NEW YORK – Several human rights organizations are concerned about Open Society Foundations plans to lay off 40% of their global staff — the nonprofit's second major cut in three years — as billionaire investor George Soros hands over leadership to his son.
“We are most concerned for social justice movements, which now have to wait for the impact on their sustainability,” said Kellea Miller, executive director of the Human Rights Funders Network. “In the field of philanthropy, decisions at the top can have an outsized ripple effect on those enacting change.”
Open Society Foundations, the umbrella organization for Soros' charitable work, said its board of directors “approved significant changes to the Foundations’ operating model.” The layoffs will comply with local regulations, the foundations said, but they have not said where or when they will take place.
“This will involve some difficult decisions,” said Mark Arena, a spokesperson for the Open Society Foundations. ”We anticipate that implementing the proposed new model would involve the redesign and retooling of our existing operations, and a substantial reduction in headcount of no less than 40% globally."
In 2021, the foundations offered buyouts to dozens of employees and sought to streamline their internal structures while maintaining roughly the same level of grant funding. The foundations say they currently employ around 800 staff members and maintain offices in more than 20 countries.
Kenneth Roth, the former longtime leader of investigative advocacy nonprofit Human Rights Watch, which was a major recipient of OSF funding, said he has no reason to think the OSF layoffs will mean a decline in support for human rights work. It may mean OSF makes fewer, larger grants in the future because the staffing decline makes it harder to handle multiple smaller grants.
According to The Human Rights Funders Network, which researches funding on human rights, OSF was the sector's third largest funder in 2019, the most recent year it has analyzed.
“We also consider the humanity of those losing jobs at OSF," Miller said. "This is not nominal, and it also means that movements that have longstanding relationships with program officers there now have to rebuild their access and wait for transparency about the implications.”
Earlier this month, the foundation announced that Soros was handing over control of his foundations to his 37-year-old son, Alex, who was elected head of OSF's board in December.
The change to a “new model” is meant to maximize the foundations' grantmaking dollars, the OSF statement said, and “create a culture of ‘strategic opportunism.’” The lack of details about the new plan, however, could provide fodder to those who see Soros as having undo power. Soros’ public profile began to change, experts say, began when he supported John Kerry’s run against then President George W. Bush. Then, Victor Orban, now Hungary’s prime minister, demonized him as a shadowy figure seeking to undermine Europe’s predominantly Christian majority through supporting migration, among other issues.
Republicans in the U.S. have seized on similar conspiracies about Soros, who is Jewish and a survivor of the Holocaust.
“Can you ever explain what you’re really doing to somebody who believes that a Jewish billionaire is bringing in migrants?” asked Emily Tamkin, a reporter and author of the book “The Influence of George Soros.” “Is there anything you can say that can make that person believe that you’re not a negative and nefarious force in society? I don’t think there is, and I definitely don’t think there is for political actors who are convinced that this is a useful device for them.”
Alex Soros told the Wall Street Journal, which first reported he would succeed his father at the helm of OSF, that he would be “more political,” but hasn’t elaborated further.
In the early years of the foundations' work, George Soros praised it for being fluid and flexible and empowering staff in countries to run their own projects, said Tamkin.
“(He) contrasted that to these big foundations in New York City with the professional staff and how they were removed from what was actually happening and the people they were actually trying to help," she said. "I think in some ways, philosophically, perhaps people within OSF making this decision see this as a return to form.”
Tamkin said it remains to be seen, “whether reducing staff allows that return to flexibility and empowering of people on the ground, or if really the bureaucratic center remains the bureaucratic center just with fewer people.”
OSF is perhaps most famous for its work supporting dissident movements in Soviet countries, including Soros' native Hungary. It continues to pour funds into Central European University, which Soros founded in the early 1990s in Budapest. It was forced to relocate to Austria after Hungary's parliament passed a new law governing universities with foreign accreditations.
Also among the largest recipients of OSF's funding is Bard College, which received a $500 million gift in 2021. Alex Soros is a member of the college's board of trustees.
According to data from the nonprofit Candid, the largest organizations OSF currently funds in Europe, outside of the local independent branches of its foundation, include the human rights campaigner Global Witness, policy group European Council on Foreign Relations and the advocacy group Roma Education Fund. The fund said it was aware of the layoff announcement and credited OSF as being the biggest private donor for Roma-led organizations across Europe. Global Witness said it was grateful for OSF's support.
As a part of what it's calling a new model, OSF may be holding more funds in reserve, Roth said.
“It sounds as if they’re going to reserve some percentage of funds, not commit them in advance to grantees and just have significant capital ready to invest when big opportunities or big challenges emerge,” Roth said.
In his view, George Soros has always been quick to respond to new problems.
“It sounds like Alex is planning to continue that, but is maybe being a bit more structured about keeping funds available and not being fully committed," Roth said. "He probably won’t have the same options as his father, which is reaching into personal wealth to supplement the foundation.”
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