EBay founder a philanthropic powerhouse  
by Jon Swartz
February 10
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Somewhere between his treatise on government transparency and soliloquy on human rights, Pierre Omidyar paused. EBay's billionaire founder and proponent of good works was addressing a roomful of White House Fellows in a closed-door question-and-answer session last month, hours before President Obama's State of the Union address, when a query stumped him: What do you hope to accomplish the rest of your life?

Omidyar, 44, looked down, contemplatively, then fixed his eyes on the questioner. "We live a comfortable life, but relationships are what make a life rich," he said. Omidyar, a member of the president's Commission on White House Fellowships, touched on a mix of causes that include media democracy, education and the difference between charity ("a quick solution") and philanthropy ("systemic changes to long-term problems").

The group of White House Fellows, younger men and women picked to work at the highest levels of the federal government, seemed mesmerized.

To date, Pierre and wife Pam have committed more than $1 billion to hundreds of causes through individual gifts and four organizations they created —Omidyar Network, Humanity United, HopeLab and Ulupono (Hawaiian for "doing the right thing") Initiative. Pam Omidyar is from Hawaii.

The couple has found time to fashion Civil Beat, an investigative online news organization started in Hawaii fixed on local issues, and the forthcoming emerging leaders program in Hawaii patterned after the White House Fellows.

"He is the new face of philanthropy," says former president Bill Clinton, who has known the Omidyars for more than a decade. "He and Pam live and give to their core values." Adds eBay CEO John Donahoe: "In his quiet way, he has enormous impact on the world."

But for Omidyar, Silicon Valley legend-turned-philanthropist, life can be sublime amid the charitable endeavors and good works. He's been largely quiet for a decade, giving an occasional interview while living in relative seclusion in Hawaii. He dropped out of sight to oversee charity after charity. Why talk now? To fill the world in on how his organization has learned to create philanthropic teams that bring long-term change. He also weighed in on the toxic political discourse: "It has declined dramatically, a complete failure of leadership," he said over a vegetarian dinner the night before the Q&A session.

Despite pleas from candidates, Omidyar (pronounced O-mid-e-are) stopped making political donations in 2008. Instead, he works with elected Democrats and Republicans to effect change, including a project with the Obama administration to reduce human trafficking. "I work with officeholders, not candidates," he says.

"I'm worried about the American Dream," says Omidyar, who immigrated to the U.S. from France in the 1970s. "Think of the best and brightest who came here," he says, listing founders of Google (Sergey Brin, Russia) and Yahoo (Jerry Yang, Taiwan).

A self-confessed data junkie who dives into numbers and analyzes them, Omidyar remains vigilantly engaged at eBay. As its chairman and largest shareholder, he attends four board meetings a year. He also chimes in when change is necessary. Omidyar, a trained engineer, inspired a major move to technology in the post-Meg Whitman era, with the appointment of Donahoe as CEO to replace her and the additions of Chief Technology Officer Mark Carges and board member Marc Andreessen. (Whitman, now CEO of Hewlett-Packard, declined to be interviewed for this story.)

"He has real clarity of purpose," says Donahoe, who met Omidyar seven years ago when he joined eBay. "He believes people are basically good, and (in) the power of the individual, the little guy, to have impact on a global scale."

The Omidyars' brand of philanthropy, based loosely on a venture-capital firm's approach, has been a powerful agent for social change, as eBay was for commerce.

The Omidyars' financial gifts often go to charities that follow solid business plans and produce earnings streams that sustain the non-profit work. "Think of it as a portfolio approach to doing social good," says Mike Mohr, who has been with the Omidyars since eBay went public in 1998, and who serves as strategic adviser to their philanthropic endeavors.

Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates and others consider the reclusive Omidyar a seminal figure in the intersection of philanthropy and technology. "Pierre approaches his philanthropy with an innovative and entrepreneurial spirit that we can all learn from," Gates said in an e-mail. "Pam and Pierre have had incredible impact in financial services and provided much needed investment in global health."

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