Even before he arrived at City Hall yesterday to make official his $20 million challenge to Baltimore, billionaire George Soros was a tad closer to raising the funds needed to keep the local office of his Open Society Institute going. At least $1.4 million has been raised - most of it from the Annie E. Casey Foundation - since the campaign was announced last month.
Soros, who opened OSI-Baltimore in 1998 with the goal of studying urban ills and solving them, has promised to pledge $10 million of his own money if locals can meet his challenge to raise $20 million. He has said that he doesn't want to see the office close but believes that locals must contribute. Soros' OSI network extends worldwide and mainly focuses on nurturing democratic governments. Baltimore's office is unique because it deals with urban problems.
"The idea was very simply to demonstrate that it is possible to turn around a city that was sinking and make it rise," Soros said at a news conference with Mayor Martin O'Malley that included several people who received grants from OSI and wanted to thank Soros. "I think that after seven years we are beginning to see some results. ... I think the city is generally rising."
OSI has been promoting programs to improve education, drug treatment and job creation in the city for about seven years, but its initial funding - $50 million from Soros - is set to run out in December. Soros has not set a deadline for raising the funds, but at least some of the funds must be raised by the end of the year to keep the office open, said Diana Morris, executive director of OSI-Baltimore.
"Our approach is that we can serve as a catalyst, but we must have public investment," Morris said. "I'm very aware that $20 million is a lot of money to raise, but I'm optimistic."
Soros arrived in Baltimore on Wednesday, and much of his visit has been spent talking with people who have the resources to make a major contribution. If OSI-Baltimore gets the money it needs to stay open, it will focus on three areas: helping youth succeed and stay out of prison, helping adults who have been incarcerated rejoin their families and find careers, and tackling drug addiction. The group will also continue to fund community fellowships.
Soros - who in the last election funneled $27.5 million in soft money to liberal candidates - acknowledges that his political activities might hurt OSI-Baltimore's fund-raising abilities. Conservative critics have called Soros a "billionaire socialist" and the "billionaire sugar daddy" for leftist causes. One of his harshest critics, the National Rifle Association, accuses Soros of pushing a "global civil disarmament" agenda.
Soros said he hoped Maryland residents would focus on local social issues, not national politics, when considering a donation.
"Let's face it - there has been a deliberate campaign to sort of demonize me," Soros said in an interview with The Sun's editorial board Wednesday. "It's a hardship that I have to put up with."
OSI-Baltimore officials have said it could be difficult to raise funds because so much of the office's work has been done behind the scenes. The office's small staff provides support, including expertise and networking opportunities, to groups or individuals who then go out and implement plans or help people in need.
A quick and partial rundown of OSI accomplishments in the city includes doubling the number of drug-dependent people receiving treatment, cutting fatal overdoses to their lowest level in five years, and securing $25 million to pay for after-school programs used by 14,000 students. The office has also worked with public school officials to create smaller high school campuses.
In introducing Soros, O'Malley thanked him for being an "early investor" in Baltimore and credited OSI with "getting more out of every dollar."
"Their work is really all of our work, and that is to keep Baltimore's comeback going," O'Malley said. "Our goal is to keep this going for another five years. ... I hope we can thank Mr. Soros by continuing this work."
Some residents have been quick to act.
Suzanne Cohen of the Cohen Opportunity Fund has promised "a significant gift" to OSI-Baltimore over the next five years. Other early contributors include the Casey Foundation, with $1 million over five years; the Lockhart Vaughan Foundation, with $250,000 over five years; and an anonymous donor, who has pledged $160,000 over the next two years.
Cohen, who attended the event and greeted Soros, said she believes that OSI has made progress.
"I think OSI is getting to the root of the problems that have troubled this city for so long," said Cohen, a Baltimore native. "I think OSI is making a true difference."