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Risk-taking group ponders change


In 1998, billionaire financier George Soros brought his "open society" brand of philanthropy to Baltimore, starting the only office in the United States outside New York City. He planned for the local staff to stay five years, believing that foundations should spend what money they have instead of staying around forever.

Five years have passed, and Soros' Open Society Institute has spent $50 million in Baltimore - double what it initially planned. The philanthropy has been an active voice for drug treatment; founded an urban debate league that now has 300 students; given grants to 60 "community fellows" to design projects; and provided the seed money for the Baltimore Fund, a $15 million effort to create 1,000 jobs for low-income workers.

Soros, one of the world's richest men, has decided to extend his spending in Baltimore at least through next year.

Within the next six months, his local board will decide whether to shut down, keep going or spin off into an autonomous foundation with a similar mission and more investors.

In an e-mail exchange, Soros said he was pleased with what his office has accomplished here.

"In the Baltimore model - as we do in other parts of our Soros foundations network - we choose projects that show the value of public investment," he wrote. "We hope that public investment will follow the grantmaking that we do, and in the current political, economic and fiscal environment, I believe that we are showing a different and better way to create public policy change."

The money that Soros has spent each year in Baltimore is not exceptional. A handful of others routinely spend more annually in Maryland.

But Soros' interests have changed the complexion of the philanthropic world here, observers say, making other funders more interested in such contentious issues as helping ex-prisoners and drug addicts.

Unusual approach

"They're very city-focused and very poverty-focused, and that is somewhat unusual," said Robert C. Embry Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which made grants in similar areas before and after Soros' group came to town. "I think they've affected the thinking in the philanthropic community positively, from my point of view."

Soros began his network of "open society" foundations in Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union in 1984, opening a U.S. program in New York in 1996. Shortly after, the philanthropist decided to look for an American city where the problems he was interested in came together, in a "laboratory" where he could experiment with solutions.

He found that in Baltimore, where then-Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke was earning a national reputation for his suggestion that drug use be decriminalized and treatment be emphasized instead of jail.

In business and in philanthropy, Soros thrives on dispute. Recently, he pledged his finances to organizations in an effort to defeat President Bush in this year's election. Decriminalizing drug abuse, championing civil liberties and supporting reproductive rights have topped his philanthropic agenda.

Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, Baltimore's health commissioner, said the Soros group is willing to take risks other foundations will not. He pointed to a city program that distributes Narcan, a heroin antidote, to addicts to help them avoid overdose.

The Open Society Institute put up $240,000 of the $300,000 cost of the project, which also teaches addicts other life-saving techniques.

"Most foundations would not support such a thing, and in fact they were very collaborative with us," Beilenson said.

While Baltimore still has a high rate of drug addiction and lacks enough treatment spaces, Beilenson said the Soros group's efforts - organizing conferences and forums as well as sponsoring disputed projects - has improved the picture.

The number of addicts receiving treatment in the city has doubled since the foundation came to Baltimore, due in part to its advocacy, Beilenson said. And drug-related visits to emergency rooms fell for a time, though a recent survey shows those numbers back on the increase.

"No single funding stream was going to turn around the deeply embedded problem that is the substance abuse problem of Baltimore," Schmoke said. "I don't think any of us expected it to be the magic wand."

Some of the Soros initiatives have taken root here and grown. Community fellow Lauren Abramson, for example, started a center that mediates conflicts outside of court.

The Baltimore Urban Debate League has spun off into a nonprofit organization. While the Open Society Institute still pays most of the league's expenses, other sponsors have stepped in, including the Fund for Educational Excellence and Towson University.

"The Baltimore Urban Debate League is really one of the hopefully sustainable innovations that [Soros] has brought to the city," said Andre Davis, a U.S. District Court judge who is chairman of the debate league's board and also a member of the Baltimore Open Society board.

A failed effort

One potentially major project went nowhere. A so-called "community court," designed to process minor offenders and keep them out of the prison system, received a $700,000 Open Society grant - and never opened. Most of the money was returned.

"It seemed very promising, but it was basically overtaken by events," said Diana Morris, director of Soros' Baltimore office. "I think those are the kinds of experiments you just had to do. There were very good people trying to make it go forward."

And another effort - the Baltimore Fund - took a long time to get going, said Open Society board member E. Clinton Bamberger Jr., an emeritus professor at the University of Maryland School of Law. Many banks and investment houses were lukewarm about the venture, which is investing in companies that locate or expand here.

"George Soros came to town and said, 'I'll give you $5 million to start a community investment fund, but you've got to find $10 million,'" he said. "We had to beg people."

But that disappointment, Bamberger said, was unusual. He views the Soros experiment as a great local success.

"I think what's been different," he said, "is we have not only pushed for action, but advocacy."

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