Tracy Williams, Director, Reimagining Capitalism, Omidyar Network
“We’re trying to build something new. There’s been no economic model in our history that worked for everyone—no multi-racial, inclusive economy. There are no playbooks or best practices for what we’re taking on. We’re in it for the long-haul.”
What is the mission of your foundation and how does addressing economic equity and opportunity fit in?
At the Omidyar Network we seek to create a more equitable economy, promote responsible technology that improves lives, and discover the emergent issues that will shape our future.
In the last few years we’ve sharpened our focus on economic equity and opportunity. The economy is not working for too many people. Since our founding, we’ve had an interest in systems change, and we’ve applied this lens through our Reimagining Capitalism program.
Our Reimagining Capitalism work was in part inspired by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation. We resonated with their call to move beyond market fundamentalism and extractive corporate power to a new economic paradigm. What is the next economic paradigm? How do we define it and move it forward? And how do we shift where power sits in our society to make space for those new ideas, given that the influence of the wealthy few and large corporations have grown exponentially in recent decades, while working people have been steadily disempowered?
Many of these ideas carry through to our Beneficial Technology portfolio too. That portfolio is focused on the role of technology in society, but it dovetails with our Reimagining Capitalism work in areas like anti-monopoly, corporate concentration, and worker power in the technology sector.
How has COVID-19 and the current public outcry for racial justice and structural racism reforms impacted your grantmaking? How are you shifting your strategies to meet this moment?
The current crises did make us re-examine our longer-term strategies and how we think about the economy, corporate power and governance, and power in the financial sector, and especially around worker power. But instead of changing those strategies, we’ve doubled down on them to try and meet the moment.
We’re accelerating disbursements and providing top-ups to help our grantees respond. We also launched the Economic Response Advocacy Fund. This is new funding designed to infuse 501(c)(4) dollars into advocacy and organizing efforts in this critical window that address near-term needs while also supporting the longer term structural changes we need to see to reimagine capitalism. Finally, we have also responded to the racial justice uprisings, with a new portfolio of $500,000 in grants for organizations that are on the frontlines fighting to protect and advance Black lives.
What do you see as the big barriers you’re trying to overcome in your work?
There are powerful actors and lobbies fighting to preserve the economic status quo and its structures that benefit the people with the most wealth and power, at the expense of the many. We believe philanthropy has an important role to play in addressing these challenges, but we can’t and shouldn’t do it alone. We realize we need to support and be part of a broader movement, though that coordination and coalition building is also hard work.
As you think through your foundation’s work, what has been some of the work that you have been most proud of?
We’re trying to build something new. There’s been no economic model in our history that worked for everyone—no multi-racial, inclusive economy. There are no playbooks or best practices for what we’re taking on. We’re in it for the long-haul. We’re fighting to reimagine structures and economic models. We’re also fighting ideas and their “stickiness”—those strong narratives around taxes and our existing economic structures like “raising taxes is terrible for jobs” and “Government is wasteful.”
Our partners at the Washington Center for Equitable Growth embody much of what we’re trying to do. They’re a non-profit think-tank, research, and grant-making organization working to understand the relationship between equality and growth. We have a myth that there has to be a tradeoff—equality versus growth. That there’s no way to have both. They’re on the cutting edge of this work, making the case for why we need equitable growth, and why that’s better for our economy. They fund research that challenges the economic justifications for inequality and help to connect that research to policy and policymakers. They also work with media outlets to bring their research to the public and change the way people talk about economics (John Oliver’s Last Week Tonight and The New York Times, for example). Finally, they’re working to shift the way we measure GDP, so that it’s reported by income brackets rather than only in aggregate, so that policymakers can evaluate how the economy is performing for everyone—the working class, the middle class, and the affluent—and work to ensure strong, stable, and broad-based economic growth. We think that Equitable Growth has played a unique and critical role in combining rigorous research with an understanding of what it takes to move the narrative and influence policy.
We see the Washington Center for Equitable Growth as part of a broader ecosystem we’re supporting to move economic ideas, which includes organizations like the Roosevelt Institute, Demos, Economic Security Project, Groundwork Collaborative, Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race and Ethnicity, Community Change, Grassroots Policy Project, Liberation in a Generation, the Center for Popular Democracy, and others.
How does being a member of Economic Opportunity Funders help you achieve your goals?
I am grateful to have the EOF community. It’s where I get a sense of what other funders are doing and who operates in my world. It’s critical that funders get better at sharing their ideas and knowledge so we can better coordinate and work effectively together in what is an extremely complex space. EOF supports this.
It’s also a flexible space that you can dip in and out of according to timing and need. When I first started it really helped me get oriented to this space. Now I like knowing it’s there—that there are resources; that there’s a place where we can take ideas; that there’s a nimble structure with the capacity and time to respond to funders’ interests, curiosities, and needs.
Do you have any questions or issues on which you’d like to engage your funder colleagues?
Philanthropy is great at doing small experiments, but we struggle with complex systemic change. If your work is trying to change systems, unless you’re one of the biggest foundations (and probably even if you are the biggest!), then you’re going to need to collaborate. And funder collaborations are tough. I would love to keep discussing with my funder colleagues how we can find ways to work together and collaborate more effectively.
Any useful resources to share?
- Our Vision for the Future of Workers and Work: In it we share our perspective on the state of working people’s power in this country today and what we believe it will take to build a better tomorrow.
- Our Call to Reimagine Capitalism: In it we share our point of view for why we need a new economic paradigm that builds a more equitable, inclusive, and resilient society.
Thank you so much Tracy for your time and support of our network! If you’d like to reach out to Tracy directly to learn more, she can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
This interview was completed by Sarah Griffiths, consultant to Economic Opportunity Funders.