whole, however, it was a somewhat underwhelming performance when measured against other leading tech mega-givers.
Last July, Puck’s Teddy Schleifer alluded to Omidyar’s diminished public profile, writing that he “has largely fallen off the map since his $250 million adventure into media, which included memorable dust-ups with Glenn Greenwald and Matt Taibbi.” Instead, Schleifer wrote, the Omidyars “have busied themselves overseeing a multi-billion-dollar philanthropic empire from a remote estate outside Honolulu, where Omidyar keeps his Gulfstream G650 and a small security force.”
Luminate steps forward
Three months later, we learned that Luminate, which was spun off from the Omidyar Network’s Governance & Citizen Engagement initiative in 2018, provided financial support to Facebook whistleblower Frances Haugen.
Suddenly, Omidyar was back on the map. “Billionaires Mark Zuckerberg and Pierre Omidyar Go Head-to-Head in Facebook Battle” read one breathless headline, giving readers the impression that Omidyar was pacing around his Honolulu compound and giving marching orders to Luminate reps via Zoom. He wasn’t.
In a statement to IP, Jim Peacock, Luminate’s director of global marketing and communication, said, “While Luminate is funded by the Omidyars, the decisions relating to the initiatives or organizations we work with are made by the Luminate team. This includes the decision to support the work of Frances Haugen. Luminate has long advocated for greater accountability and oversight of the big tech platforms and has funded work to address the emerging digital threats to democracy. We strongly support the efforts of Frances Haugen, the latest Facebook whistleblower, and all those who are bringing to light the harms being perpetrated by Facebook and the other social media platforms.”
When Haugen first went public, Peacock continued, “Luminate decided to step forward and directly support her efforts to promote a broad public debate and action on the issues that the disclosures raise. We outlined our position and support for this work in a blog post on the 19th October. Our support helped cover the travel, logistics and communications costs of Frances’ team.”
A check on Big Tech
Luminate’s support for Haugen fits into a larger narrative that Omidyar and his organizations have been laying out since at least 2017, when the Washington Post published an op-ed he wrote titled “Six Ways Social Media Has Become a Direct Threat to Democracy.” A year later, ON’s Responsible Technology program began channeling funds to organizations working to rein in the sector. By 2020, Omidyar had officially become “The Tech Billionaire Marshaling the Fight Against Big Tech.”
In February 2021, ON, which is solely funded by the Omidyars, hosted a series on whistleblowing. The organization has provided funding for the Tech Working Handbook, a collection of resources for workers who may speak out about issues of public interest, and Lioness, a storytelling platform where people can submit stories about corruption, harassment and fraud. A few weeks after Haugen testified before Congress, ON published a piece on Medium making the case for supporting tech whistleblowers.
These developments surface a series of fascinating questions. Will other civic-minded mega-donors get on board? Can Omidyar and his organizations go toe-to-toe with the world’s wealthiest corporations? And what do “results” in this case look like to a donor who has made finding “strategies to generate results” a hallmark of his giving?
We received one answer regarding the latter question on January 18 with the launch of the Tech Oversight Project. Primarily funded by ON and the Economic Security Project, a nonprofit backed in part by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes, the project funds lobbying efforts to make the industry more competitive.
The project’s first priority is lobbying senators to pass the American Innovation and Choice Online Act, a bipartisan bill that would prevent Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google from favoring their own products over those of their rivals. Should the lobbying efforts succeed, it would be the textbook definition of a strategy that generates results.
Meanwhile, ON’s efforts to “reimagine capitalism” have been humming along. “Since launching our Reimagining Capitalism program in 2019, we have invested more than $60 million to support upwards of 100 organizations working toward an economic system that benefits the many—not just the privileged few,” read a statement to IP from Kubzansky, the ON’s CEO.
We’ve been fairly upbeat about this aspect of the Omidyars’ funding in the past, simply because, like the attempts to check big tech, this is terrain few other mega-donors tread. Reimagining Capitalism at ON involves efforts like building worker power, challenging monopoly power, regulating Wall Street and shifting away from corporate shareholder primacy—pretty radical stuff for the founder of eBay, someone who was regularly called a “philanthrocapitalist” way back when.
“We want to increase economic mobility, especially for people who have been historically and systemically left behind; reduce corrosive inequality; and create good jobs so that families can get ahead and thrive,” Kubzansky’s statement read. “We know this kind of change requires a focus on structural issues and a long-term commitment. We are humbled by the work that has already been accomplished by our grantees and partners and are encouraged by the shifts we are seeing.”
ON’s website includes its Reimagining Capitalism grantees here. The organization has also published a series of blog posts laying out “five pillars” to reimagine capitalism. ON dispersed $46.3 million across 181 organizations in 2021, according to chief advocacy and strategic communications officer Beth Kanter.
New support is also materializing this year. On January 11, ON announced a $10 million initiative toward making private messaging more trustworthy. Kanter also told me that this spring, the organization will launch a New Data Paradigm Challenge with the aim of identifying ideas to ensure that data’s value is shared equitably and ethically across society.
Digging into the numbers
Readers will note that none of these initiatives come with an eight or nine-figure price tag. But the absence of a public mega-gift doesn’t mean that the Omidyars have been stingy over the past two years. Consider the following data points.
Luminate’s 2019 Form 990 shows that the Pierre M. Omidyar Trust contributed 50,000 shares apiece of PayPal and eBay stock for a total of $7,151,750. The following year, the trust contributed 208,250 shares of each stock, totaling $52,776,798. Omidyar increased the number of contributed shares by 317% between 2019 and 2020, while the total value of contributions grew by 638%.
The increases are more than reflected in Luminate’s grantmaking. In 2019, it disbursed $770,000 in contributions, gifts and grants. The following year, that figure jumped to $62,085,349—a 7,963% (!) increase.
Of course, this doesn’t mean Omidyar boosted contributions across the board. In 2019, he contributed $38,278,184 in shares of over a dozen stocks to the Omidyar Network. The next year, however, his contribution dropped to $1,163,006. But the fact that Omidyar quietly ramped up contributions to Luminate is a reminder that equating a donor’s generosity with public mega-gifts doesn’t tell the whole story. (In addition, funders giving through an LLC do not need to disclose their donations, making it difficult to track where the money is flowing.)
If the optimal benchmark of a donor’s generosity is his or her ability to shovel money out the door, then Omidyar’s strategy appears to be paying dividends. Last October, Forbes gave him a philanthropy score of 3 for having given away 5% to 9.99% of his wealth. That may elicit a shrug until you realize that 272 donors received lower scores and only four tech billionaires scored higher—Gates, Scott, Jeff Skoll and Gordon Moore.
The stock market giveth…
Taking Luminate as a case study, when people ask tech billionaires to “give more,” they are mostly asking them to sell or donate more stock, since that’s where a significant chunk of their paper wealth resides.
In retrospect, it’s easy to attribute donors’ much-derided parsimony in the early days of the pandemic to the supposition that few of them wanted to sell when stocks were tanking. This is in addition to a set of evergreen reasons for not selling, like a reluctance to dilute their ownership in the company they founded, fears of rattling the investor community, and an unwillingness to take a big capital gains tax hit. Reducing their paper wealth may also inhibit billionaires’ ability to secure low-interest loans to fund their lavish lifestyles.
Even Giving Pledge signatories have, in effect, vowed to postpone major giving until some point in the indeterminate future when their fortunes will be substantially larger. (It reminds me of what George Harrison once said: “I’d rather keep my money and make it into more money until I’ve got so much money and then give it all away.”)
At any rate, the markets rebounded from the early 2020 crash and billionaires got a lot richer. Some made headline-grabbing gifts while others kept a low public profile. Now, the markets are in retreat and tech stocks are taking a beating. This two-year roller coaster ride is a reminder that tying an organization’s funding to market performance or a handful of stocks isn’t for the faint of heart.
Pierre Omidyar’s wealth is tied up in PayPal and eBay stock, in addition to real estate holdings. According to the Bloomberg Billionaire Index, his net worth peaked at $14.5 billion in July 2021. Now that figure stands at roughly $9 billion. eBay’s stock is “nearing a bottom” since its all-time high last October, while PayPal is down nearly 50% since its all-time high last July.
While Omidyar will continue to fund his organizations, I’d be surprised if he dramatically increased the number of donated shares as long as stock prices are foundering. I also suspect that leaders at affiliated organizations may be bracing for some belt-tightening, since the value of 2022’s contributions could be less than in previous years.
The Omidyars signed the Giving Pledge in 2010, nine years after publicly stating their intention to “give away the vast majority of our wealth during our lifetime.” They’re both 54 years old, and if they plan to shuffle off this mortal coil anywhere close to broke—the term “vast majority” is open to interpretation—odds are, they’ll continue methodically contributing shares over the coming years instead of orchestrating a disruptive sell-off.
In the meantime, we can anticipate more of what we’ve come to expect from the pair—slow and steady giving to a constellation of affiliates with a focus on reimagining capitalism and confronting a tech sector bracing for a turbulent 2022. Buckle up!