After 25 years, the Open Society Foundations, a network of foundations that funds grants around the world that focus on promoting justice, democracy and human rights, is closing its Baltimore location — its only U.S. field office.
Tom Perriello, executive director of Open Society U.S., said the organization is consolidating, restructuring and putting more resources into its global work. A big focus for the foundation, he said, is to move more leadership, resources and programming into areas like Africa, Latin America and Asia. Offices in Nigeria, Afghanistan and Myanmar have also closed in the last few years.
“I think the overall principles are ones that are very understandable, about wanting to spend less on our real estate and more on grant-making and wanting to go where we feel like we can have the most impact,” Perriello said. Change is always difficult, he added, but he thinks there is also upside.
Open Society Institute-Baltimore operates with a mission to end structural racism in Baltimore by supporting community-level initiatives through grants and programs. Efforts focus on education, youth development, health equity, addiction, and criminal and juvenile justice.
The organization’s Baltimore Community Fellowships program, which have been around since the office opened, supported over 200 social entrepreneurs and projects that addressed underserved communities in Baltimore.
Some wondered what impact the departure would have on a city with so much poverty and unmet social needs.
“It’s definitely devastating,” said Jed Weeks, interim executive director of Bikemore, a Baltimore bicycle advocacy organization. “It’s a significant amount of resources that’s going toward stuff that’s really needed in Baltimore.”
Weeks said he hopes the fellowship program continues because many fellows created significant programs and nonprofits in Baltimore. Bikemore’s co-founder, Chris Merriam, was an OSI-Baltimore fellow in 2012.
Danielle Torain, director of OSI-Baltimore, said the organization is being very sensitive and mindful of the effects of the closure. Steps are in place to take an “unfortunate development and shift it into something constructive.”
“Our goal is to make sure that we invest in ways that will stabilize each of the organizations that have occupied a really important role in this work, and are holding very important work in the present,” she said.
The foundation will use $20 million it has raised with help from other donors to “seed the future of social justice philanthropy” and help launch a new fund, The Maryland Black Futures Fund, Torain said. The money will also be used to fulfill grants the foundation has already awarded and continue some iteration of the fellowship program, which the nonprofit CLLCTIVLY will take over and redesign.
Torain said they “recognize that the OSI closure will definitely result in a gap in funding opportunities for leaders of color working at the grassroots level.”
The Maryland Black Futures Fund will be modeled after the California Black Freedom Fund, and will be a statewide campaign to invest in “Black power-building and movement-based organizations,” said Jamye Wooten, founder and CEO of CLLCTIVLY. The group aims to be a resource for those who want to find, fund and partner with Black-led organizations.
Wooten said the seed investment in the Maryland Black Futures Fund is “catalytic capital” that’ll get them started on the five-year campaign to raise $100 million. A $6 million investment from OSI-Baltimore will kick off the fund.
“To see them really get behind this kind of investment, they get to go out with a bang,” Wooten said.
CLLCTIVLY is going to convene with local partners to determine how to implement a redesigned fellowship program. They want to ensure fellows are able to receive investments similar to what the original program provided, Wooten said. Currently, fellows are awarded $60,000 in stipends over an 18-month period.
Michael Rosenband said he applied to the fellowship four times before he was accepted into the program. It’s a rigorous process, he said, but the program is the “gold-standard for fellowships in Baltimore.” As a 2022 fellow, Rosenband said he is grateful for the network of fellows he can connect with. The foundation’s departure is unfortunate, he said, but it’s wonderful they are leaving behind an incredibly significant investment.
“You’re part of this community and have access to all this incredible work other people are doing,” Rosenband said.
Kieta Iriarte-Amin, executive director of local nonprofit Bmore Empowered, said there are a lot of barriers to capital for grassroots organizations. She said a pilot program co-anchored by OSI-Baltimore and Baltimore’s Promise, called B’more Invested, provided pivotal grants for her nonprofit.
She heard about the closure during a community information session this week. The meeting was purposeful and thoughtful, Iriarte-Amin said, and welcomed feedback from those in attendance. She appreciated the investment dollars that were being committed for future programs.
Nazaahah Amin, a program director for Bmore Empowered, said it’s a little unexpected that the closure is happening so swiftly, but it made them reflect on ways OSI-Baltimore might need their support as the office closes.
“We feel like even though this particular branch may leave, that support and that networking and that community that we’ve built with them and other grantees is going to still be strong,” Nazaahah Amin said.
George Soros, a Hungarian billionaire and philanthropist, created Open Society Foundations in the 1980s. Today, the organization has a presence in more than 120 countries. In the 1990s, former mayor Kurt Schmoke’s stance on decriminalizing drugs in Baltimore interested Soros.
Originally, Soros dedicated $25 million to the city over a five-year period to address education, job creation and drug treatment. Soros told The Baltimore Sun in 1997 that the city was a good site for an office because it had “a supportive local government.”
The Baltimore office was a new model of philanthropy within the foundation, as it focused on the problems of a single city instead of a national or international purview.
In the coming months, the foundation is going to focus on the transition of team members affected by the closure. Severance packages and opportunities for employment in other areas of the organization were offered to employees, according to a press release.
Torain said she hopes the institute leaves behind a legacy that conveys the importance of taking risks, supporting local innovation and backing local leaders.
“It’s important for people to know this isn’t an abandonment of Baltimore. It’s a recommitment to the city,” Torain said.