Lessons in Good Leadership for Good ID
Insights from a year-long evaluation of our Digital Identity program
Good leaders are constantly learning. And because Omidyar Network is always striving to become better practitioners of trust-based philanthropy, we’ve made emergent learning a core part of our DNA. We’ve been building a culture of deep listening, questioning our mental models, adapting, experimenting, and taking risks. We’ve also been intentional about finding where we’ve made mistakes, acknowledging power dynamics in philanthropy, and building trust with our partners. You can read more about how we’ve recently applied this approach to glean new insights and evolve our strategies on New Economic Paradigm and Worker Power. We have also done so when we need to make difficult decisions about how best to bound our work and focus our effort.
Over the next three years, we are transitioning our longest-running program — Digital Identity — to pursue new and broader frontiers in Responsible Technology, including the intersecting domains of digital infrastructure and the data economy. After more than five years of empowering individuals, influencing digital identity issuers, and shaping global norms toward Good ID, we reflected on the state of the field and saw tremendous change. To help us understand the present context and future opportunities, we contracted with Arabella Advisors as a third-party learning and evaluation partner to assess the sector and our impact.
Starting in 2021, the independent evaluation team conducted an extensive document review and interviewed all of our team members as well as 57 external individuals representing 44 organizations, including 35 grantees or contractors, nine field experts, five peer funders, and eight for-profit ventures. We actively sought out the opinions of direct partners and system influencers, including those whose opinions differ from our own. The participants spanned the globe, with 21 based on the African continent, one in South America, 17 in Europe, and 18 in the United States.
We want to thank everyone who took the time to share their experiences and offer candid feedback through this evaluation and at other times over the past few years. They challenged our assumptions, shared new ideas, and are helping to shape who we are as a funder. This journey is not ours alone; we’ve been together for many wins and through some difficult setbacks. We always appreciate their guidance as to the best role for Omidyar Network to play.
The findings of this year-long evaluation of our digital identity strategy ultimately shined a light on the strength of the field, validated key areas of impact, and sharpened our decision to redirect our resources toward intersectional issues and the root causes of exclusion and inequity in our digital society. It also highlighted where the field felt we made missteps and offered lessons that we will apply to our future programs. We hope our future strategies do justice to the feedback we heard while also setting boundaries that will help us make the best use of our resources and capabilities.
After completing their evaluation, Arabella Advisors told us that we developed a strong reputation as “an ethical funder” with unique subject matter expertise. Omidyar Network, the evaluation concluded, had differentiated itself from other funders by staffing its team with experts who could act as thought partners and strategic advisors to grantees. Specifically, the review highlighted our focus and thought leadership on strengthening privacy protections as well as how we inspired partners and peer funders to pay close attention to the potential harms associated with digital identity. The evaluation also called out Omidyar Network as a coordinating force within the field, bringing together players from across the sector. Our partners said they appreciated the access to our vast network, and those connections strengthened their work. We take great pride in our approach to collaboration and playing these roles across all of our focus areas.
Additionally, the evaluation specifically called out two projects as notable strengths of Omidyar Network — the global conversation which led to Good ID and the modular, open-source identity platform (MOSIP). Our partners on these two projects — Caribou Digital, Unfold Stories, Berkman-Klein Center for Internet and Society, IIIT-Bangalore, Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Tata Trusts, and Norad — should be proud of this recognition of their global impact.
- Good ID: Omidyar Network’s support in conceptualizing and popularizing the Good ID framework changed the way the field discussed digital identity issues, and provided solid guidelines for an ethical approach to designing and implementing digital identity systems, the evaluation told us. Over the years, the #GoodID platform successfully established a common language and shared visions for what “good” could look like in the context of digital identity. Thousands of stakeholders engaged with the content library, Good ID Stories, #GoodID Awards, monthly e-bulletin, and related Twitter debates. Today, #GoodID surfaces regularly in conversation with digital identity stakeholders. We’ve seen more than 40,000 public references to #GoodID reaching nearly 66 million people within three years.
- MOSIP: Omidyar Network’s early funding and ongoing oversight of the Modular Open Source Identity Platform (MOSIP) has so far enabled six governments to advance digital, foundational ID for hundreds of millions of people, using security and privacy best practices. MOSIP utilizes open-source design and standards so countries can configure, customize, and scale the platform for their specific needs and context while abiding by privacy and data protection laws and other standards. Interviewees noted that MOSIP made open-source ID architecture more broadly available, which placed pressure on competing private ID-system vendors to implement transparent and secure systems.
The evaluation also found that some of our decisions and actions were not always popular within the field. Constructive criticism accompanies difficult work, and we have always tried to be curious and responsive in real time. We strive to do what is right even when it is hard. We know that we may not always get it right, but we work to earn the trust of others by holding ourselves accountable to high standards that reflect our values and help us achieve our vision.
As a result of this review, there are four specific things Omidyar Network can improve upon to be a better partner and have a greater impact in the future. We hope other funders and institutions will also take notice and apply these lessons as they pursue grantmaking and steer digital technologies toward the very best outcomes for all.
- Give enough time for the strategy to work
The evaluation encouraged Omidyar Network to consider what it can realistically achieve within a specific window and whether it is appropriate to begin work based on the timeline. We heard how valuable it is when funders invest broadly and on a longer time horizon, not only for the growth and sustainability of organizations but because inevitably the landscape will change, new needs will emerge, and we all will need time to adapt. Given this reminder, we explicitly incorporated a discussion of time horizons and what a responsible exit would look like as we considered launching two new strategies this year.
- Support community power building
The feedback encouraged us to reflect on the relative resource allocation for different types of partners. We need to consider whether providing large institutions with large grants or focusing on a particular region ultimately leaves too few resources for other important places and partners, like civil society organizations and mission-aligned startups, to pursue the grueling work of policy and narrative change or prove their novel, consumer and B2B tech innovations. This lesson learned is helping to inform other Omidyar Network programs that are building networks and strategies that include both national/regional institutions and community-centered organizations. We must ask ourselves how our relationships and funding reflect our values and ensure different pathways and partnerships have the resources they need to succeed.
- Be proactive, clear, and consistent in explaining decisions
We heard that we need to be clearer about exactly what Omidyar Network is trying to achieve and how, and the role we play with different partners. Admittedly, we did not always do a great job at explaining to our partners and the broader field how we work. Many who participated in the evaluation said our strategy shifts felt abrupt. We also heard questions about our other programmatic areas, and why we invested in certain organizations and initiatives. It’s clear we need to spend more time communicating to close those gaps. For example, we are actively recruiting for a senior manager of communications to help better share our vision, goals, and plans with the many communities we connect with. And we are committed to publishing our points of view on the many themes and topics that our programs explore.
- Transition programs responsibly and stay connected
The feedback encouraged us to maintain good relationships with stakeholders in the digital identity space and to help address the future needs of our partners through introductions to other funders. We believe staying connected to and collaborative with mission-aligned influencers is critical to our ability to understand the system, maintain a bird’s-eye view of the issues, and refine our points of view and programs. We are also committed to working with each of our partners to make introductions to other funders and collaborators. Funders work in a networked way, supporting and engaging one another and building strong, diverse communities of practice. We have been helping to find ways to sustain this work with the support of other philanthropic leaders, strategic partners, and new business models. Please reach out if we can help make more connections.
We are enormously thankful to our partners who gave their advice during this transition; it’s one of the reasons why we love being a part of such a thoughtful and passionate network. The last few years have been a tremendously rewarding period for Omidyar Network. We’ve built solidarity with smart and talented people, and helped promote solutions for some of the most consequential, deeply personal issues of our time.
Digital identity is no longer the obscure, nebulous concept it once was; the potential risks and harms are openly debated, these issues make headlines daily, and the field is full of champions who are stewarding these decisions downstream so Good ID reaches and works for everyone. And while this won’t be our daily focus going forward, we are committed to leaving this field in a stronger position than we originally found it and building new ones in the most effective and responsible way possible. Our rapidly changing digital world requires it.