Civic boost – Focus on results

By Todd Cohen

The impulse to connect people that inspired the eBay online auction site has fostered a new foundation that hopes to get people more involved in civic life.

Wanting to help his wife, Pam, add to her collection of Pez candy dispensers, Pierre Omidyar created eBay and built it into a dot-com blockbuster.

Now, through The Omidyar Foundation, his two-year-old philanthropy in Los Gatos, Calif., the 34-year-old is investing his billions and entrepreneurial know-how to help people “rediscover” their sense of community.

The foundation, which has made 17 grants and does not accept unsolicited proposals, focuses on groups that promote civic engagement or help people get involved in their communities, and on strengthening the nonprofit sector.

The foundation, for example, gave $10 million to Tufts University, Omidyar’s alma mater, to create the University College of Citizenship and Public Service.

The new program, which weaves the idea of community involvement throughout the university’s curriculum, is designed to “expose and engage students early on so they’ll become engaged in civic activities throughout their lives,” says Lorna Lathram, the foundation’s executive director.

The foundation also is working with the Nevada Community Foundation to help boost its role in connecting people and spurring change.

And it is working with groups that help nonprofits build their internal operations.

Those nonprofits include VolunteerMatch in San Francisco, which links nonprofits and volunteers; New Profit, a venture philanthropy in Boston that links donors and nonprofits; NPower, a Seattle technology-assistance group; and InnoNet, a Washington, D.C., group that helps nonprofits create and evaluate programs and budgets.

In addition to providing funding, Omidyar serves as a consultant and resource for groups it supports.

“It’s not about money,” Lathram says. “It’s about results.”

Omidyar, for example, recently hooked up the Nevada foundation with a Texas foundation that will provide tech assistance to help Nevada nonprofits manage donations of goods and services.

Omidyar meets every three months with groups it funds, and often more frequently.

“We’re engaged with the organizations we’re working with, providing technical assistance” and, if needed, connecting the groups with consultants, says Lathram, an entymologist who worked for several startup software firms.

“And we ask a lot of questions,” she says. “So we can learn from our mistakes. A mistake isn’t a mistake unless you don’t learn from it. It’s an opportunity to do things differently, to learn and to move forward.”

The foundation, she says, is poised to tap the “convergence of technology, wealth and knowledge” and create a new philanthropy “in a very unencumbered way.”

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