How Omidyar Network is working to shift beliefs about capitalism and our economy

Omidyar Network
Omidyar Network
Published in
9 min readMar 26, 2024

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By Alexis Krieg

What is “narrative change”? For every ten people you ask, you’re likely to receive nine different answers. But talk about the concept has become headline news in the world of philanthropy. Nowadays, you can gather a gaggle of funders together around nearly any issue area, and the odds are high that the word “narrative” will pop up at least once in the first fifteen minutes. So, it’s more important than ever that we, as funders, are crystal clear in our definitions and thoughtful about how we strategically deploy this tool in our work.

At Omidyar Network, we have worked to embed narrative change into our programmatic strategy for two reasons. First, we believe narrative change is a powerful tool that can help drive impact, but is often underinvested in. Second, we recognize that we do not work in a vacuum, and, as a result, the bulk of our grants and investments have narrative implications that must be considered.

Over the course of this three-part series, we’ll lay out more specifically how we incorporate narrative change into grant making in our Reimagining Capitalism focus area, offer a model for other funders to consider when supporting narrative change efforts, and explore some of the frames emerging in the economic narrative space.

How Omidyar Network defines narrative change

In a 2022 report from the Convergence Partnership, authors Rinku Sen and Mik Moore define narrative as “the themes and ideas that permeate collections of stories,” and go on to describe narrative change strategy as “a long-term effort to raise certain values and diminish others in ways that engage diverse types of narrators and audiences and that are not bound by short-term communications needs.” These are useful definitions that resonate with our approach at Omidyar Network.

We define “narrative” as a distillation of messages and stories that are repeated over time. They provide a clear interpretation of how the world is supposed to work, often becoming what is known as good, old common sense.

It’s important to note that there is a real distinction between narrative change work and strategic communications, as the two are frequently conflated. Strategic communications campaigns are often a useful tactic in supporting a narrative change strategy, along with policy and issue advocacy, organizing, and storytelling. But narrative change is typically a decades-long endeavor to strengthen new values and beliefs, while strategic communications efforts run on much shorter timelines and are generally rooted in the current set of shared values.

Why narrative change is part of our strategy

At Omidyar Network, we work to bring about structural changes that will fundamentally shift the systems that govern our daily lives. Doing so naturally requires shifting society’s definition of what is or is not common sense, hence the importance of narrative change work. When we move narratives, even a bit, we can shift everything from the types of policies voters clamor for and elected officials pass, to how industry rules and regulations are interpreted and enacted, to what is taught as being morally right or wrong in classrooms and living rooms across America. It’s certainly happened before.

Consider the concept of “neoliberalism,” an economic and political ideology which first rose to prominence in the 1970s and 80s that promotes unconstrained markets, limited government intervention, and growth at all costs. While that specific “ism” may not be normal parlance for most people, many of the ideas that undergird it are. Think: “trickle-down economics,” “free markets,” and “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” These phrases automatically trigger associations with values like freedom, independence, and hard work, morphing into parables about how the world works: When the rich prosper, so do the rest of us; I am solely responsible for my own success or failure; government should stay out of the way of businesses.

This repetition of values and storylines over the past five decades has helped neoliberalism become the default prism through which most people view the economy and society. We believe this narrative represents a seriously outdated and disproven way of looking at the world, and has resulted in a horde of poor policy and business decisions that have heightened economic, racial, and class-based inequalities, grievously harmed our planet, and made our society and democracy weaker. A shared goal across our Reimagining Capitalism work is to challenge this neoliberal narrative, and, where possible, replace it with a new set of values and ideas that will help create the conditions for an economic system that is more equitable, inclusive, and sustainable.

How we incorporate narrative change into our work

Some might assume that only projects or organizations focused expressly on cultural issues or strategic communications might be considered good opportunities to engage in narrative change work. On the contrary, in our Reimagining Capitalism work, we invest with the assumption that many of our grants have narrative impact, even if the levels may differ. Below are a few examples from across our focus area:

Expanding worker power

In 2022, as workers across the country began to flex their collective power, we invested in the production and impact campaign for a gripping new documentary project centered on a group of workers at a Staten Island warehouse, who organized to create the Amazon Labor Union, mounting the first successful campaign to organize an Amazon facility. “Union” recently premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to widespread acclaim. Our goal in supporting this project was to challenge the current public perception of who union organizers are and the types of industries where organizing is possible, and to bring attention to the many structural challenges that unionization efforts face. Our hope is that the film can reach people in places that traditional organizing efforts might not and help foment feelings of worker solidarity across industry, race, age, and class.

Jordan Flowers, Derrick Palmer, Chris Smalls and Gerald Bryson at the Sundance Film Festival. Photo by Michael Hurcomb/REX/Shutterstock for Sundance.

Of course, supporting a documentary project might be considered a narrative no-brainer. But what about backing a team of researchers at the Brookings Institution? In a series of reports, Molly Kinder, a fellow at Brookings Metro, and her team combined ground-breaking research with the power of storytelling to highlight economic inequalities exacerbated by the pandemic and change the conversation about how society values essential workers. The Brookings team analyzed compensation to frontline employees at some of America’s biggest retail companies and painted a compelling picture of corporate greed. Their work, especially their “Windfall Profits” report, influenced policy changes at the federal and local level, with 25 city and county governments implementing hazard pay ordinances citing their research and prompting major corporations to announce nearly $1 billion in bonuses. But the narrative implications were just as significant. The reports received more than one million views and helped spark a new (at the time) wave of media coverage that centered workers, as opposed to executives, as the heroes in the story and drew attention to values like fairness, safety, and solidarity.

Driving corporations and capital markets toward the common good

Narratives revolving around the corporate sector and the importance of maintaining free markets at all costs are some of neoliberalism’s most pernicious weeds. While we believe that business can certainly be a force for good in the world, markets are often predisposed to deliver outcomes that put profits over people. Nowhere is that idea made clearer than upon a close examination of the private equity industry.

The overall private funds industry is now larger than the entire banking sector, but many Americans are unaware of how private equity intersects with their daily lives. To help shine a light on how private equity firms operate, we provided project support to the Poynter Institute to train journalists on how to cover this notoriously opaque industry and funded reporting grants that gave local reporters the opportunity to dig deeper into how this industry is impacting communities from Indiana to Wisconsin to Hawaii. Each of those stories challenges the baseline neoliberal assumption that pursuing profit — at the expense of people and planet — is a universal good.

David Harm waters plants outside of his home in the Ridgeview Homes mobile home community in Lockport, NY. The plight of residents at Ridgeview is playing out nationwide as institutional investors, led by private equity firms and real estate trusts and sometimes funded by pension funds, swoop in to buy mobile home parks. Photo by AP Photo/Lauren Petracca.

At the same time, we also joined a coalition of more than 60 groups, including banks, pensions funds, the Ford Foundation, and United for Respect to back a new non-profit, Ownership Works, that is focused on driving worker ownership to provide meaningful wealth creation opportunities for rank-and-file workers. The project, founded by a leading private equity executive, shines a different kind of light on the industry. Ownership Works challenges the notion that private equity should be oriented only to delivering returns to investors, demonstrating that workers along with management and investors can prosper together. Examples like this help provide a compelling counter narrative to conducting business as usual and open up new pathways to what might be possible in the minds of the public, workers, and investors.

Seeding a new economic paradigm

Our work to build alignment around an updated set of economic ideas naturally lends itself to narrative investments, and it is an area in which a great deal of progress has already been made. A major portion of that success is due to the organizations that have been steadfastly organizing and advocating around these issues for years, and part of it is due to timing. The COVID-19 pandemic and resulting economic turmoil forced people at all levels of society to question some of the economic stories we had previously accepted as fact: perhaps providing people with a stronger financial and social safety net could prevent a major economic down-spiral; maybe greedy corporations — rather than government over-spending — played a role in rising costs; conceivably, workers could demand a lot more from their employers, and families could expect more of their government.

Already, seeds planted in this space are beginning to sprout. Earlier this year, the term “greedflation” was officially added to Dictionary.com:

Greedflation, initially used mockingly by some in the media, was popularized in part by Groundwork Collaborative, a grantee working at the intersection of economic policy, advocacy, and narrative change to build public power and prosperity for all. Since the summer of 2021, when Groundwork began its work to show policymakers and the media how corporations were using the cover of inflation to pass along more than just their rising costs, there has been a 15-point increase in the share of Americans who say “corporations being greedy” is a “major cause” of inflation. This is an indication that beliefs about the root causes of inflation have started to shift — in this case remarkably quickly. Groundwork’s effort on greedflation is one of the best modern examples of narrative change in the sphere of economic policy and demonstrates why it is critically important to ensure field actors are well-supported and ready to take advantage of narrative opportunities as they arise.

Groundwork Collaborative is one of many in a broader constellation of organizations working to shift deeply held stories about the economy. The Roosevelt Institute, another grantee, has helped popularize many of the concepts that undergird “Biden-omics” and shifted the collective understanding of policymakers and the press, while the Economic Security Project has helped shift views around guaranteed income from a progressive fantasy to an attainable policy supported by nearly two thirds of voters. At the same time, media-focused organizations like More Perfect Union are amplifying these ideas to millions of people.

Similarly, the Topos Partnership, a research organization, has established the “Think Big” Learning Community, a space for communicators and advocates from hundreds of grassroots organizations around the country to come together in community and explore how centering values like “abundance” and “belonging” can shift the public’s perception of economic policy issues. With Omidyar Network’s support, Topos will house Think Big in a new non-profit to identify and amplify far-reaching, cross-cutting ideas that power visionary movements by unifying the collective wisdom and strengthening the underlying infrastructure of the broader “post-neoliberal” narrative ecosystem.

These are just a few examples of a much broader constellation of individuals and organizations that are helping to drive the policy debates of today away from neoliberalism and toward a brighter future.

More to come

As Mandy Van Deven and Jody Myrum noted in a recent piece for Nonprofit Quarterly: “Changing beliefs and behaviors at scale cannot be achieved by a single movement, organization, or campaign. Narrative change is a fundamentally collective endeavor, and the transformation we seek to achieve requires a broad set of actors to work together over time to advance a shared vision.”

At Omidyar Network, we consider our own team, grantees, and fellow funders to be important partners in advancing narrative change related to the economy. In future posts, we’ll elaborate on a framework for understanding the wide array of economic narratives currently competing to supplant neoliberalism and what we believe philanthropy’s role should be in supporting that work. While narrative change work is not a panacea, better understanding of what this tool is and how to use it should — to borrow one last metaphor from neoliberalism — help lift all our boats.

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Omidyar Network
Omidyar Network

Omidyar Network is a social change venture that reimagines critical systems, and the ideas that govern them, to build more inclusive and equitable societies.