Exclusive: How new venture PlaceFund plans to disrupt the property rights field

Students in Ghana do accurate land surveys to help establish property rights and boundaries, and reduce conflicts. Photo by: M. Powoe / USAID / CC BY-NC

SAN FRANCISCO — Property rights advocates have a new champion in PlaceFund, an independent nonprofit organization, which announced its launch on Wednesday.  

PlaceFund was spun out of the property rights initiative at Omidyar Network, the philanthropic investment firm launched by eBay founder Pierre Omidyar. It will continue to support entrepreneurial and technology-driven models that are addressing insecure property rights, unsustainable land use, and interrelated fields such as climate change.

“Our success will be defined by the organizations we’re granting to becoming successful, and if we’ve been successful, then we’re no longer needed as this middleman.”

— Peter Rabley, PlaceFund leader

Peter Rabley and Amy Regas, who previously led the property rights initiative at ON, will run the new venture, which will formally launch at the World Bank’s land and poverty conference in Washington, D.C., in March. With seed funding from ON, Rabley and Regas are taking over the portfolio valued at $30 million, and they are in dialogue with a number of potential funders to attract $50 million of additional investment.

Shaking up the field  

Rabley, who was formerly a venture partner at ON, joined the philanthropic investment firm in 2013 to turn property rights into a full-time initiative.

Watch: Time to act to secure property rights

With an estimated 1 billion people worldwide living without secure property rights in 2017, Omidyar Network’s Peter Rabley says it’s time we started doing something about it.

He said he was brought on “to try and shake up what was viewed as a slightly stodgy space dominated by multilaterals and bilaterals funding governments to make structural improvements on delivering property rights.”

Rabley built ON’s property rights strategy around three main pillars: improving the delivery of property rights, changing the narrative around property rights, and investing in technology and research that could reduce the cost and time required to map property rights.

“The Omidyar Network has been a very different actor in the land and property rights field,” said Malcolm Childress, executive director at Global Land Alliance, a group focused on resolving land issues. Its work on Prindex, a dataset on global perceptions of property security, was supported in part by ON.

“They are good at bringing a private sector and entrepreneurial slant to a field that is quite dominated by public sector agencies that tend to adhere to tried and true,” he said. “They have been much more likely to say ‘How can we innovate and how can we disrupt?’”

Because ON can’t provide the same level of resources as a government donor, it has to be selective in how it engages with the sector. That has resulted in a private-sector approach with a technology focus, Rabley explained.

More recently, ON has supported a number of organizations leveraging satellite and drone imagery, machine learning and artificial intelligence, and geospatial datasets for land rights.

Beyond writing checks

As ON has shifted its focus toward more systemic challenges, such as reimagining capitalism, several of its initiatives have spun off into independent organizations. With PlaceFund, Rabley and Regas are following the model of groups such as Flourish, a new venture fund that evolved from the financial inclusion portfolio at ON.

Organizations that have received grants and investments from Rabley and Regas said they see opportunity for greater impact now that PlaceFund is a separate entity from ON.

PlaceFund is likely to pursue the same strategy as the ON property rights initiative, but with more entrepreneurial space to operate, Childress of Global Land Alliance explained. PlaceFund is poised to seize a number of opportunities that could advance property rights globally, for example by unlocking financing tied to urban development or climate change, he said.

Nana Ama Yirrah, executive director at COLANDEF, a Ghana-based NGO focused on securing land tenure rights and promoting women’s empowerment, said she expects Rabley and Regas will continue to go beyond just writing checks in the way they provide support.

“They have really worked with us from the project conceptualization stage through the development of the whole project into the implementation of the activities,” she said.

In addition to strengthening the capacity of local partners, Yirrah said she hopes Rabley and Regas will work to ensure that investments in technology for property rights add value to people on the ground.

Regas said she and Rabley plan to continue to serve as network agents, connecting organizations in their portfolio with one another where they see opportunities for partnership.

“These organizations may not have connections to others who can help them amplify what they’re doing,” she said. “They can lean on each other, and be able to accomplish their missions more effectively, and with greater reach.”

For example, Regas and Rabley facilitated a partnership between COLANDEF and Meridia, a for-profit venture based in the Netherlands and Ghana that helps rural community members obtain legal land titles.

This kind of support provided the company with connections in Ghana that would otherwise be impossible for an early-stage startup to establish, said Simon Ulvund, CEO at Meridia.

He said he expects that by launching a new organization, Rabley and Regas will have even more flexibility to facilitate these connections between members of their portfolio.

Addressing a market failure

While Rabley joined ON to shake up the field of property rights, it remains a challenging sector for the kind of impact at scale he hopes to see.

Compared to other parts of the ON portfolio, such as financial inclusion, property rights had traditionally been “smaller in scale, smaller in influence, smaller in funding, and much smaller in terms of innovation and opportunities,” Rabley said.

But the need for PlaceFund is the result of a market failure, Rabley said. He hopes the new initiative can help bilaterals and multilaterals move away from funding the same large international NGOs while also de-risking the sector in order to draw more funders in.

While some organizations working on property rights may feel threatened by a new organization raising money from some of the same donors, most of what PlaceFund raises will go directly to smaller organizations working on the ground, he added.

The plan, Rabley explained, is for PlaceFund to exist for 10 years.

“Our success will be defined by the organizations we’re granting to becoming successful, and if we’ve been successful, then we’re no longer needed as this middleman,” he said.

About the author

  • Catherine Cheney

    Catherine Cheney is a Senior Reporter for Devex. She covers the West Coast of the U.S., focusing on the role of technology, innovation, and philanthropy in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals. And she frequently represents Devex as a speaker and moderator. Prior to joining Devex, Catherine earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Yale University, worked as a web producer for POLITICO and reporter for World Politics Review, and helped to launch NationSwell. Catherine has reported domestically and internationally for outlets including The Atlantic and the Washington Post. Outside of her own reporting, Catherine also supports other journalists to cover what is working, through her work with the Solutions Journalism Network.