Humility and Trust in the Omidyar Network

“Humble” was one of the three words I used when introducing myself at the Omidyar Network Executive Forum this week, but at the time I did not know how truly humble I would feel by the end of the event. The ONEF is a three day retreat for Omidyar’s investees (they make grants to non-profits but also investments in for-profits), which range from familiar faces such as SeeClickFix’s Ben Berkowitz and Sunlight Foundation’s Ellen Miller to new ones like Christopher Mikkelson who founded a Danish NGO called Refugees United and Svitlana Zalishchuk who heads up New Citizen in the Ukraine.

I’m proud of Code for America, and I think we do important, valuable work. But when you’re feeling overwhelmed by the challenges of starting up a fellowship program, it helps to put your obstacles in perspective. In a workshop about employee management, the guy I sat next to kept saying that the principles the speaker was offering weren’t relevant to him. At the break, I asked him why. It turns out he runs a network of underground journalists in Nigeria who expose corruption, and all of his reporters (whom he stressed are not “employees”) are targets of political assassinations. Yes, I said, setting annual performance objectives does seem a little ridiculous in that case.

Later I attended a workshop on creating movements using social media. Examples given included the very funny Great Shlep viral video Sarah Silverman did for the Obama campaign (“go to Florida, get your Jewish grandmother to vote”) and a campaign for low-income housing in Marin, CA. They were great, useful examples for our work. Then Svitlana, sitting quietly in the audience, stood up and told us what it was like to be part of the Orange Revolution in Ukraine, in which a million people took to the streets (in truly bitter cold – it was winter in Ukraine, after all) and toppled a corrupt government. Now that’s a movement!

And now, having established that the comparison seemed stretched, I will try nonetheless to borrow some lessons from some of the amazing revolutionaries I met this week. The main one is about what makes people do what they do, whether its make a better way for citizens to report potholes or take to the streets to oust a dictator. I’ve heard this not just from the amazing social entrepreneurs and rabble rousers at ONEF but also from venture capitalists explaining the characteristics of the best entrepreneurs and open source developers sharing why they code on open projects. (Or, in the case of John Lilly, former CEO of Mozilla and now partner at Greylock, who came to speak to us last week, we heard messages about both groups from the same person.) People take risks, start companies and movements, and put their lives on the line because they feel they have to. It’s not really a choice. It just feels like any other use of their time would be a waste.

The other big lesson is that when a movement is really working, there is an enormous amount of trust, and that that trust is a huge, often unseen asset of the movement. Svitlana talked about how during the Orange Revolution, everyone in the movement shared what they had whether they knew each other or not, that her apartment was full of people she’d never met but who needed a place to stay, that wealthy people came into the streets with piles of cash to distribute to the protesters to spend on whatever they might need to keep themselves out there. No accounting, no directions on how to distribute the money fairly; the incredibly high trust created incredibly low friction, and resources simply got where they needed to be. While less dramatic, there was a sense of trust and mutual support among the ONEF attendees as well, a sense that even with our diverse missions we were all working towards the goal of a better world and would support each other wherever possible.

Tying together both those themes is the commencement speech Robert Krulwich gave recently to the Berkeley Journalism School, sent to me by a friend. The drive he describes reminds me of the drive of the Code for America fellows, and reminds me why I love going to work every day. For a bit of inspiration, read it here.

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