Open Society Foundations – Welcome to Berlin
As a 14 year old boy, George Soros had to hide from the Nazis in Budapest. Remarkably, more than seventy years later, his foundation picks Berlin as the hub from which to promote open society. While the decision to open an office had been taken before, the relocation of all of its more than 100 staff has been triggered by continued recrimination and defamation by the Orban government. Only a few weeks ago, the Open Society Foundations have launched an internally code-named, swift and globally coordinated effort to not only move their European hub office but also their grant making - and the families.
In my view, this is and should be a transformative moment in at least three ways.
Firstly, it needs to be a warning signal. For years, civil society has had little resonance with policy makers when it pointed to the „shrinking space“ for its activities, a phenomenon that is spreading quickly from dictatorships to authoritarian democracies, and perhaps soon the remaining open societies. The European donors network DAFNE regularly publishes a weather report with a growing number of stormy regions, and only last year major foundations issues a Warsaw Declaration and started a joint fund for democracy and solidarity.
Secondly, it is a tremendous opportunity for Berlin, which will become a major philanthropic capital. Not least due to its post-war history, it has had few large foundations of its own, and only a handful of offices and event spaces of foundations from Gütersloh, Essen, or Munich. The Open Society Foundations are the first of several prominent foundations increasing its activities in Berlin, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation expanding its office, and British foundations with an eye on Brexit evaluating their options.
This is why, thirdly, it is a moment for the sector in Germany to open its arms and welcome the new colleagues. The Association of German Foundations has co-created an "Arrival Program" for international staff of philanthropic institutions who move to Berlin temporarily or permanently. It will be free to members and have five elements:
- Welcome to the Philanthropic Sector
- Legal Counsel (specialized legal advice on format setup and operations)
- Membership (flexible temporary or member access to resources at the Association of German Foundations)
- Life and Family Support (volunteers opening their homes, providing connections, giving practical advice from childcare to schools)
- Arrival Orientation Course (custom-designed and delivered by Deutschen StiftungsAkademie)
Berlin has played many roles over its chequered past. The role of philanthropic capital, a connecting force between East and West, liberty and repression, may be one of its most important over the coming years.