Philanthropy and the Open Society: A Q&A With Christopher Stone, President, Open Society Foundations
August 22, 2013
"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.