When Pierre Omidyar founded Omidyar Network more than 10 years ago, he intuitively knew that it would take more than money for grantees to achieve success in advancing social good. He also understood that people provide the spark for organizational excellence, but he hadn’t worked out a human capital strategy. So he asked me to help.
In a nutshell, here’s what we came up with: To execute well, for-profit and nonprofit organizations alike need the right people with the right skill sets at the right time. Our role is to help our for-profit investees and nonprofit grantees realize that synchronicity by providing them with the resources they need to invest in their teams—resources they otherwise wouldn’t have.
The question is where to start? What are the most important interventions we can make with organizations struggling with a lack of resources? For us, the answer flows naturally from our core values of respect and humility. We start by listening carefully to the leaders of the organizations we support. By listening to them describe their organizations’ goals, challenges, and opportunities, we discover what we can do to help, and it’s apparent to both parties.
These leaders often say that they spend a lot of time thinking about how to attract the right talent—an area where we have a lot of expertise. Our team of six full-time recruiters helps with filling specific roles that meet an organization’s immediate needs. The team also encourages organizations to aim ahead of the growth curve. Looking forward means thinking about how each organization will grow and what skill sets it will need in the future, and it applies to both recruits and existing employees. By using a simple “performance-potential matrix” to structure development conversations with its employees, organizations can identify who is capable of growing into more demanding roles while helping employees identify their developmental aspirations and needs.
The Right Skills
While we’ve helped place more than 200 corporate officers in our network over the last six years, recruiting is only one of the ways we support our investees. We also provide our investees with executive coaching and advice on governance, organizational design, and compensation. Our coaching extends to team building—something we do with the help of a certified Myers-Briggs trainer on staff. This expertise is something you routinely find in the private sector, and it’s a skill that we make available to all the organizations we support.
Our peer-learning events are another cornerstone of our human capital approach. We host approximately five events a year—for new grantees, grantees within a specific initiative from a particular geography, or other subgroups.
These are true learning events driven by a specific outcomes agenda that attendees often shape themselves. We often include a special session at which no Omidyar employees are present; this provides a safe environment in which organization leaders can openly share their hopes and fears, and learn from each other and the coaches we bring in.
“Hammer on the Table”
Funders that want to move into human capital support should do so with caution. The challenges are twofold: Are you going to provide the most effective support, and will grantees be honest in discussing their needs? It’s hard for grantees to reveal their shortcomings to funders. I call this the “hammer on the table” issue—the disproportionate influence that flows from writing checks. Resolving this issue is the biggest challenge for foundations thinking about getting into human capital development.
Our approach is straightforward. The human capital team is separate from the investment team. We’re not the investment professional that manages the numbers, and when we meet with organization leaders, we never ask whether they are meeting their numbers or ready for the next tranche of funds. Separating funding from human capital supports is critically important to building trust with grantees.
Not surprisingly, we have more demand to support human capital development than we can meet. We run ourselves ragged. Personally, I’ve already flown more than 200,000 miles this year. But that’s what it takes. We have to get on a plane and show up at the homes of these organizations when the timing is right for them. That’s what it means to live up to our commitment to human capital development and to being of service.
The Gift of Feedback
Given the range of human capital supports we provide, how do we know that we’re really making a difference?
Our internal analyses of both the for-profit and nonprofit organizations we work with show that the organizations regard our human capital support as highly beneficial. A survey of the nonprofits in our portfolio by the Center for Effective Philanthropy found that those organizations value the nonfinancial contributions of Omidyar at least as much as its financial contributions.
The survey underscores one of our biggest learnings: First and foremost, be of service. And for us, service extends beyond the time-bound limits of a grant or investment. Our human capital work strengthens individuals, teams, and organizations to help them realize their missions and deliver greater impact now and in the future.