George Soros has been thinking about his legacy as a philanthropist.
The 80-year-old chairman of Soros Fund Management recently wrote a lengthy essay in The New York Review of Books about his plans for the network of Open Society Foundations (OSF) to which he has contributed more than $8 billion over the past three decades. The private operating and grant-making organization seeks to shape public policy to promote democratic governance, human rights, and economic, legal and social reform around the world.
Soros, excoriated in many circles as a supporter of left-wing causes and groups, professes himself to be happy with his philanthropy. “My success in the financial markets has given me a greater degree of independence than most other people," Soros writes. "This obliges me to take stands on controversial issues when others cannot, and taking such positions has itself been a source of satisfaction.”
Soros writes that he had not originally intended for the OSF to survive him, but changed his mind after it evolved into a substantial force: “A number of very capable people are devoting their lives to the work of the Open Society Foundations; I have no right to pull the rug out from under them.”
Beyond that, he says, the OSF has determined a particular area of philanthropy that needs to be carried on and does not require his presence: giving civil society the means to hold government accountable (the bulk of his essay focuses on this theme). Other activities, such as providing legal protection for the poor, are also worthwhile goals that the OSF will be able to serve beyond his lifetime.
This does not mean that Soros’s absence from the OSF will go unnoticed. He writes: “What will be missing when I am gone is the entrepreneurial and innovative spirit that has characterized the Open Society Foundations. I have tried to deal with problems as they arose through a process of trial and error. I was able to move fast and take big risks.”
He says the governing board that succeeds him, weighed down by fiduciary responsibilities, will not be able to follow his example; some will try to follow his intentions, while others will be risk averse.
After his death, the OSF will likely have a half dozen or so vice presidents overseeing separate parts of the organization and reporting to an incoming president. But Soros is determined that the structure not become centralized. “At present most of the innovative ideas come from within the networks we have sponsored, not from the top… I don’t want to lose that spirit,” he writes.
With that in mind, he has decided to set up a School of Public Policy at the Central European University in Budapest, which he expects to keep on top of policy news and to "identify problems and solutions as they arise in a way that the board of a foundation cannot.”
Soros wants the school to use the experience of the OSF's network as well theoretical ideas. “Currently our practical engagement with these burning issues exceeds our theoretical understanding…," he writes. "We need to generate more ideas in order to use our money more effectively.”
At the same time, Soros insists that the new institution will have to search far and wide for ideas to address global problems: “To fulfill my hopes, the school would have to institutionalize the entrepreneurial and exploratory spirit that currently imbues the Open Society Foundations.” This, he says, will involve a critical appraisal of the OSF’s prevailing beliefs and practices.