Interview – Alexander Soros

Alexander Soros, son of financier and philanthropist George Soros, has recently launched his own foundation, the Alexander Soros Foundation (ASF). However, as he tells Caroline Hartnell, there will be more continuity with, than departure from, the work of his father’s Open Society Foundation, on whose board the younger Soros sits.

What ASF will do, he says, is to support those issues which resonate personally with him, things which may not catch the limelight but which have the potential to have a big impact. He talks, too, about the need to take risks, his concern with maintaining the universalist focus of Jewish giving, his unease with the double standards evident in the American Jewish community’s attitudes to Israel, and the influence of his father on his own philanthropy.

I understand your foundation will promote social justice and human rights through a grantmaking programme that focuses on innovative organizations in the US and abroad. Can you tell me how you came up with this mission?

Basically, it’s something I’ve been involved in my whole life through my parents and the Open Society Foundation so it’s a natural progression from that.

I see it as supplementary to the work that I already do with OSF. I’m on the board of OSF and I’m very close to my father and proud of the work that OSF does. The point of separation is that I would like to be able to find certain things that perhaps OSF isn’t doing since they can’t do everything.

You say you are looking to take risks to support unpopular causes. What do you mean by risk? How do you decide whether it’s worth taking?

You have to ask yourself what your goal is. For me, risk is doing something that might be unpopular, but, if it works, will have a tremendous impact. I think a lot of people give to similar things and often they are band-aid solutions that don’t get to the root of the issue. In order to get to the root causes, you sometimes have to take risks. It may not be risky to build a hospital in a war-torn country, for instance, but it could be risky to try to affect the issues of governance that are making civil wars possible and that increase the number of people that will have to go to that hospital. I’m beginning to see these things as a paradigm of greatest effectiveness and that’s one of the reasons I love Global Witness.

I think that one has to be experimental because people should not see philanthropy as a safe endeavour. I was raised on the idea that making money is always easier than giving it away. In making money, you just have the profit line, whereas in giving it away, you’re dealing with different measures of what success is, so it’s more difficult.

Part of the territory is that you’re willing to take risks and often the biggest game changers are unpopular. I don’t think fighting corruption, for example, is particularly ‘sexy’. It’s not that I’m against cancer research or saving animals, I’m just saying that there are places where you can have a great impact in terms of social change that aren’t being tackled in the way they should be, given how important they are.

How hands-on do you think you will be as a grantmaker? I gather you are co-hosting a fundraising event for Global Witness on 7 July and that you are on the boards of Global Witness and of Bend the Arc: A Jewish Partnership for Justice (formerly Jewish Funds for Justice), both your grantees.

I’m actually limiting the number of boards that I go on precisely because I feel it could come to take up too much of my time. Also, my first loyalty is to the Open Society Foundations. It is my father’s legacy and he’s asked me to help safeguard it. I’m often asked to join boards and have to decline; I don’t want to become a professional board member. I believe that when you are on a board, you should be completely committed and not just a professional board member. I wouldn’t want people on my board to be wishy-washy professional board members, I want committed people.

I gather you will run the foundation as director as well as being on the board. Where will you turn for advice and guidance?

I have what I would consider an informal group of advisers, whether people in OSF or people like Simon Greer, who is at Nathan Cummings Foundation now. It’s a very personal thing. I’m trying to make it as flexible as possible to ensure I have the scope to take on the things I want to commit myself to. You have these informal networks you create and people that you turn to in life – your family, your friends, your colleagues – and they provide their own network, whether or not you designate them as board members or consultants.

Do US foundations not have to have a board? Or can the board be just the one member?

There has to be some sort of governance structure in case something happens to me, but it’s pretty much a single donor foundation and it’s very personal. So while there are compliance issues, there doesn’t have to be a board.

Your first major philanthropic contribution was a gift of $250,000 to Bend the Arc, a New York-based social and economic justice organization. Many Jewish foundations have traditionally supported only Jewish causes. Is it important to you that Bend the Arc supports social justice more widely?

I think it depends what you mean by a Jewish foundation. Given my dad’s history and given the values that led to the creation of OSF, it can be argued that OSF is a Jewish foundation. I cannot see OSF doing what it’s doing without the realities of my father being a Jew and what he had to go through.

I’ve never seen it as the role of Jewish foundations just to support Jews. Progressive causes, like the civil rights movement, are a part of the Jewish legacy in the United States. Bend the Arc for me has a lot more to do with preserving this legacy than with anything else. However, we have come to a point where what defines the Jewish community in America is up in the air. Given the economic ascendancy of Jews in this country and their relative safety from discrimination, I fear that they may turn their back on the legacy of their past, which is to engage in causes for the sake of all Americans and for the sake of a multi-cultural society that benefits all ethnic groups

Do you see yourself as part of a generation of young Jews who are concerned that Jewish philanthropy retains this universal focus?

Absolutely. As I alluded to earlier, there is a bit of an existential crisis occurring for many American Jews, and many are turning to religious orthodoxy to get answers. While this in itself is not inherently negative, it is often coupled with more conservative political beliefs and a tribal outlook. Eventually, I think there will be a split, with the secular, Universalist Jews on one side and the more Orthodox and religious on the other. Something not unlike the rift you have in Israeli society between religious and secular.

How does this thinking play out vis-à-vis social justice and human rights issues in Israel and Palestine?

When it comes to Israel and Palestine, I believe in consistency. If there’s one problem I have with the American Jewish community it’s that it is at times rather inconsistent on the subject. I think that Jews have supported progressive causes because of the better part of their nature and that’s a great legacy; it’s really a part of Jewish exceptionalism. But I worry when Jews in America start to support policies in Israel which they wouldn’t support in America, which don’t allow for separation of church and state, which don’t give full rights to people who are technically living under occupation, and which don’t allow for immigration of people who aren’t Jews, or for non-Jews to become citizens. This is a problem because it gives credence to the old adage that Jews are liberal or left-wing only for their own self-interest because they want a colour-blind society with all these different ethnic groups because it makes them safer. So I think that whether you keep your values consistent is a true test. A lot of Americans Jews do support one thing there and another thing here and that’s inconsistent. I don’t think they realize it, I think that has become part of the status quo.

I cannot support one thing in Israel and another in America. I have to believe in separation of church and state and the rights of minorities, and I won’t shy away from this because it’s seen as attacking the state of Israel. I will always support Israel as a nation state but I don’t live there. And I would say that’s part of the problem, that people who aren’t living there are having such a say in the country. In the end I don’t believe in a Jewish world and a non-Jewish world. Obviously my philanthropy is affected by my being Jewish, but, as I said, as long as it embraces Universalist values that are consistent I don’t see a problem.

How much have you been influenced by your father when it comes to your philanthropy?

Greatly. It would be impossible not to be. He’s a great philanthropist, and I think that part of what makes him a great philanthropist is actually that he tries to be very rational and unemotional about it. Because he’s dedicated himself to a certain vision he doesn’t get trapped in a lot of the sentiment, and I think that’s important. That’s not to say he isn’t affected. I know that his sympathy for the gypsies in Europe is related to him being from a minority in Europe himself. But when it comes to the actual practice he’s committed to a certain view and he isn’t swayed much by public opinion and the sentiments of society around him.

Also this idea of risk-taking is obviously central to the whole concept of Open Society Foundation. And when it comes to the Jewish question, his Jewish identity has had a major impact. I see it as formative in what he does, especially in his philanthropy, and probably my own concern with the Jewish community comes from him as well.

I’m very close to him so it would be impossible for me not to be influenced by him. I’m involved in OSF because he wants me to be and I feel honoured that he’s asked me to be there. Sometimes the next generation wonder how they can stake their own claim. I feel I can differentiate myself from him in other parts of my life; I don’t have to do it in my philanthropy. Having my own foundation enables me to do separately things that I want to do but it’s not going against the values that he’s instilled in me.

Part of the reason he wants me on the OSF board is because he values my critiques and my opinion. But, I think it’s also because we share similar values. You instil in your children the values you believe in. Often they are hard to live up to. Your children therefore keep you in check and remind you of the values you have instilled in them.  Ironically, this is one of the greatest gifts that your children give back to you.

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