Open Society finds local allies

Group set to raise $20 million by 2008


Last May, when billionaire financier George Soros challenged Baltimore to raise $20 million to support programs to reduce drug addiction, bolster school reform, and decrease juvenile delinquency, he said he was confident that local "Robin Hoods" would pitch in.

Nearly a year later, officials at Soros' Open Society Institute-Baltimore say they are well on their way to meeting that challenge, thanks in part to large contributions from two local nonprofits that also focus on social issues, and that they expect to meet the fundraising goal two years before the 2010 deadline set by their founder and chief benefactor.

"Our work in Baltimore is not finished," said Diana Morris, executive director of OSI-Baltimore, who announced last week that her team had raised $5 million so far, including $2.5 million from the Harry and Jeanette Weinberg Foundation in Owings Mills, and $1 million from the Annie E. Casey Foundation, a national nonprofit based in the city. The Casey Foundation also agreed to continue funding worth $4 million for programs tied to local OSI efforts.

"We hope others will come to the table and work with us for the good of Baltimore," said Morris, whose focus during the past year has been to reposition the nonprofit, located at 201 N. Charles St., for its next phase.

The office opened in 1998 with the goal of understanding and solving urban ills that trouble many older, industrial cities. Soros gave roughly $50 million in startup funding but made it clear that the office would eventually have to find other revenue sources. He surprised many when he announced last year that he would continue to fund OSI-Baltimore as long as local residents would also offer up some funding.

Many in the city saw his financial offer as testimony to the success of the office, which has worked, largely behind the scenes, to nearly triple state funding for drug addiction treatment in the city, and leverage more than $20.3 million in public and private funds to help ex-prisoners, among other initiatives.

Today, Morris said, OSI-Baltimore is poised to focus exclusively on four key areas: drug addiction, school reform, juvenile delinquency and support for ex-prisoners. The nonprofit has recently added three new leadership positions to its 11-member board of directors and has also hired professionals with expertise in fundraising and public relations.

Morris said she expects the office to remain open for at least the next five years, probably longer, as long as funding continues. OSI-Baltimore's annual budget is about $6 million, she said. The $10 million from Soros and $20 million from local individuals or organizations will cover roughly the next five years of operations.

OSI board members said they are excited to be moving forward with new initiatives.

"There is a rejuvenated confidence in the city and downtown and its neighborhoods, and it is a very exciting time to be working in the city," said Marilynn K. Duker, the recently elected chairwoman of the OSI-Baltimore board of directors. Duker also serves as president at The Shelter Group, a Baltimore-based real estate development and property management company specializing in multifamily and senior living rental communities.

"To have this opportunity to continue our work is just thrilling," Duker said.

Duker and OSI-Baltimore Vice Chairman Joseph T. Jones Jr. said they are also excited about a national conference on drug addiction and treatment that the organization will partially sponsor in June. The event will also spotlight some of the innovative programs that are at work in the city to help addicts.

Jones is an ex-convict and former drug addict who started the local nonprofit Center for Fathers and Families and Workforce Development in an attempt to help people like himself get on with their lives. He said he is proud of the strides Baltimore has made in the drug treatment field and said he still remembers standing in lines with other addicts in the 1980s in hopes of winning a slot at a treatment center.

"We are light-years away from where we were," said Jones, who was recently elected a vice chairman of the OSI board, along with U.S. District Judge Andre M. Davis.

Jones added that there is still much to be done, work that he and his fellow board members are eager to take on.

"We're very motivated," he said. "Collectively, we have the will and the motivation to make it happen."

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