Skip to main content

Our History

George Soros began his philanthropic career in 1979, when he started by supporting scholarships for black students at the University of Cape Town in South Africa and for Eastern European dissidents to study abroad.

    1979

    Starting to Build a More Open World

    George Soros, the founder and chair of the Open Society Foundations, begins his philanthropic work, funding scholarships for black university students in South Africa during apartheid and for dissidents in communist Eastern Europe to study in the West. Today, his Foundations fund groups and individuals in more than 120 countries.

    A hall full of students with their fists in the air

    “[South Africa] was a closed society with all the institutions of a first world country, but they were off limits to the majority of the population on racial grounds. Where could I find a better opportunity for opening up a closed society?”

    —George Soros
    1984

    Encouraging Dissent Behind the Iron Curtain

    George Soros opens a foundation in Hungary, which would eventually lead to the establishment of the Open Society Foundations network. The foundations seek to expand people’s access to information in Eastern Europe and Russia—including by distributing photocopiers to independent groups to break the Communist Party’s grip on information.

    People browsing magazines in front of a rack of periodicals
    1986

    Supporting Democracy in China

    George Soros opens another foundation in China, which becomes a target for in-fighting between pro- and anti-reform elements in the Communist Party. The foundation closes in 1989, just before the government’s brutal crushing of dissent in Tiananmen Square.

    A shirtless man reaching into the air
    1989

    Fostering Open Societies in the Former Soviet Bloc

    By the fall of the Berlin Wall, Open Society has established a presence in Poland, Ukraine and Russia. Over the next five years, the Open Society Foundations establish a network of offices in Albania, the Baltic States, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Romania, and Slovakia.

    Crowds of people on and around the Berlin Wall
    1991

    Central European University Opens Its Doors

    Just over 100 students begin studies at the new Central European University, championed and largely funded by George Soros as a regional force to revitalize critical and open thinking. Now, more than 1,500 international students from all over the world attend CEU classes in Vienna and Budapest, many supported by scholarships from the Open Society Foundations.  

    George Soros unlocking a large carved door
    1992

    Expanding Access to the Arts

    George Soros begins opening arts centers across Central and Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union, building on a model he started in Budapest in the 1980s. A network of 20 centers, the Soros Centers for Contemporary Arts provide information on international grants, scholarships, and competitions, organize annual local contemporary art exhibitions, and support artists’ participation in exhibitions, conferences, and learning opportunities abroad.

    1993

    Taking a Lead on Early Childhood Education

    Open Society Foundations launched a $100 million initiative to respond to the rapid collapse of state-run preschool systems in 15 former communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe and the Balkans. This led to the creation of the Step by Step early childhood curriculum and training program, now advanced by an independent association supported by over 80 educational groups and active in over 40 countries. 

    Children on an outdoor play structure

    Helping Sarajevo Survive

    With Sarajevo under siege, the Open Society Foundations send a team of disaster relief specialists into the city to help restore basic services. These crews, under threat of sniper fire and exploding shells, help provide residents with gas lines, drinking water, and electricity. Today, our foundation in Bosnia and Herzegovina continues to fund groups working to promote democracy, tolerance, and the rule of law in the Balkans, alongside national foundations in Serbia, Northern Macedonia, Kosovo, and Albania.

    1994

    Nurturing Democracy and Addressing Inequality in Post-Apartheid South Africa

    As apartheid falls, the Open Society Foundations office in South Africa focuses on addressing injustices—and creating opportunities—in a country that has systematically discriminated against the majority of its citizens for decades. The Open Society Foundations spend more than $150 million in South Africa over the next 25 years to support reconciliation, legal reform, education, public health, and independent media. George Soros makes a separate pledge in 1995 of $50 million to help the government build housing for people living in makeshift shacks and overcrowded city dwellings.

    Two women and a baby in a house

    Seeking a Better Future for Myanmar

    The Open Society Foundations start providing support to democracy activists, as well as Burmese refugees and dissidents in border areas. In 2016, once Myanmar formalizes a transition toward a more open government, the Open Society Foundations open a foundation to support civil society and groups representing marginalized people to encourage a representative democracy to take root.

    People and soldiers in a street around a chalkboard
    1996

    Focusing on Threats to the Open Society in the United States

    Open Society Foundations expand its efforts in the United States where its initial work included on improving end of life care and reforming drug policies. These efforts are followed by new programs that challenge a punitive and discriminatory justice system, reform a harsh immigration system, and seek to abolish the death penalty in many states.

    A man holds a mirror between jail cell bars

    “Our programs in the United States were the outgrowth of our programs in the rest of the world: social justice, vulnerable populations, civil rights, and the criminal justice system.”

    —George Soros

    In 1998, the Open Society Foundations open a field office in Baltimore to better understand and address education, justice, and addiction issues in the city and create solutions that can serve as a model for other urban areas. Today, approximately one in five dollars the Open Society Foundations spend is spent in the United States.

    1997

    Standing with Europe’s Roma

    The Open Society Foundations' unprecedented efforts to combat discrimination against Roma people gain momentum with the opening of the Roma Participation Project in Budapest, Hungary. We begin work to combat segregation, counter stereotypes, and create opportunities for Europe’s largest and most excluded ethnic minority.

    Two girls looking at a book

    Expanding Open Society Work in Africa

    The launch of the Open Society Initiative for Southern Africa marked the beginning of a decade of expansion of our work in Africa, with the creation of Open Society’s first regional foundation. Based in Johannesburg, the Southern Africa foundation today oversees work in 10 southern African countries. Similar regional foundations were subsequently set up: the Open Society Initiative for West Africa in 2000, based in Dakar, Senegal; and the Open Society Initiative for Eastern Africa in 2005, based in Nairobi, Kenya.

    Two men with paperwork inside a police station
    1999

    Engagement with the European Union

    The establishment of the Eurozone, with its common currency—and the prospect of adding additional states who meet certain criteria—brings the promise of a deepening commitment to advancing human rights, liberalizing economic policies, and increasing government accountability. The Open Society Foundations support many efforts, including the creation of the European Council on Foreign Relations in 2006, to leverage this foundational promise into EU policies and practices that respect open society values inside and outside its borders.  

    People looking out a window behind a European Union flag
    2001

    Countering Discrimination toward Muslims

    The response to the attacks in the United States on September 11, 2001, and subsequent terror events in Europe, catalyze a new wave of hostility and violence toward Muslims in the United States and Europe. The Open Society Foundations respond by investing in legal efforts to protect Muslims’ rights, and fund new research and reporting on discrimination directed toward Muslim people in education, employment, and other areas of society.

    A group of people holding candles and American Flags

    Supporting Democracy in Indonesia

    The Open Society Foundations join Indonesian civil society groups and establish the Tifa Foundation. The new grant-making organization, based in Indonesia, is dedicated to addressing corruption, monitoring elections, and expanding legal access to all.

    Men examining voting sheets with portraits
    2002

    Promoting Justice and Peace in Israel-Palestine

    The Open Society Foundations gave its first grants to groups in Israel and Palestine, as George Soros expanded his philanthropic efforts into the Middle East region.

    Prosecuting the Most Heinous Crimes

    The International Criminal Court (ICC), long supported by the Open Society Foundations, becomes the first permanent institution responsible for prosecuting genocide, crimes against humanity, and war crimes. Building on our work with war crimes in tribunals for Cambodia, Rwanda, Sierra Leone and Yugoslavia, we continue to encourage a debate to understand the possibilities for, and the limits of, international justice, including through funding regular monitoring of court proceedings through the International Justice Monitor. 

    Judges talking in a court room
    2005

    Building a Brighter Future in Pakistan

    The Open Society Foundations begin work in Pakistan, providing $3 million in relief funding in response to that year’s earthquake. We support an array of local civil society groups that share our vision of a society where government is open to all and where no one faces discrimination because of who they are, how they live, or what they believe in. Since our inception we have spent almost $40 million on programming in Pakistan, including a further $6 million in emergency relief after the destructive monsoon floods of 2012.

    A woman with several children among tents
    2007

    More than a Decade of Breakthroughs on Disability Rights

    The Open Society Foundations' disability rights portfolio begins with a single $100,000 grant. This commitment begins work focused on using a rights-based framework to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities. From 2007 to 2018, the Open Society Foundations invest more than $10 million to safeguard the rights of people with disabilities. 

    Two people in a dining room

    Helping People Living with HIV and TB in Africa

    In Lesotho, a small southern African country, at least 25 percent of the people are HIV positive, and TB has infected about 90 percent of them, lowering life expectancy to 35 years. The Open Society Foundations award a $3 million grant to Partners in Health to develop new approaches to more effectively treat people infected with multi-drug resistant TB. The new approaches are shared broadly, helping to address a growing danger worldwide for people who are HIV positive. 

    A doctor wearing a mask
    2008

    Accountability in Afghanistan

    The Open Society Foundations invest in efforts to make progress on a range of issues in Afghanistan, including establishing an independent bar association, reporting on wrongful and inhumane detention operations, and exposing the consequences of war on civilians.

    A woman and children
    2009

    Supporting Development in Post-Conflict Sierra Leone and Liberia

    BRAC, an anti-poverty organization, receives $15 million from the Open Society Foundations and other funders to rebuild war-torn Sierra Leone and Liberia.

    A woman and child carrying a rack of fish
    2010

    Helping Haiti Recover from a Devastating Earthquake

    In the immediate aftermath of the quake, the Open Society Foundations donate $5 million to organizations doing life-saving work in Haiti. Later, we partner with the WIN Group, a Haiti-based business, to develop a $45 million industrial park that has the potential to create 25,000 jobs. Since 1995, the Open Society Foundations have spent more than $50 million on education and economic revitalization projects in Port-au-Prince.

    A man spreading concrete on a roof
    2011

    Holding Soldiers Accountable for Rape in the Democratic Republic of Congo

    In response to the rape of thousands of women and children by soldiers during conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, we support a mobile court for gender crimes that travels to remote, war-torn regions bringing justice to women. In a major victory in early 2011, a mobile court finds a colonel, three junior officers, and five soldiers guilty and gives them sentences ranging from 10 to 20 years.

    People in a tent
    2013

    Expanding Work in Latin America

    Our engagement in Latin America expands with the launch of of our Latin America Program, which now has offices in Rio de Janeiro, Bogota and Mexico City. The program oversees all our work in the region, guided by an advisory board of leading regional figures.

    An outdoor community center run by Operação Braços Abertos

    Supporting Justice for One of Central America’s Most Murderous Generals

    General Efraín Ríos Montt, Guatemala’s former military dictator, stands trial for genocide and war crimes over systematic attacks on Maya indigenous communities during the early 1980s, at the height of Guatemala’s civil conflict. Following death threats against prosecutors and others in Guatemala, the Open Society Justice Initiative launches an English-language trial monitoring website to focus international attention on the process. Montt’s conviction marked the first time a domestic court anywhere had found a former head of state guilty of genocide, but it was overturned on a technicality ten days later on procedural grounds. A second prosecution ended with Montt’s death in 2018.

    A group of people in a courtroom

    Creating Space for Civil Society After the Arab Uprisings

    We open an office in Tunisia to support its emergence from over 50 years of authoritarian rule, following the 2011 revolt that inspired the Arab Spring.

    2014

    Confronting a Legacy of CIA Torture

    In response to legal work by the Open Society Justice Initiative, the European Court of Human Rights became the first court to publicly confirm the existence of the so-called “black site” secret prisons operated by the CIA in Europe after the September 11, 2001 attacks on the United States. The ruling focuses on the role of Poland; a similar ruling against Romania follows in 2018. 

    A checkpoint covered in snow
    2015

    Helping Refugees and Migrants Fleeing War and Poverty

    In 2015, as a result of ongoing conflict and instability in Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan, hundreds of thousands of men, women, and children sought safety in Europe. National governments and local communities were overwhelmed. To assist, the Open Society Foundations increased our support for groups in Europe that work to ensure newly arrived migrants and refugees are safe and supported throughout the integration process.

    Families walking off a ferry

    Celebrating Marriage Equality in the United States

    The Open Society Foundations help organizations win the 2015 Supreme Court case that makes marriage equality legal in all 50 states. The decision is one of the most significant political victories in modern American history. It also reinforces our dedication to support dozens of organizations around the world that are fighting for LGBTI rights. 

    Two men walking wearing flags

    Advocating for the Rohingya

    George Soros expresses his outrage over the authorities’ treatment of the Rohingya minority in Myanmar, saying a visit to a Rohingya settlement reminded him of the ghetto in Budapest where Jews were held during World War II. Later, he establishes a $10 million emergency fund to help Rohingya in Myanmar and the communities that host refugees in neighboring Bangladesh.

    A family in a makeshift tent
    2016

    Investing in Economic Power for Social Justice

    The Open Society Foundations takes direct responsibility for managing the Soros Economic Development Fund (SEDF). The fund, founded by George Soros in 1997, invests in high-risk business initiatives that will have a positive social impact. SEDF’s investment portfolio expands significantly over the coming years, to over $220 million currently.

    A woman working for a bus company
    2017

    Shining a Light on Roma Artists

    The Open Society Foundations supports the opening of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin, the first transnational organization dedicated to promoting Roma culture, arts, and rights.

    “Negative stereotypes about the Roma are dangerous not only for the Roma, but for all of us. The right wing political parties that stand against the Roma are the same ones that stand against open society.”

    —George Soros, speaking at the opening of the European Roma Institute for Arts and Culture in Berlin
    A boy singing next to a man playing guitar

    Reducing Harm from Drug Use

    With Open Society support, a bill to decriminalize possession of drugs for personal use is introduced with widespread political backing in Ghana. The bill also reduces criminal sentences for drug-related charges. It is the first of its kind in Africa, serving as a blueprint for other countries who seek to move away from punitive drug policy approaches and towards drug policies informed by public health data.

    A person holding a tray with supplies

    Helping Puerto Rico Rebuild after Hurricane Maria

    The Open Society Foundations invest more than $20 million to help disaster-affected communities rebuild. We also join philanthropic, business, government, and NGO’s in developing a blueprint for a long-term, resilient, and equitable recovery.

    A family looking at a lamp
    2018

    Expanding the Drug Policy Debate through Art

    Hundreds of people in Mexico City visit the Museum of Drug Policy—a three-day public event backed by Open Society Foundations that features local and international artists’ responses to the global “war on drugs,” combined with discussions and debate. Previous events staged in Toronto and New York. 

    Moving to Berlin

    The Open Society Foundations moves its Budapest-based international operations and staff to the German capital, Berlin, in response to an increasingly repressive political and legal environment in Hungary. Open Society continues to support civil society groups in Hungary, working on issues such as arts and culture, media freedom, transparency, and education and health care for all Hungarians.

    Open Society President Patrick Gaspard speaking at a reception

    Sign up for updates on Open Society’s work around the world