Open Society Foundations plan to significantly curtail their work in Europe and lay off much of their staff on the continent, the foundations' leaders told staff in Berlin, according to an internal email and several current employees, who say the decision is painful and perplexing.
The planned European cuts, as described in an internal email viewed by The Associated Press, would represent a historic break with the roots of billionaire philanthropist George Soros' support for civil society through education, human rights work and policy research, which started in his native Hungary more than three decades ago.
The strategic change coincides with Alex Soros, George’s son, announcing a shift to a new operating model the board adopted at the end of June, its first major move since he took over as head of OSF’s board of directors in December. Grantees in Europe say OSF has not directly communicated the proposed strategy change to them, contributing to a sense of disbelief.
“The Open Society Foundations is changing the way we work, but my family and OSF have long supported, and remain steadfastly committed to the European project,” Alex Soros said in a statement.
An OSF spokesperson said the foundations remain committed, “to the promotion of democracy and the fight against authoritarianism in Europe, and to the civil society sector that is crucial to those causes.”
Grantees told The Associated Press that a withdrawal of support for human rights, political participation or digital protections in the European Union would be a strategic mistake and questioned whether the foundations had made a final decision to do so. They also said the lack of communication and uncertainty is damaging to OSF’s reputation. OSF supports work on a wide range of issues that touch on vulnerable populations, democracy and independent media among other topics.
80% Berlin staff cut proposed
An email from Thorsten Klassen, director of OSF’s Berlin office, which was sent to Berlin staff on July 20 and was seen by The Associated Press, said, “the new approved strategic direction provides for withdrawal and termination of large parts of our current work within the European Union.” The email continued that the shift was made in part because the EU has provided public funding for human rights and pluralism and OSF wants to reallocate its resources elsewhere.
The foundations have proposed to cut 80% of staff in their Berlin offices, the email said, though all the proposed layoffs are subject to negotiations with labor unions. OSF also proposed to cut at least 60% of staff in Brussels and an unclear number in London, several employees told the AP. The staff members spoke on the condition of anonymity as the foundations have told them not to speak with the press and because they fear repercussions.
In January, OSF told staff in Barcelona that their office would close and most of the staff there have since chosen to leave. OSF's leadership plans to complete the planned layoffs by January.
OSF did not dispute these figures when asked for comment.
The “recalibration of our work in the European Union” is part of larger organizational changes, an OSF spokesperson said, adding they will continue “to fund civil society groups across Europe, including those working on EU external affairs,” along with support for European Roma communities.
A model built for ‘opportunity’
The new “opportunity model” was adopted by OSF's board on June 28 and is laid out in a 12-page document that offers some clues but little clarity about the foundations' immediate future plans. The foundations will reorganize around “opportunities” rather than programs, with opportunities defined as “bodies of work organized around clear ambitious goals.”
What those opportunities will be has not yet been defined — another source of bitterness for some staff about the proposed cuts to their programs. How can OSF be sure they do not want to continue their work in Europe if they haven't decided yet what their future priorities will be, staff members asked?
Grantee organizations shared the feeling of disenfranchisement.
“Here we are, probably hundreds of groups around Europe, and we have no idea why this decision came to be,” said Márta Pardavi, co-chair of the Hungarian Helsinki Committee, a human rights group and longtime recipient of OSF funding. "When we look at the European Union, we really don’t see a justification for even decreasing support for human rights and democracy and for support for marginalized groups."
She and others pointed to the war in Ukraine, the erosion of the rule of law in Hungary and Poland, the election of a far-right government in Italy and almost in Spain, as reasons to question the future of democracy in Europe.
The new European law regulating social media platforms is another example of pressing and ongoing work that involved OSF, staff said, as well as proposed legislation about artificial intelligence. A June report from the European Artificial Intelligence & Society Fund found OSF provided core support to a significant number of nonprofits working on the regulation of AI in the EU, along with two other foundations.
“This leaves the landscape vulnerable to any change of priorities from those funders and several grantees raised the current strategic discussions in some of these foundations as a cause of concern,” the report said.
Will cuts help conservative movements?
Unlike other major donors or the European Commission, OSF often provides nonprofits fast and flexible funding rather than project-based grants. That is in addition to strategic support, legal research, communications advice, networking and the staff's own expertise. OSF itself has a strong voice within the EU advocating for policies and engaging decisionmakers, staff and grantees said. In that way, it is far more than a simple source of funding and also more difficult to replace, they said.
Part of what sets OSF apart from other philanthropies is contained in its name, Pardavi said, “It’s called Open Society Foundations. It’s not called George Soros or Alex Soros Foundations anymore.”
She and others like Alberto Alemanno, professor of law, HEC Paris, worry that OSF's withdrawal from civil society in Europe will open the door for philanthropies supporting conservative social movements to gain ground.
“All of a sudden you will see that there are many more opportunities for different forms of philanthropy to enter into the European space by basically supporting organizations that at the moment are very marginal, like those pushing anti-abortion rights or pushing against LGBT rights,” he said, adding that those donors, "will find much easier access in Europe because there would be a lack of countervailing forces.”
Associated Press coverage of philanthropy and nonprofits receives support through the AP’s collaboration with The Conversation US, with funding from Lilly Endowment Inc. The AP is solely responsible for this content. For all of AP’s philanthropy coverage, visit https://apnews.com/hub/philanthropy.
Thalia Beaty, The Associated Press