His non-profit, now the second best-funded of its kind in America, does controversial work in places others avoid
“God” is giving away more of his money.
Legendary financier George Soros has transferred an additional $18 billion to the Open Society Foundations he created to promote civil society and liberal democracy. The move by the 87-year-old former Hungarian refugee, whose investing prowess have been likened to a deity’s by more than a few admirers, was first reported by the Wall Street Journal. It also means that Open Society is now the second largest foundation in the United States, overtaking grand dames like the Ford and Kellogg Foundations.
Soros, whose wealth Forbes estimates at $23 billion, founded what became the OSF to support democratic movements during the Cold War. His non-profit functions primarily as a dispenser of grants: last year, it gave away $517.2 million on an endowment of about $4.9 billion. Even after Soros’ endowment, OSF is still smaller than the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the largest non-profit in America. But in several ways, his philanthropy is sui generis.
First, there’s the scale of its operations. As the plural “foundations” suggest, Open Society isn’t just one entity but a network of charities globally. OSF has 42 offices around the world, ranging from its headquarters in glitzy Midtown Manhattan to a satellite branch in the Guinean capital of Gonarky, where the GDP per capita in 2014 was under $550. It hands out grants in over 100 countries, funding everything from documentary filmmakers in New York to sex worker advocates in Ireland and mobile courts in the Democratic Republic of Congo that transport judges around to try crimes committed against women.
By contrast, the Gates Foundation tries to limit its work to countries where it thinks it has the most impact; it also operates just half a dozen offices worldwide. While the Clinton Foundation has great influence thanks to being founded by a former President and an ex-Secretary of State, it had relatively puny assets of $455 million in 2015. “By virtue of its size and global footprint, Open Society is really remarkable,” says Amir Pasic, dean of the Lilly Family School of Philanthropy in Indianapolis, which has not received funding from OSF.
More importantly, OSF is specifically committed to promoting the democratic process, a controversial task. “They are in authoritarian countries because they’re difficult” to operate in, says Pasic. “They go where they identify that there’s repression and build the capacity for people to participate in public life.”
He points out that the foundation was among the first to enter Bosnia and Herzegovina after the fledgling republic emerged in the violence-inflicted collapse of Yugoslavia and how Soros distributed photocopiers in pre-internet Eastern Europe so that banned political tracts could be given out. The communist refugee also sent Hungarian Premier Victor Orban, who is now trying to shut down Soros’ Central European University in Budapest, on a scholarship to Oxford as a young man.
OSF is, of course, hardly the only charity to proselytize democracy. The Ford Foundation supports investigative journalists via its JustFilms subsidiary; the Carnegie Corporation has given the Immigrant Legal Resource Center nearly $14 million since 2011 for its advocacy efforts. (The Gates Foundation focuses primarily on less controversial education and health issues.)
But the former two nonprofits have long been run by professional management, and Soros’ longstanding personal commitment is rare. “Many foundations rushed in to build capacity after the Cold War ended but his vision of Open Society has always been very focused and consistent, even as others have moved on to different things,” Pasic says.
Indeed, Soros has emerged as a bogey man of sorts not just to “America First” right wingers who dislike his support for the Democratic Party, but also to populists elsewhere. Russia recently banned OSF for operating in the country and it has come under sustained attack from authoritarian governments in Eastern Europe. That however, seems only to have pushed the hedge fund manager to devote more of his money to combating authoritarianism.
“He’s seen that the early optimism that civil society would triumph and a clear trajectory for freedom emerge after the Cold War not bear out,” Pesic says. “That’s one of the reasons he’s decided to continue the foundation rather than shutting it down” after his death, as Soros once promised to do.
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