Written by Stu Woo.
Pierre Omidyar founded online marketplace eBay Inc. and still serves as its chairman. But these days, he would much rather talk about Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm he started after leaving day-to-day duties at eBay in 1998.
Omidyar Network makes donations to nonprofits and also invests in for-profit organizations focused on social change. It is especially supportive of charitable technology initiatives. The 44-year-old Mr. Omidyar also has contributed significant personal wealth to such causes, recently passing the $1 billion mark in donations.
Pierre Omidyar says giving away money is more difficult than it sounds.
Mr. Omidyar, a French native who grew up in Washington, D.C., now lives in Honolulu, where he is also publisher of an online-only newspaper called Honolulu Civil Beat. He recently returned to the Bay Area for an Omidyar Network forum, where, in an interview, he discussed the challenges of moving from the tech industry to philanthropy.
WSJ: There is a new wave of wealth creation in Silicon Valley, and several young billionaires have pledged to give away most of their money in their lifetimes. What advice can you give to people like Facebook Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg, who has made this pledge?
Mr. Omidyar: The very first thing I would say is that this idea of giving away lots of money is much more difficult than it sounds if you care about the impact this money is going to have. Now of course if you don’t care, it’s easy, but I think people like Mark, and people like me, we definitely care about having impact. We’re just not trying to fill a quota by writing large checks.
The second piece of advice I would give is that it’s really fun. …There are a lot of opportunities…to find the synergies between the nonprofit approaches to a problem and the for-profit approaches and market-based approaches to that problem. We’re pioneering new ground at Omidyar Network in the fields that we’re working in, and it is a challenge that exceeds the business and technology entrepreneurship challenges that I faced at eBay.
WSJ: Is it possible to run a company and do philanthropy well at the same time?
Mr. Omidyar: I think it’s exceedingly difficult. People have asked me in the past, “What do you think about tech folks? Shouldn’t they be more generous?” I always answer, if they’re running a company, let them run their company, and that should be what they’re focused on.
I got into philanthropy full time after leaving day-to-day operations at eBay in 1998. [I] transitioned for a year and in 1999 went full time into philanthropy. Bill Gates, for instance, took a bunch of time before he transitioned to go full time to philanthropy. So you cannot do this as a part-time job.
Now if you want to give someone else a big check and have them be philanthropic with it, that’s fine. But if you want to do it yourself and innovate and break new ground and bring the same things that you brought as a technology entrepreneur to your business to this field of philanthropy of making the world better, that’s something you have to do as a full-time job.
WSJ: Can you give a specific example of something that Omidyar Network has done?
Mr. Omidyar: The first example I would use is from our efforts in government transparency [with] the Sunlight Foundation. They use technology to highlight the influence of money in politics. Another effort is Code for America. This is a group of developers who volunteer their own time to develop systems that enable greater access to public information.
WSJ: Let’s talk about what you’re doing at Honolulu Civil Beat. Are you paying attention to what the Bay Citizen here is doing as a nonprofit news organization?
Mr. Omidyar: Yes, absolutely. They are a really good example of the many good experiments that are being done around the country as far as local news. It seems that nonprofits have taken the lead, at least in terms of numbers, over commercial efforts.
In Hawaii, we’re trying a commercial effort. …My fundamental belief is that for democracy to work effectively, you need a multitude of voices out there commenting on what people in power are doing, debating issues of importance. And to have a multitude of voices there is nothing better than the market and the profit incentive to bring people into that business.
WSJ: What can be done to encourage more giving among Silicon Valley executives?
Mr. Omidyar: The approach I’ve taken has been just to try to demonstrate how interesting and fun philanthropy really is when you take the same entrepreneurial skills that made you successful in business and apply it to making the world a better place. That’s what I’ve been trying to do at Omidyar Network.
Write to Stu Woo at email@example.com.
Corrections & Amplifications – An earlier version of this article incorrectly referred to Honolulu Civil Beat in one instance as Hawaii Civil Beat.