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28th Feb 2024

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Who will fill gap left by Soros' Open Society Foundations?

  • George Soros. Grants from national governments often require NGOs to adopt a narrow, country-specific approach; OSF had an EU-wide focus (Photo: Central European University)
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Although Ðorđe Jovanović had been puzzled by several of Open Society Foundations' recent decisions, the Brussels-based director of the European Roma Rights Centre was still shocked when the deep-pocketed charity announced last week that it would discontinue much of its longstanding funding of European initiatives.

In an interview with EUobserver, Jovanović likened the charity's decision to pull out of Europe to a company abruptly letting go of a longtime staffer with the encouragement that they'll easily find a new job.

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  • OSF grants were unique in allowing NGOs to use the money how they best saw fit (Photo: Wikimedia)

"Because that's what they basically say; we are pulling out from Europe because the European Union is giving exactly the same funding which we do," he said.

"It is this very American approach — basically, you are fired."

Open Society Foundations' decision to sharply curtail its European operations as part of a broader organisational restructuring has come as a shock to many of the organisations whose work it has bankrolled over the last decades.

EU activism and advocacy around progressive causes has long been heavily dependent on philanthropic funding, and Open Society Foundations, the private grant-making foundation established by the Hungarian-American billionaire George Soros in 1984, has dwarfed any other organisation in both the amount of funding it has given and the outspoken commitment it has shown in supporting liberal causes, experts say.

In 2021, €209m — or 13.5 percent of its global expenditures — went to its European and Central Asia operations.

From providing legal support and advice to victims of racial profiling, to funding an LGBT+ organisation that played a key role in the decriminalisation of consensual homosexuality in Romania, the charity has played an outsize role in developing and buttressing Europe's civil society.

With NGOs and groups across Europe now scrambling to find out what Open Society Foundations' decision will mean for their future, the decision has also highlighted a broader, deeper issue — the underdeveloped state of the funding landscape for progressive causes across Europe — leading many to wonder who will fill the vacuum left by the philanthropic giant.

Open Society Foundations has for instance been indispensable to the legal victories of the European Roma Rights Centre. Founded in the mid-1990s by former Open Society Foundations staffers, it was Europe's first strategic litigation organisation and would win key cases around the segregation of Roma children, the forced sterilisation of Roma women and hate crimes against Roma people over the next decades.

Because the organisation embarked on a quest to diversify its funding a few years ago already, its future hasn't been imperilled by the charity's decision. But it will mean a shift of focus, the centre's director admitted, pointing out that they would need to more heavily rely on project funding.

"We will have to compromise some of our strategies in order to align with the strategies of those donors," he said, adding that this would mean more soft advocacy and less watchdog work, not just for the European Roma Rights Centre, but for progressive NGOs on the continent at large.

'End of an era'

Referring to the money the organisation had injected in EU civil society organisations in the past, he said: "It's the end of an era for Europe and NGOs in Europe."

In a statement to EUobserver, a spokesperson for Open Society Foundations said it would continue to fund civil society groups across Europe, including those working on EU external affairs, and maintain its historic support for European Roma communities. He added that the charity's new operating model would mean the majority of its grant-making would centre "specific opportunities for impact", to be determined over the coming months.

"This may mean developing new portfolios of work in support of strategic opportunities with a significant European dimension," he said. "Our work in Europe has always been an evolving whole — and these new changes are no exception to that long-term trend."

If Open Society Foundations support to NGOs across the region was described by many as unique and impossible to replace in the wake of its announcement last week, it's because of both the amounts it has given, but also the — for Europe unusual — way in which it has done so, with cheques that allowed an organisation to sustain itself in the long run and use the money how they best see fit.

Grants from national governments often require NGOs to adopt a narrow, country-specific approach; OSF had an EU-wide focus.

Meanwhile, the European Commission, which Open Society Foundations has reportedly suggested could finance much of the work it previously funded, privileges advocacy work, capacity-building, and the development of best practices rather than the watchdog work which Open Society Foundations was known to fund.

"Contrary to what OSF has been arguing to justify its EU retreat, EU funds won't be enough to fill the gap and can't be taken for granted in the next EU policy cycle given the emergence of a right-wing majority within the EU Parliament," said Alberto Alemanno, a professor of EU law at the business school HEC Paris and founder of The Good Lobby, an organisation that helps civil society organisations more effectively lobby European policymakers. (The Good Lobby received a $100,000 [€92,000] grant from Open Society Foundations in 2016.)

"Given the unprecedented dependence of EU civil society organisations on OSF funding, most of them are likely to struggle to find alternative lines of funding," he said, referring to the foundation by its acronym. "This will be particularly true for those organisations dealing with the most intractable policy challenges, from racial justice to minority rights, which due to their inherent politicisation aren't attracting philanthropic support."

Who will step up?

Some, however, see a bright line and say that the foundation's decision to retreat from Europe could mark a turning point, one that might compel a Soros-like figure to step forward.

"Instead of just focusing on OSF, which is a shame but, whatever — I hope we'll look at the Bernard Arnaults of this world," said Colombe Cahen-Salvador, referring to the French billionaire behind the LVMH luxury products group, currently the richest man in the world according to Forbes.

Cohen-Salvador co-founded the pan-European political party Volt in 2017 and Atlas, a global movement working to create a democratic system of global governance, in 2020. Volt received a €20,000 grant from Open Society Foundations in 2018.

"We can criticise Soros and maybe we should, but we should also look at why it's one of the few sources of funding that we can try to get," she said, calling for EU civil society to start holding homegrown billionaires accountable. (Soros has lived in the US for decades.)

"What are you doing to support progressive causes, to support rights and the climate fight, and [address] the fact that the far-right is rising?" Cahen-Salvador asked. "And how come you're not acting?"

A spokesperson for LVMH declined to comment. According to the group's website, LVMH's corporate philanthropy focuses on "promoting and sharing culture — with a special emphasis on youth — renovating and enriching historical heritage and supporting contemporary artistic creation". It doesn't include any financial specifics.

Update 30/8/2023: The text has been updated to correct a few grammatical errors we should have caught in edits.

Author bio

Linda A. Thompson is a freelance writer and editor in Brussels and co-founder of The Friendly Freelancer.

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