By Tracy Williams, Director, and Audrey Stienon, Associate, Reimagining Capitalism
At Omidyar Network, our Reimagining Capitalism team aims to address the structural challenges at the heart of our economic system, and to shape a new, inclusive economy where markets serve the interests of people, our societies, and our planet. To anchor this work, we have invested $10 million since 2019 towards building a New Economic Paradigm, supporting dozens of partner organizations working to shape a new economic worldview for inclusive democratic capitalism and bring those ideas into the mainstream. This work is complemented by the two other focus areas under our Reimagining Capitalism banner: Worker Power and Corporations, Capital Markets, and the Common Good.
We recognize that this work, aimed at righting the ship of our economic system as a whole, is deeply complex. The level of system change that we aspire to requires an emergent learning approach, where we continuously gather feedback to test our assumptions and periodically course-correct our strategy. This is core to Omidyar’s work across our different focus areas. In addition to embracing a mindset of constant learning, we also seek to dive deeper through a more rigorous, periodic learning process conducted by outside evaluators.
As part of that process, we conducted an evaluation of our New Economic Paradigm work with the Center for Evaluation and Innovation (CEI) in 2021. Over the course of several months, 45 interviews were conducted, with grantees and others in our network representing a range of perspectives from think tanks and academia, base building and advocacy organizations, media figures and communications experts, funders, and others. Thirty of these conversations were conducted confidentially by CEI in an effort to minimize the implicit power differential between funders and grantees in conversations, and the rest were conducted by members of our team.
This process and the learnings that resulted from it have helped to shape the next phase of our New Economic Paradigm strategy, including a commitment to invest an additional $18 million in this work over the next three years. Having had the privilege of gathering input and thoughts from so many different vantage points, we now want to share these lessons back with the field, and offer additional insight into our strategic vision moving forward.
When we developed our Call to Reimagine Capitalism in America and launched our New Economic Paradigm portfolio in 2020, we decided to focus on three strategies.
The first was to connect and convene people and organizations from across silos who were already doing the deep work to reimagine how our economic system could exist, and shift hearts and mind towards that paradigm change. We focused our efforts on providing the connective infrastructure and resourcing some of the key organizations in those networks, including think tanks, advocacy groups, academic institutions, and others. We also devoted energy to organizing the funder community as part of that work.
The second was to use issue campaigns to shift narrative, under the assumption that people don’t generally change how they think about “the economy” in the abstract, but rather revise their economic beliefs based on the issues that directly impact their lives — whether that’s a new child tax credit hitting their bank account every month or an improved public park or school. To that end, we supported a range of issue campaigns grounded in this economic worldview — from crafting more equitable tax policy, to expanding the safety net, to rallying support for major public investments. Our hope was that over time, these campaigns could prompt the kind of public policy debates that would ladder up to a coherent and compelling vision for a new economic paradigm.
Finally, our third strategy was to engage in direct efforts to shift prevailing narratives about our economy. Here, we looked for creative opportunities, such as the CORE Economics Curriculum and a high school essay competition at The American Prospect, to encourage specific groups to break out of old mental models and consider alternative ways to understand and communicate economic ideas.
But even as we launched our strategy, the world was being shaken by a global pandemic, economic recession, and a long overdue reckoning on racial justice. Like most crises, these events shed new light on the shortcomings of the existing paradigm and offered unanticipated opportunities for new ideas to take root and grow. They also created a new imperative to spend our available funds more quickly than originally planned, which also accelerated our timeline for evaluation
We conducted our evaluation through the spring and summer of 2021, when many of the people we spoke to were feeling cautiously optimistic about the potential for progress. Most of the people we spoke to validated our original strategic choices, agreeing that connective work, issue campaigns, and narrative change are all incredibly important avenues for creating conditions for a new paradigm. However, they also felt that other avenues were important as well, from deeper policy development to greater cultural engagement to defensive work and more — paradigm change requires all of these things. Therefore, the primary question was less whether our team was on the right track, but what we at Omidyar Network should prioritize.
Based on the evaluation process and collected learning from our portfolio, we anchored on three key pieces of feedback to inform our updated strategy.
1. The connecting and convening work in our community is critical and underinvested. In order tosupport real paradigm shift, we must make connections across policy, narrative, and organizing, and that work must be broadened to more intentionally include perspectives from grassroots and base-building groups — especially those led by people of color. We need to change conversations on the economy at many levels — from the inside-the-beltway politicos, to the halls of academia and think tanks, to the kitchen tables of families — which will require cross-pollination among many different spaces.
2. While issue campaigns are core to shifting narratives and mental models, there is limited value from entering one-off issue campaigns, especially late in the game. Our experience from the portfolio and the evaluation conversations both confirmed that issue campaigns are most successful at shifting deeper economic beliefs when they are connected to longer-term movements and base-building efforts, and when they are informed by a rich base of best practices and clarity on messaging strategies and tactics, rather than seen as one-off opportunities for engagement.
3. Respondents agreed that narrative change is crucial to advancing a new paradigm, but our team’s original approach lacked strategic clarity. This feedback was not entirely unexpected, given this was designed to be the most experimental piece of our initial strategy. Our evaluation conversations confirmed that isolated narrative projects are not sufficient to ladder up to paradigm change, and a more strategic approach building on previous learnings would be valuable.
This feedback directly informed the renewal our New Economic Paradigm work. Over the next three years, we will pursue three strategic priorities in tandem:
First, we will continue our work to connect people and organizations pursuing paradigm shift. However, we intend to be more intentional about integrating grassroots perspectives and strengthening connections between narrative, organizing, and policy — including incorporating the types of projects that previously would have been classified as campaign work — as a way of ensuring that any issue work we support is grounded in communities with a longer time horizon. Our evaluation also pointed to the importance of long-term grassroots power-building, which helped to renew Omidyar Network’s interest in exploring ways to support grassroots power-building more broadly.
Second, we have sharpened our narrative strategy. Building on the learning from our initial investments and a bolstered team with deeper experience in communications, we will focus on supporting the crystallization of new economic narratives that are rooted in deeply held values through creative story-telling efforts. Rather than adding to the chorus of voices describing the failures of our current economic system, we will seek out projects that paint an affirmative vision of the economy we hope to create and seed these narratives across society.
Finally, we decided to add a new area of exploration focused on finding ways to make a new economic worldview resonate with new audiences outside of the “usual suspects” whom we already engage with. Most notably, we believe that finding in-roads with rural, business, and faith-based communities will help improve our understanding of how to translate a new economic paradigm to more diverse audiences and broaden the base of support.
No single organization can bring about paradigm change alone. The very nature of shifting mindsets across broad swaths of society requires engaging many voices from across a diverse ecosystem acting with conviction and collaboration.
We are enormously grateful to our grantees and partners for their generous time, knowledge, and learning throughout our engagement with them, and to everyone who contributed to this evaluation process by challenging our assumptions, sharing new ideas, and helping to shape our strategy moving forward.
· Sarah Miller, American Economic Liberties Project
· Maureen Conway, Aspen Institute
· David Callahan, Blue Tent
· Brian Kettenring, Center for Popular Democracy
· Dorian Warren, Community Change
· Suresh Naidu, CORE
· Chris Hughes and Natalie Foster, Economic Security Project
· Amisha Patel, Grassroots Collaborative
· Harmony Goldberg, Grassroots Policy Project
· Lindsay Owens, Groundwork Collaborative
· Eric Beinhocker, Institute for New Economic Thinking
· Ben Chin and Amy Halsted, Maine People’s Alliance
· Jee Kim, Narrative Initiative
· Amit Bouri and Anna Muoio, New Capitalism Project
· Darrick Hamilton, The New School Institute on Race, Power and Political Economy
· Tim O’Reilly, O’Reilly Media
· Lauren Jacobs, PowerSwitch Action
· Keesha Gaskins-Nathan, Rockefeller Brothers Fund
· Felicia Wong, Roosevelt Institute
· Ben Beachy, Sierra Club
· Peter Colavito and Connie Razza, Social and Economic Justice Leaders Project
· Meg Bostrom, Topos Partnership
· Manuel Pastor, University of Southern California Equity Research Initiative
· David Mitchell, Washington Center for Equitable Growth
· Ted Fertik, Working Families Party