2021: A New Year of Hope.. Implementing the Lessons Learned from 2020, the Good and the Bad

Omidyar Network
Mar 1 · 5 min read

By Beth Kanter, Strategic Communications and Jessica Kiessel, Learning & Impact, Omidyar Network

2020: The Year of Zoom (and the fatigue is real)

We began last year eager to put our freshly minted brand, approach, and teams into action to build more inclusive and equitable societies. AND THEN, 2020 HAPPENED. In the midst of the twin public health and economic crises, we witnessed a racial justice reckoning and watched as our US democracy came under attack. We found ourselves — like so many others — balancing multiple urgent priorities.

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We focused on supporting staff and grantees through these difficult times, pivoting our work where necessary to meet the moment, and realigning our teams to capture new opportunities.

Thankfully, even before the pandemic rocked 2020, we had shifted our accountability processes to recognize that contributing toward healthier, more resilient systems is long-term, complex work. Annually, we focus accountability measures on our ability to work with our partners to determine the most promising paths forward, what we have learned, whether we are living our values, and how we steward firm health. Over the long-term, we remain accountable for meaningfully contributions to healthier systems.

The pandemic’s disproportionate impact on frontline and essential workers shined a much-needed spotlight on how our current economic system fails to adequately provide for working families. We were proud to be among one of the first contributors to the National Domestic Workers Alliance Coronavirus Cares Fund, which distributed $30 million in cash assistance to domestic workers in the US who have struggled to get by during the pandemic.

We also supported the work of Molly Kinder, a fellow at the Brookings Institute, who produced a series of reports that highlighted the stories of working people on the frontlines and the need for “hero pay.” Her research and reporting led to policy changes in several cities to support these working people.

But even as the cracks in our current economic system’s foundation became glaringly obvious during the pandemic, the residual power structures have remained in place, and overall inequality only widened.

Meaningful, structural economic reforms will likely continue to be difficult given political incentives that fuel gridlock and polarization, but we remain optimistic. We launched our POV this year to articulate our vision to Reimagine Capitalism, and we are thrilled to have so many like-minded allies in some states as well as the federal government (so far, more than a dozen of our grantees and close partners have taken positions in the Biden Administration!). We see the possibility of real change on the horizon supported by some members of the business community, and at the local and state levels (like the organizations supported by the Carry on the Fight Fund).

As many workers left office buildings and students left schools following stay-at-home orders, our deep dependency on technology only increased. As a result, the power of those technology companies grew even more, and became clear and concerning to both the public (The Social Dilemma was a global smash hit and featured several of our grantees) and policymakers.

Building on our work outlining Big Tech’s Unchecked Power earlier in the year, the team released legal roadmaps for antitrust cases against Facebook and Google. The recent lawsuits by the Department of Justice, Federal Trade Commission, and dozens of state attorneys general — along with upcoming legislative hearings — against these dominant tech platforms are critical steps to hold their outsized power to account.

We’re also seeing success with the Digital Services & Markets Acts in the EU that ensures platforms behave in a more fair and competitive way, as well as the increase in uptake for MOSIP (an open source, multipurpose foundation ID system) in Africa and across the Global South.

In a sense, the “techlash” came of age at the same time people embraced more tech. As a result, we continue to support developing and strengthening the field of responsible technologists, new constructs for data, and how technology and policy safeguards can strengthen innovation across the world.

Last year, we committed $500,000 to Black-led organizations on the frontlines fighting for racial equity. Among many organizations doing incredible work, we invested in seven achieving impact in ways that align with our current strategic focus, including those whose work combines economic, civic, or criminal justice reform with narrative shift or movement building towards racial justice.

We are committed to building true partnerships with these organizations and amplifying their work to a broader audience of both practitioners and funders. As funders, we acknowledge our privilege and we know our investments are only the first step towards our commitment to dismantling white supremacy.

Our work within pluralism continues to evolve as we refine our strategy and recognize that a global community that bridges divides is a prerequisite for meaningful social change.

Many of us looked to 2021 as a light at the end of a dark tunnel. But, in reality, we are still facing many of the same challenges as 2020. We are entering another year of uncertainty, which will require deep care for our staff and our partners. We will be bold, get moving, and seize this transitional moment to put what we have learned into action. Managing this tension between hope and pragmatism will require important, but difficult tradeoffs. It is in this spirit that we set the following learning questions:

· What are we learning about what it takes to develop an internal programmatic structure that supports dynamic, complex, social change work?

· What roles and tools are serving us well in our efforts to influence social change?

· How can engaging and listening deeply to a diverse set of stakeholders lead us to be more effective in contributing to social change? What forms of engagement work more/less well?

From today’s perch, we believe these questions are critical for us to continue to learn and evolve as an organization in ways that help us contribute to meaningful social change. That said, we are prepared to adapt to whatever 2021 may throw our way, and our first priority will always be the well-being of our staff and partners.

In 2021, we will continue to evolve as we use lessons from the past year to shape our portfolio. We will also be answering critical questions that will help us to further refine our role and boundaries (e.g., we define and advance pluralism). These insights will help ensure we invest in partners, systems, and processes that will not only increase our efficacy, but also foster a culture that reflects our values and enables staff to thrive.

After a year of dramatic shifts and significant organizational transition, our staff is proud of the work we accomplished and grateful for each other, the firm, our board — and especially our partners. We expect challenges to surface, but we are energized by the opportunity to contribute towards long-term change on issues that matter.

Omidyar Network

A social change venture investing in the creation of more inclusive and equitable societies.

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