It's taken on drug addiction and tackled school suspensions. It's helped dozens of social entrepreneurs start nonprofits in some of the dreariest corners of Baltimore and along the way forged strong bonds with the city's political, social and financial elite.
And now, after a decade of work, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore, an experiment in social urban philanthropy, is celebrating.
The organization that billionaire financier George Soros created to tackle some of the city's most intractable problems is turning 10. And it is on target to meet Soros' challenge of raising $20 million from local sources by 2010, which he would increase with $10 million more. That would ensure OSI-Baltimore's continued presence in the city for at least a few more years.
Two recent donations - a $2.5 million award from the federal Empowerment Zone Program and $1 million from an anonymous donor - have pushed the institute's fundraising total to $10.2 million, a little more than halfway to the $20 million mark set by Soros a few years ago.
"I hope that other $10 million comes soon or we will have to start cutting back," Soros said in a telephone interview yesterday.
OSI-Baltimore opened its doors in 1998 with the goal of understanding and solving urban ills that trouble many older, industrial cities. Soros gave roughly $60 million for the project, which he thought would last five years. When it became clear there was still work to be done, he said, he would support OSI-Baltimore but said the office would eventually have to find other funding sources. He surprised many when he announced in 2005 that he would continue to fund the organization as long as residents did, too.
Since then, OSI-Baltimore has been on the hunt for local "Robin Hoods," as Soros has referred to prospective donors. In 2006, OSI officials reported that they had raised $5 million from local sources and that they believed they could meet the goal by 2010.
Soros said he is excited to come back to the city to celebrate OSI-Baltimore's recent accomplishments at a party tonight at Silo Point, a high-profile residential development in the city's Locust Point neighborhood. At the event, Soros will spotlight the work of three people who have "acted boldly" to help improve the lives of some of the city's most fragile citizens.
He will present awards to Andres Alonso, the city schools' chief since July; Carlos Hardy, executive director of the Maryland affiliate of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence; and Jacqueline Robarge, a 2002 OSI-Baltimore Fellow and founder of Power Inside, an outreach program that works with women leaving the city jail system, especially those who are battling drug addiction and mental illness.
"These three people share important qualities: They have the courage and passion to act on their bold ideas," said Diana Morris, director of OSI-Baltimore. "And Baltimore is much better for it."
Also attending the celebration tonight will be Gov. Martin O'Malley and Baltimore Mayor Sheila Dixon. The keynote speaker will be Newark Mayor Cory A. Booker.
Marilynn K. Duker, chairwoman of the OSI-Baltimore board, said that while fundraising is still on track, it is getting more difficult because some sources are tapped out. "The more challenging fundraising still lies ahead," she said. "We will have to broaden our base of investors."
Recent donations worth $3.5 million total have helped. Empower Baltimore Management Corp., the nonprofit that oversees federal Empowerment Zones in the city, recently awarded OSI-Baltimore a grant worth $2.5 million, Duker said. That money will be used to assist residents with criminal records and those with drug addictions, she said. An anonymous donor also gave OSI-Baltimore $1 million, money that will be used to improve the city school system.
"These two new additional gifts help ensure that the positive results OSI-Baltimore has achieved over the past decade will become lasting solutions for the future," said Duker, who is president of The Shelter Group, a Baltimore-based developer and property manager.
Soros said yesterday that he has already provided a portion of the extra $10 million to OSI-Baltimore, which has an annual budget of about $5.5 million. He warned that if the institute fails to raise the roughly $10 million more it needs to reach the $20 million mark, some programs could be cut.
Such cuts would be a disappointment, he said, pointing to such successes as nurturing nearly 100 social entrepreneurs, offering alternatives to suspension and expulsions at city schools, supporting the launch of the news department at WYPR, expanding the city's use of buprenorphine to fight heroin addiction, and working with formerly incarcerated adults.
"OSI-Baltimore has been truly important to the progress that our city is making," said C. William "Bill" Struever, president of development firm Struever Bros. Eccles & Rouse and a member of OSI-Baltimore's Leadership Council. "They fill an important role."
Carla D. Hayden, executive director of the Enoch Pratt Free Library and a member of the council with Struever, said she also appreciates the role OSI-Baltimore plays in shaping the policy decisions of the city's elected leaders and, consequently, its future.
"The name captures the spirit of how OSI-Baltimore operates," said Hayden, one of the original OSI-Baltimore board members. "There is that openness to new ways of thinking and new ideas about some problems that are older and more established. ... So far they have a good track record."