Soros in Baltimore: Lessons From 20 Years of Place-Based Giving

a protest in baltimore in 2015, after freddie gray died in policy custody. Andrew Stefan/shutterstock

a protest in baltimore in 2015, after freddie gray died in policy custody. Andrew Stefan/shutterstock

Place-based giving has long been a cornerstone of the American philanthropic tradition. Since the earliest days of organized giving, wealthy donors have mobilized to improve the cities and towns where they live—funding parks, cultural institutions, schools, and more. This kind of giving remains as strong as ever. Inside Philanthropy reports almost daily on local giving aimed at improving the communities where donors live and foundations are based—including a cascade of eye-popping gifts by an elite class of billionaire “super-citizens” like George Kaiser in Tulsa, Eli Broad in Los Angeles, and Richard Kinder in Houston.

George Soros is yet another mega-giver who has engaged in ambitious place-based giving, even though he is best known for his global philanthropy. Soros has given hundreds of millions of dollars for initiatives focused in New York City, most notably the After-School Corporation. But his most intriguing effort to improve a place has unfolded in Baltimore, where he began funding in 1998. Today, the Open Society Institute-Baltimore operates with a staff of 18 and an operating budget of just over $8 million. More than a quarter of that comes from donors other than the Open Society Foundations.

Two decades working in one community is cause for reflection—about both the impact of focused philanthropy in Baltimore, a city that has continued to struggle, and the larger challenges of place-based giving.


The Soros commitment to Baltimore began in the early days of Open Society’s U.S. Programs, which were launched in 1996. Gara LaMarche, who led the development of this grantmaking, recalls that Soros was “eager to identify a place in the United States where the themes of his national work, such as criminal justice and drug policy, education and workforce development, could be addressed in a concentrated and integrated manner.” His foundation’s staff looked at various cities before settling on Baltimore “which had all these challenges, but also a set of strong assets—the then-Mayor, Kurt Schmoke, who was an outspoken critic of drug policy, and other strong local philanthropies and nonprofits—that we could work with.”

By the time Soros focused on Baltimore, he and his foundation had already been giving overseas for many years and looked to bring the strategies they’d developed to U.S. urban challenges. Says LaMarche: “We adapted to Baltimore the approach to local philanthropy that Soros had used from Eastern Europe to Africa, by finding strong local leaders who had not traditionally had access to philanthropic resources—in the case of Baltimore, a majority-black city with then heavily white philanthropies, this meant [creating] a majority-black board.”

OSI-Baltimore’s programs currently focus on the root causes of three “intertwined” problems: drug addiction, over-reliance on incarceration, and obstacles that prevent youth from succeeding in and out of the classroom. Though some programs now march under different banners, the four components have been a priority since the institute opened its doors. 

OSI-Baltimore’s Education and Youth Development program works to disrupt practices that prematurely push students into the prison pipeline, increase graduation rates, and improve the overall school climate. Its Addiction and Health Equity program connects the community with government healthcare programs, and addresses addiction treatment, stigma and advocacy. The Criminal and Juvenile Justice program aims to reduce the social and economic costs of incarceration, and advocates for fair justice systems. In the course of 20 years, its fourth program, Baltimore Community Fellows, has built a network of 180 local social innovators.

Following the money, the Criminal and Juvenile Justice program drew the largest share of the budget last year, at $2 million. The operating budgets for the other three programs each hover at around $1.5 million. 

OSI-Baltimore says that its funding process is designed to ensure that “every voice is heard.” The institute analyzes a problem’s root cause, examines available research and innovative practices, and then crafts a roadmap for change. It often focuses on complex, systemic issues, has a progressive bent, and doesn’t shy away from funding things others aren’t. The institute also backs the kind of hard-hitting advocacy work that many grantmakers tend to avoid—a hallmark of OSF’s funding approach.

To create lasting, sustainable change, the institute engages public and private partners from the get-go. Its deep engagement in the field includes actors at the city and state level—community and civic leaders, policymakers, advocates and academicians. Numerous mayors, police chiefs and school chancellors have cycled through in the last 20 years, with differing agendas and levels of success. Through it all, OSI-Baltimore’s been a steady presence, ready to engage when there’s agreement on tactics—or not. 

Though its focus areas have remained constant, the institute says it’s open to new ideas and issues. The great majority of funding proposals are solicited, but anyone with a compelling solution can apply by letter of inquiry. This year, they were due in early March.

Place-based Giving

According to prevailing paradigms, conditions in Baltimore are right for effective place-based giving. It has the long-term community engagement of key stakeholders, residents who are ready and able to help determine their futures, and partners who are open to taking calculated risks.

In other ways, though, philanthropy faces a very heavy lift in Baltimore. Like many other U.S. cities, Baltimore is struggling with the legacies of de-industrialization, structural racism, and disinvestment. Nearly a quarter of its population lives in poverty, and it has the highest murder rate of any big city in the United States. Recent years have seen civil unrest and unstable political leadership.

Still, Baltimore’s local funding community has remained optimistic about making progress on key fronts—and has helped bring about some important gains. For its part, OSI-Baltimore models the foundation policies and characteristics that support effective place-based initiatives. The institute has built real trust in the community and fully understands the context of its funding area—including race and class dynamics. After 20 years, it’s also deeply embedded.

All of the institute’s 18 employees live in Baltimore, and its directors’ local ties to the city run long and deep. Acting director, Tracy Brown, is an attorney who earned her degrees in Maryland schools, worked in the Baltimore court system and served as an assistant state’s attorney for Baltimore City. Tara Huffman, who directs the Criminal and Juvenile Justice program, honed her advocacy skills as the director of the Maryland Justice Coalition, and by working with the Greater Baltimore Grassroots Criminal Justice Network. Karen Webber, director of Education and Youth Development programs, once led the Office of Student Support and Safety at Baltimore City Schools, and was a city school principal. 

Clearly, OSI-Baltimore is doing a lot of things right. But even ticking all the boxes, what kind of measurable impact can an organization like this have against overarching economic and political structures that limit city-level autonomy? Should the goal be simply to keep a bad situation from getting worse? To celebrate small victories? Or is more possible?

Addressing Systemic Violence

Headlines about Baltimore often center on the city’s high crime rate, so it’s worth exploring the ways the institute is addressing the problem, and the progress that’s been made.

When OSI-Baltimore put down roots in 1998, the number of annual homicides topped 300—and had for eight straight years. The record, 353, was set back in ‘93. By 2011, it had dropped to 196, well within the national average. But by 2013, it had inched up again, to 235. Then came 2015, the year 25-year-old Freddie Gray died while in police custody, sparking sometimes violent protests. Homicides surged to 344, and Baltimore became the epicenter of the national discourse on police brutality and race relations. 

Based on that single data point, the city hasn’t recovered since. In 2017, homicides rose to 343, the highest per capita in Baltimore’s history. Last year, killings fell to 309—an improvement for Baltimore, but still the worst homicide rate among the nation’s 50 largest cities, and the second-highest violent crime rate overall. 

Two decades later, it seems the city’s back at square one. But rather than running in place, the institute can point to some clear successes.

OSI-Baltimore directors believe violent crime rates remain high because the death of Freddie Gray let a “genie out of the bottle” that won’t go back until the city’s fully dealt with the issues it brought to light, like state-sponsored segregation and race. Brown says those issues lead to over-policing, creating a cycle of recidivism that moves marginalized members of the community in and out of the system, spreading violence like a disease. 

The institute drills down on root causes through “intertwined” interventions that start at the school level. A full 90 percent of Baltimore City School students are of color. Nearly 85 percent live in poverty. Obama-era data showed an egregious over-use of suspensions for African American students. Karen Webber, director of Education and Youth Development programs, says that dynamic puts race at the forefront, creating a school-to-prison pipeline that pushes students out of the classrooms and into the prison system, sometimes for good. 

OSI-Baltimore’s education programming works to create a climate where jail is less likely. It advocates for codes of conduct on the state level, and implements classroom-based restorative practices for teachers. When a student’s a problem, trained teachers employ comprehensive lesson plans and processes to impede marginalization. The results speak for themselves. In the five-year period between the 2014 and 2019 school years, student arrests decreased 81 percent, from 267 to just 50. Work to increase the four-year graduation rates also shows significant impact. In 2004, it was 54 percent. Now, it’s up in the low 70s.

To meet the challenges of Baltimore’s Criminal and Juvenile Justice system, the institute had to take on the whole state. Program director Tara Huffman is clear about the challenges it initially faced, characterizing Maryland’s juvenile justice system as a bad actor that promoted racial disparity. Children were incarcerated and abused, prompting OSI’s decision to build a field of advocacy. Work began with a partnership with Advocates for Children and Youth (ACY), a local nonprofit that protects all aspects of children’s rights. The institute’s programs also put structures in place to address systemic problems and respond to youth in a way that doesn’t involve police or courts, relying instead on schools, child services and healthcare facilities. Data says these and other interventions have borne fruit. Statewide juvenile incarceration rates are down by half in the past 20 years.

Lessons Learned

When asked for their advice to other place-based funders, the directors of OSI-Baltimore cited four things as their top lessons learned. One: Make a long-term commitment, and be willing to look at issues creatively. Two: Work as both inside and outside advocates. Build a bridge, and press or pull back as necessary. Three: Stick to root causes. And four: Don’t try to do too many things at once, a lesson they learned after exiting an employment portfolio that needed greater resources than the institute could provide. 

Baltimore’s problems may seem intractable. And, as we’ve reported, larger economic and political forces tend to limit the efficacy of place-based giving. But the numbers say OSI-Baltimore has made real headway on critical issues over time.

Maybe the best yardstick for gauging place-based giving isn’t measuring the impact of years of funding—it’s imagining where foundations’ home cities would be without their concerted care. Soros could have chosen to set up shop in any number of cities back in the 1990s. Charm City is lucky his foundation got off at the Baltimore exit.