March 22, 2012

Pam Omidyar and the Science of Giving

Pam Omidyar's philanthropic work—including founding or co-founding with her husband, Pierre, the Omidyar Network, Hope Lab, and Humanity United—demonstrates how she has translated her passions into social change.

By: Daniel Stid

By Alison Powell

In Pam Omidyar’s early start as a biologist, she “initially wanted to find a cure for cancer.” While she has moved away from a career in science, her focus on improving humanity has remained. Over the past decade-plus, Omidyar has partnered with her husband, eBay founder Pierre Omidyar, to found or co-found all of the couple’s philanthropic endeavors. Omidyar has brought her scientific training to bear on her philanthropy, and seeks to constantly improve her results.

Take Humanity United, the nonprofit Omidyar founded and whose board she chairs. Its mission? To build peace and advance human freedom. Omidyar came to Humanity United after years of philanthropic work with her husband in microfinance. Omidyar realized that “a woman’s not going to get access to microfinance if she’s enslaved.” Humanity United aims to address the root of some of the world’s most difficult problems such as human rights abuses and modern-day slavery.

How do you actually combat such entrenched and complicated problems? By identifying innovative yet practical solutions that unlock potential. Humanity United’s work in Liberia, for example, does just that. Liberia—whose President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2011 along with two other women of note—emerged from civil war with a new leadership but little in the way of infrastructure and economic development. Philanthropic money entered the country, but it was uncoordinated and risked not fulfilling its potential. Humanity United led the charge, with Johnson Sirleaf’s government, to set up a privately funded yet government-run Philanthropy Secretariat along with a set of partners (the Liberian Government, the Global Philanthropy Forum, the Open Society Institute, and the Novo, Daphne, and McCall McBain Foundations).

The result is a unique brand of philanthropic coordination that Omidyar hopes may prove a model for other post-conflict countries seeking to coordinate donor resources.

For more on the results of this unique collaboration, and other ventures Omidyar has undertaken, click here for a full profile.

Alison Powell is Bridgespan’s Philanthropy Knowledge Manager. Follow her on Twitter @abp615.

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