With a Monster Pledge, a Glimpse of a New Direction for Soros

George Soros says that our “collective failure” to serve the world’s ever-growing refugee population with effective policymaking has “contributed greatly to human misery and political instability.” That fallout can be seen in teeming refugee camps outside of failed states, but also in the host countries to which millions are escaping. 

Soros called out the world’s public and private sectors in a recent op-ed piece he penned for the Wall Street Journal, simply titled “Why I’m Investing $500 million in Migrants.” Soros’s well-timed announcement comes just as United Nations convened for its General Assembly and hosted a high-level Summit for Refugees and Migrants. The summit called for heads of state to take advantage of the “historic opportunity to come up with a blueprint for a better international response” to the global refugee crisis.

In the past, such official calls have yielded weak results. At this year’s London Conference, for example, world governments reportedly pledged some $10 to $12 billion for Syria and its surrounding region. By the end of March, over half of those promised funds were still not allocated and only about 8 percent of the money had actually been disbursed.

I don’t have to tell anyone that quick disbursement of funds is critical here. But while governments are a lot of things, quick is not one of them.

Related: Will a World Summit Strike the Match that Lights the Humanitarian Funding Fire?

On the other hand, private donors and investors can move fast, which brings me back to George Soros.

Soros is the wealthiest hedge fund billionaire in the world. With a net worth of close to $25 billion, he's well known as a philanthropist. What he's not known for is impact investing, which is what this $500 million effort is all about. It represents a new and growing element of Soros's philanthropy, but hardly a counterintuitive one, given that Soros made his fortune as a private investor.

Earlier this year, with little fanfare, OSF launched the Economic Advancement Program, which "makes private sector investments that fund well-governed commercial institutions to play a meaningful role in promoting open societies, and to advance the interests of under-served populations." 

Strikingly, Soros's big move this week as an impact investor comes in an area we don't associate with impact investing, helping refugees. 

Soros writes, “Governments must play the leading role in addressing this crisis by creating and sustaining adequate physical and social infrastructure for migrants and refugees. But harnessing the power of the private sector is also critical.”

The funds will be allocated to investments specifically geared to addressing and meeting the needs of migrants and refugees as well as their host communities and countries. Soros explains that he plans to “invest in startups, established companies, social impact initiatives, and businesses founded by migrants and refugees themselves.” Soros’ big give will focus mainly on refugees landing in Europe, but he promises to keep an eye out for investments that benefit migrants and refugees around the world.

Soros and his team will work with the UNHCR and the International Rescue Committee (IRC) to establish the guiding principles of the investments, which will be owned by Soros's Open Society Foundations. All profits from the investments will be plugged back into Open Society to support its programs, “including those that benefit migrants and refuges.”

And just to make things clear, Soros’ $500 million pledge is meant to complement the Open Society Foundations’ ongoing grantmaking commitments. The foundation has a long history of grants and advocacy support for disadvantaged populations, including migrants and refugees, in every corner of the globe. Areas of particular grantmaking interest are migration, human rights related to citizenship and statelessness, protections for migrant workers, and human trafficking.

Related: Open Society Foundations: Fundraising for Disasters & Refugees

In turn, OSF is one of a number of funders that's lately been answering the global refugee crisis call. Others include the UPS, Western Union, Cisco, and IKEA foundations. But that list of funders for refugees remains a short one. Even shorter still is the list of wealthy individuals who are willing to cut large checks to alleviate human suffering on a scale that has not been seen since the Second World War.

With his recent pledge, George Soros joins that exclusive list, which includes Hamdi Ulukaya, founder of Chobani. In 2014, he pledged $2 million to the UNHCR and the IRC to aid Syrian refugees. Ulukay, whose current net worth stands at around $1.97 billion, has also promised to donate half of his wealth to help Kurdish refugees and refugees around the globe.  

Related: A Yogurt Mogul and a Group of Corporate Funders Band Together for Refugees

More recently, Ulukaya established the nonprofit the Tent Foundation, to provide rapid response grants for immediate refugee relief operations. A project of the foundation is the Tent Alliance, which brings business, relief organizations, governments, NGOs, and academia together to “inspire the private sector to get more involved and end human displacement everywhere.” This inspiration to get involved and give is also exactly what George Soros hopes will happen with his $500 million pledge. 

Will other billionaires follow Soros and Ulukaya in putting up big money to address the world's most urgent problem?