Christopher Stone, President, Open Society Foundations: Philanthropy and the Open Society

September 4, 2013
Christopher Stone, President, Open Society Foundations: Philanthropy and the Open Society

"George Soros once told a group of people he and I were speaking to that my appointment signaled no change in the Open Society Foundations, because change had been a constant since OSF's birth and would continue into the foreseeable future," said Christopher Stone when we spoke to him earlier this year. "And that certainly applies to our funding priorities."

Since Stone joined the Open Society Foundations as president in 2012, many have wondered how, if at all, the change in leadership might affect the global network of philanthropies started and funded by Soros, the hedge fund billionaire. After all, Stone succeeded Open Society's founding president, Aryeh Neier, a former executive director of Human Rights Watch, national director of the American Civil Liberties Union, and a close Soros friend who led the foundation for nearly twenty years, helping "to make...[it] into a truly international organization." With foundations in dozens of countries around the world, it was unclear — and concerning to some — how Stone intended to "streamline" what Soros previously had described in an interview with the New York Times as "a very complex organization." But, as Stone told us when we spoke with him, what Soros was alluding to was nothing more than new ways of organizing the Foundations' work so that it could "achieve more with each grant, program, and strategy."

Before joining Open Society, Stone served as Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice at the John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Prior to that, he served as director of the Vera Institute of Justice, founded the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem, and served as a founding director of the New York State's Capital Defender Office and the Altus Global Alliance.

PND spoke with Stone in May and followed up with him via e-mail earlier this month.

Philanthropy News Digest: You were once described by Open Society founder George Soros as an "outsider insider." What did he mean?

Christopher Stone: I think he meant that I've been associated with the Open Society Foundations since the 1990s, but I haven't truly been inside the organization. I've been an advisory board member of the Open Society Justice Initiative since 2004 and an occasional advisor and grantee of the organization since the Open Society Institute was created in 1993. But I've been outside the organization in the sense that I haven't worked directly for Open Society, and I haven't been on any of its governing boards, until now. I can appreciate the organization and understand its history, but I don't have the commitments and am not wedded to any particular elements of the foundations that George Soros, I think, is hoping we will be reviewing over this transition.

PND: What has your varied experience taught you about the potential and limits of philanthropy?

CS: Over the years, I've known a number of foundation presidents and worked with many foundations, occasionally as an informal advisor and mostly as a grantee. Among other things, I've learned that, like other fields, the philanthropic sector is all about relationships; that foundations vary tremendously from one to another; and that they are really dependent in all sorts of ways on their grantees. Not just to execute the projects they support, but to help define and inform their sense of the field. Foundations work hard at getting outside opinions and observations. But it's a hard thing to do, and I think the mutual dependence of foundations on grantees, and grantees on foundations, is not as obvious to a lot of people who assume that the grantee is a supplicant and the foundation has all the cards.

PND: A recent essay in the Boston Review raised important questions about the role of foundations in a democratic society. What is the proper role of private foundations in a pluralistic democracy like ours?

CS: Rob Reich's essay in the Boston Review retells his consistent view of philanthropy and civil society in the United States. I like him very much, and we've talked about these things from time to time. But I don't agree with him. I think the fundamental analogy between government officials and philanthropy is flawed.

Philanthropies have no power formally. Government officials have a lot of power formally. Philanthropies have a lot of informal power. Government officials have relatively little informal power. Philanthropies are much more like other sources of financing in politics and compare rather favorably on democratic values with corporations, super PACs, and campaign committees. But, of course, foundations vary tremendously, and some of them are mettlesome and troublesome to democracy. Others benefit democracy precisely through their independence, which is something that even elected officials with current campaign financing laws don't have.

In my opinion, if you think of democracy in an atomized individual way, foundations look like rather odd, outsized players. But that's not how democracy works. Democracy is largely about continuous participation. It's about organized groups participating in self-government over time. And foundations are essential to the ability of citizens to organize themselves and to act and participate in self-government not just around elections, but between elections and, indeed, in everyday life, particularly in countries without elections. A foundation's ability to help citizens mobilize and organize can be one of the only sources of democratic support in a country. For example, a foundation's support of journalism in a country where not just democracy and elections but independent media has been suppressed can be a lifeline to democratic practice and open debate. I think the relationship between foundations and democracy is much more complex than Rob Reich's article suggests. Even in the United States, foundations can be a source to subvert democracy, but they also can be a source of vital support for democratic practice.

PND: Generally speaking, do you think they serve that purpose today?

CS: A lot of foundations are born of people's good intentions. I don't think most philanthropic activity in the United States is born out of a desire to subvert democracy or thwart the laws that regulate political activity. Philanthropy is hard to do well, and the question of whether foundations are serving democracy well is much more about the difficulties of execution than about the motivations of their founders. When the goals of using money aren't just achieving a return on an investment but are aimed at a social return or some contribution to social justice or democratic practice, or just an improvement in people's well being, knowing how to use money to that effect can be quite difficult, and there are very few standards for what people in foundations are doing, let alone how they achieve it.

PND: In an interview with the New York Times in 2011, Soros characterized Open Society as "a very complex organization" that needed "to be streamlined." What was he referring to, and is Open Society a more streamlined operation today than it was a few years ago?

CS: That interview was conducted at the end of 2011, around the time he asked me to lead Open Society. George asked me to streamline and unify the foundations because they had, indeed, become quite complex. The Open Society Foundations grew up not with a global plan or a grand design, but country by country, foundation by foundation, starting in Hungary in 1983, right down to the present, as we expand our work in Burma. Open Society today operates in literally dozens of countries around the world, and we make grants in more than one hundred countries. We have over twenty independent foundations led by boards and staff from their respective countries operating with our financial support under guidelines that we negotiate with each foundation separately, but largely using their own judgment about what to fund. It's a very complicated structure, and we don't want to centralize it or move away from having each foundation rely on the expertise and experience and legitimacy of their respective boards. But we do need to find ways of organizing the work to achieve more with each grant, program, and strategy so that we can do a better job of learning from each other while allowing each individual foundation to act as it feels is appropriate.

PND: Have the organization's funding priorities shifted over the past few years? And if so, in what ways?

CS: George Soros once told a group of people he and I were speaking to that my appointment would signal no change in the Open Society Foundations, because change had been constant since its birth and would continue into the foreseeable future. And that certainly applies to our funding priorities.

The core mission of the Open Society Foundations has remained fairly fixed from the beginning. Our five commitments — to justice, rights, the advancement of respect for human dignity, democratic practice, and good governance — remain solid and have taken us into areas of economic development, transparency and accountability, and humanitarian relief operations. But we mostly focus on policy change, policy reform, and good governance.

PND: Why were you moved in a recent blog post to suggest that access to justice needs to be returned to the global development agenda?

CS: Well, there's a community of civil society actors, governments, international organizations, and others committed to supporting the development of economies and societies around the globe that has shifted in the last few decades from a rather technocratic approach to a more participatory and, in some sense, political approach. I don't mean political in the party sense, and I don't mean advancing development through electoral politics. But I do mean understanding that the support and engagement of a country's people is essential to meaningful development work. Thomas Carothers has a new book out on that subject, and I think it captures a lot of the evolution in thinking in the development field over the last decade or so.

Once one recognizes that participation is essential, the importance of access to justice as part of development becomes clear. Development is not just a question of how to build a better bridge or how to dig a deeper well; it's about the ability of people to have control over those bridges and wells and make sure those projects are supporting communities that can look after their own interests. In that sense, access to justice is shorthand for the ability of people to have a voice and be heard, and to seek redress when governments — or anyone exercising power, including corporations, domestic or foreign — are not living up to their responsibilities and commitments. Without the ability of people to seek redress, to maintain their involvement in development projects, the technical application of development funds in a place isn't going to amount to much.

PND: One of the paradoxes of the world in which we live is the way that technology both extends and compromises "openness." Is the growing power of technology in and over our lives something that Open Society might, at some point, feel compelled to address? And if so, how might it do that?

CS: Through our information program, we support some of the most creative and innovative individuals and organizations working on information technology today, whether it's defending freedom of the Internet and access to the Internet, or helping to build computer applications. Building apps and other uses of digital technology to support people's right to expression, access to information, and rights in general is a central pillar of our work at Open Society, precisely because technology today is intertwined with our lives in so many ways.

For example, we're doing new work on food security in response to the mounting threat of climate change in Africa, and technology is integral to that work, whether it's allowing smallholder farmers to get access to information about the market price of their crops so they are not exploited by intermediaries when trying to get their crops to market, or using technology to develop improved agricultural inputs. Our work on health rights and access to essential medicines benefits from technological innovation in many ways, as well.

Again, technology is a big part of the Open Society agenda, because it's a big part of our lives. I do think the danger in a lot of technology is that it becomes yet another dimension in which power is allocated unequally, meaning that those with access to technology or those who control the technologies can gain power over others in the same way that access to finance and access to formal instruments of law can affect power distribution. And in such cases, we will do what we can to address issues of technology control, as well as the uses of technology.

PND: It's a really important issue. Unfortunately, we're out of time for today. Thank you for speaking to us.

CS: My pleasure.

Regina Mahone spoke with Stone earlier this summer. For more information on the Newsmakers series, contact Mitch Nauffts at mfn@foundationcenter.org