Culture Politics Social United States

Inside the Omidyar Network’s Push to Build a “Culture of Belonging” in America

“Everyone knows that 11 o’clock on Sunday morning is the most segregated hour in American life.”

Martin Luther King, Jr. may have uttered these words back in 1964, but for Omidyar Network Senior Vice President of Programs Michele Jawando, the sentiment still rings true today.

“Here in the U.S., we have great diversity, but we have great silos, and we’re very comfortable with them,” she said. This detachment feeds what Jawando calls “the demonization and the dehumanization” of others, which is precisely what ON seeks to “interrupt” through its newest focus area, Building Cultures of Belonging.

Publicly announced in October after four years of planning, the program will invest “in the people and institutions equipping our increasingly diverse society to turn toward one another rather than against each other” over the next decade. ON, which is the primary giving vehicle of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife Pam, will commit a total of $35 million to $40 million to the program across the next four years.

The focus area is textbook Omidyarism. An added focus on reshaping the contours of the body politic rests comfortably next to ON’s other two priorities, Reimagining Capitalism and Responsible Technology. It’s a reminder that ON isn’t shy about tackling society’s complex structural underpinnings — even a seemingly amorphous concept like “belonging.” Yet at the same time, the program applies the kind of robust performance management rigor that we’ve come to expect from an outcomes-oriented tech donor. “This work is rooted in science,” said Director David Hsu, who leads the program. “There are some very real cause-and-effect patterns.”

With Building Cultures of Belonging, ON joins a growing number of funders finding their own approaches to healing America’s divides at a time of profound social, economic and political upheaval. It’s a complex issue, and a source of ongoing disagreement in the nonprofit and philanthropy world, with differing opinions on how exactly to diagnose and treat the problem.

To Omidyar’s credit, the team acknowledges this complexity. “This work is not Pollyannaish — it’s incredibly hard, and that’s why there’s a long-range commitment to this,” Jawando said. “Because in many ways, this gets to the soul of who we are as people and how we show up.”

“There was a Piece Missing”

The Omidyars launched ON in 2004. In the intervening years, the LLC built out a unique portfolio focused on increasing worker power, curbing Wall Street excesses, and bringing tech companies to heel. In 2019, ON refreshed its strategy by laying out two focus areas — Reimagining Capitalism and Responsible Technology.

The roots of the belonging program date back to 2018 when Hsu and his team began thinking about ON’s work through the lens of “interdependence” and the idea that “different communities and systems are connected in ways that are often not visible.” A year later, ON incubated a program on pluralism, which Hsu defines as “a way of holding multiple perspectives and approaching differences with curiosity that makes a lot of sense in an interdependent world where diverse cultures are living in closer and closer proximity.”

Then 2020 “caused us to dig way deeper,” Hsu said. “In both the cry for racial justice and some of the pushback against it, you could hear yearning to belong, and that becomes the ‘why’ behind all of this work.” He and his team considered how pluralism could support ON’s racial justice work, which, as ON’s press release noted, led to questions like, “How will we repair harms from centuries of racism and violence directed at Black and Indigenous communities? Why are cultural conflicts intensifying now?” Hsu said these questions “led us to center belonging.”

Leaders also identified what Jawando called “deep interconnections” across its Reimagining Capitalism and Responsible Technology focus areas. An individual who feels shut out of the prevailing economic system, overwhelmed by rapid technological change, or outraged by digital misinformation can become unmoored from the things that give them meaning. They retreat into this silo where fears, grievances and sense of detachment fester. The cycle repeats.

“We know the story,” Jawando said, “and yet we allow it to continue to play out because we’ve made the choice not to invest in changing that reality.” She told me that belonging was the “piece missing from our work.”

“Not Just Trying to De-Polarize”

Since I suspect some elements of ON’s work may sound familiar, it’s important to frame it within a broader post-2020 philanthropic context, in which funders and nonprofits of all sorts are grappling with the problem of surging discord in American life.

In 2022, the Mellon Foundation grant expanded the National Park Service Mellon Humanities Fellowship program with the goal of “telling a more comprehensive story” for all Americans at the country’s parks, monuments and historical sites.” That same year, I reported on higher ed grantmakers working to boost civic engagement and democracy. These efforts were predicated on the belief that when public institutions reflect the past and present experiences of historically under-recognized people, individuals will feel engaged in civic and cultural life.

Other funders have used their leverage in an effort to tamp down on polarization and bridge social divides. This has, in turn, led some in the sector to push back on the premise that division is the correct problem to focus on, pointing out the more severe threat coming from one side of the political spectrum — a segment of the country sowing hate, white nationalism and violent extremism. “That is the rot at the core of the dissolution of our democracy,” as Libra Foundation Executive Director Crystal Hayling wrote in a 2022 opinion piece for IP.

Asked to respond to such critiques, Hsu re-emphasized the need to build strong, diverse coalitions when standing up to these forces. “There is nothing more powerful than people from different walks of life and loyalties co-creating a society where everyone belongs. Evidence from around the globe shows that bold coalitions are essential for stopping authoritarianism,” Hsu said.

ON also points out that its focus specifically on belonging stands apart from some of the other programs working in this arena. “This is a different playbook,” Hsu said. “We’re not just trying to depolarize. The mission statement of this work is to ‘strengthen the network power of people who are practicing healthier ways to belong together.’ That’s what Americans want. And so the big question driving this program is, ‘What will it take to build belonging into the 21st century?’”

Year One Takeaways

In laying that groundwork, Hsu and his team engaged 60 organizations and individuals — approximately 10 of them as grantees — and conducted 11 focus groups with a nationally representative survey. He said ON’s top priority in year one was to develop relationships with “belonging innovators,” which he defined as “people who are bringing us to the future of belonging.”

“Belonging innovators” that went on to receive grants in last year’s inaugural round included Pop Culture Collaborative, New Pluralists and the Othering & Belonging Institute at the University of California, Berkeley. Some recipients are regrantors that issue open requests for proposals. Hsu told me another big priority during ON’s first year of grantmaking was “strengthening networks of local community leaders, youth leaders and faith leaders that are at the front lines of building belonging.”

Zooming out further, Hsu pointed to a broad, growing and increasingly interconnected ecosystem of nonprofits focused on cultivating belonging in some capacity. “This is definitely cross-cutting,” he said. “There is a conversation happening on belonging in fields like democracy, civic engagement, immigration and racial justice, education, social determinants of health, and parts of the economy and tech work.” Given this degree of interconnectivity, Hsu stressed that ON has no intention of treating its belonging work as a “siloed funding area.”

Measuring Belonging

Hsu and his team also thought about how they would measure impact. On one hand, this process can be pretty straightforward. Visit Gallup’s website and you’ll see surveys attesting to a global rise in unhappiness and Americans’ growing mistrust in the news media. But measuring the extent to which a person feels like he or she “belongs” can be more difficult to objectively measure at an aggregate or even granular level. For example, an individual may feel like she belongs in a faith community but not in the civic sphere. Meanings and attributes can shift depending on the individual’s location, economic status or ethnicity.

“Whether it’s on capitalism, tech or belonging, right, these are all complex, dynamic systems,” Hsu said, “and when it when we’re trying to invest in the overall health of these systems, success is going to look closer to like a cloud of things that we are expecting to see, rather than like something that we’re trying to fix, like a clock.” To this point, Hsu listed a set of “soft” and “hard” metrics that, over time, can show if ON’s efforts to cultivate belonging are taking root.

First, he and his team want to see growing numbers of people who are inspired to “build belonging in their communities and actively engage in opportunities to do so.” At the community level, ON stakeholders will be on the lookout for more examples of multi-ethnic, multifaith or multigenerational solidarity, reflecting what Hsu called Americans’ rejection of the “divide-and-conquer playbook in favor of what surveys tell us the majority of people want, which is deeper connection, equality and respect.”

Hsu also wants an ecosystem where “belonging innovators” are resilient and well-resourced. “They do work that philanthropy sometimes treats as invisible because it’s hard to measure,” he said. “So we want to see a blossoming of investment in 21st century civic infrastructure that supports community-level aspirations to build belonging.”

Belonging may be harder to measure than, say, tracking the percentage of Americans who trust the media, but practitioners have made great strides in recent years. Hsu referenced “The Belonging Barometer,” a report from the American Immigration Council and Over Zero that, among other things, gauges the state of belonging across five life settings — family, friends, workplace, local community and the nation. “It disaggregates all the pieces that go into belonging at the individual community and societal levels,” Hsu said.

For Jawando, society is currently wired in such a way that “we go straight to polarization.” But by measuring levels of belonging, “there can be a different kind of framing. Where are the communities that have done this? Are there opportunities to build that at scale? We think there are enough bright, shining lights that can buttress some of the divisions we’re seeing.”

“Meet That Deep Yearning”

Looking ahead, Hsu said future subsequent grantmaking iterations will focus on supporting “creative visioning” and innovation. “Some of the earlier-stage experiments and pilots haven’t moved into the mainstream yet, and there’s some pretty interesting work around rural/urban collaboration, multi-generational governance and digital civic infrastructure that’s being adopted around the world.”

Upcoming cycles will also include open calls for proposals to allow ON to expand its reach beyond its existing networks. “We see multifunder collaborations as a big piece of our work, but are being intentional to make sure that our networks look different,” Jawando said, adding that she envisions ON will use its bully pulpit to lobby for greater public and private investment in the belonging space. “There is a desire among philanthropy and even private actors to figure this out,” Jawando said.

To help “make the case,” ON will build out a body of best practices and key insights. It publishes “points of view” for its other focus areas, and Hsu expects it will lay out a similar document for how leaders envision Building Cultures of Belonging into the 21st century sometime the next year. “You’re going to see us pursuing much more explicitly key intersections with our reimagining capitalism and responsible tech points of view around things like economic connectedness or civic infrastructure that aligns with our vision of a healthy digital ecosystem,” he said.

I asked Hsu to reflect on ON’s work thus far, and he pointed me to a quote from Pop Culture Collaborative CEO Bridgit Antoinette Evans. Individuals, regardless of race or economic status, have what Evans calls a “deep yearning” for a just and pluralistic society.

“It’s our job,” Hsu said, “to meet that deep yearning.” Jawando agreed. “The ‘moonshot thinking’ is, ‘We want to try something new because what we’ve done is not enough. We feel the urgency, we feel the toxicity, and want to shift the atmosphere in the ecosystem.’ And so I think this is the moment to do that.”

Source : Inside Philanthropy