Abell Salutes: Open Society Institute (OSI)

May 2022 / Salutes / Community Development

A world-wide philanthropy that is making a difference locally. “We are a foundation in a hurry.”

In 1947 a 17-year old boy escapes his war-torn home city of Budapest. Fifty-one years later the same refugee is giving away $400-million in philanthropy around the world, and $6-million of it in a city that back in Hungary he had probably never heard of—Baltimore. His name is George Soros, and he has created a global philosophy for his philanthropy that is making a difference in the quality of life in Baltimore. The best person in Baltimore to fill in the details is Diana Morris.

Mrs. Morris is president of OSI-Baltimore. She says, “We are a foundation in a hurry—our charter calls for us to be in Baltimore for just a certain amount of time and that time is nearing completion. This time frame governs what we do. We do not commit to problem-solving that is open-ended; we look for immediacy—results in the relatively short run. We are careful to make sure that the grants we make fit precisely into the OSI mission as Mr. Soros defined it.”

That mission is to “strengthen democracy, lower the barriers to opportunity and assist marginalized groups to participate equally in a civil society, and to make their voices heard.” In support of those goals, OSI-Baltimore has created and /or funded local initiatives that are in lockstep with Mr. Soros’s aspirations globally.

Three (among many) examples:

Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition:

OSI-Baltimore gave seed money to Advocates for Children and Youth to create the Maryland Juvenile Justice Coalition. Since 1998, OSI-Baltimore has awarded $425,000 to this effort, and this month, the Board  awarded an additional $300,000 over two years to support the Coalition. The goal of the Coalition is to increase delinquency prevention programs, prevent transfer of juveniles to the adult criminal justice system, to increase community-based alternatives to incarceration and to reduce the overuse of detention.

In less than four years, the Coalition has become a local and national model for effectively influencing policy changes and increasing public awareness of the problems inherent in Maryland’s juvenile justice system. The Coalition has successfully gained press coverage of the physical abuse of children in juvenile detention, which lead to an overhaul in leadership at the Department of Juvenile Justice. In addition, the decision of the Department of Juvenile Justice to downsize the Cheltenham and Victor Cullen youth detention centers and to establish a network of community-based wraparound services is an example of the successful advocacy efforts of the Coalition. Finally, the Coalition has worked successfully to help establish the Youth Consolidated Grant, which will pool $18 million in federal funds to make them available to local management boards for delinquency prevention, early intervention and alternatives to incarceration programs. And during the 2002 legislative session, the Coalition convinced the General Assembly to enact budget language requiring the Department of Juvenile Justice to dedicate over $4.5 million a year to be reallocated from detention to intensive community-based programs.

In addition, OSI-Baltimore has given complementary grants to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice to provide media and public education expertise to the Coalition and to encourage faith-based programs to become involved in juvenile justice issues.

Baltimore City High School Initiative:

In January 2002 OSI Baltimore announced a grant of 4.5 million over five years to the Fund For Educational Excellence to support reform of Baltimore’s nine neighborhood high schools. The grant was made in conjunction with nine other Baltimore based foundations, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation for a total of $20-million. The goal of the grant is to boost student achievement and graduation rates in  neighborhood high schools by greatly reducing school size, enhancing curriculum, and strengthening leadership and teaching. Three schools will begin to implement this redesign process in the fall of 2002. The remaining six will be phased in over the next three years. Stanford research institute, along with a local evaluator, will evaluate the initiative and resulting student progress.

Citizens Planning and Housing Association:

OSI has provided $625,000 over five years in grant funding to the Citizens Planning and Housing Association (CPHA). To advocated for improved regional transportation and job access for city residents. Over the first three years of funding (1999-2001) CPHA has produced significant results from its research, organizing, advocacy and educational efforts. In 2000 CPHA won a 20% reduction in the farebox recovery mandate so that transit fares need cover 40% rather than 50% of operating costs, a move that lowers the hurdle for more rail expansion opportunities. In addition CPHA won legislative and gubernatorial commitments to an additional $500 million over six years for transit improvements statewide. MTA also responded to expansion requests and instituted the seven day Metro service in metropolitan Baltimore. It also expanded commuter bus service between Baltimore and Harford, Anne Arundel, Carroll and Howard Counties. Last, CPHA has had a significant impact on the federally mandated 2001 Baltimore regional transportation plan: $1.5 billion was added for three major expansions of rail transit in metropolitan Baltimore and $350 was removed for outer suburban highway expansions.

Of OSI’s brief history in Baltimore, Mrs. Morris says, “I hope that it will be said that Baltimore is a stronger community because of OSI, that we faced the tough issues, and understood the need and the power of immediacy. That difference, between the Baltimore when we came here and he Baltimore when we leave—that will be our legacy.”

Abell Foundation salutes OSI, a foundation in a hurry to where it is going, but with a mandate to look where it has been.