Staff at George Soros's Foundation Just Voted to Join a Union. Is That a Good Thing?

Christopher Stone, President of the Open Society Foundations

It’s been a bumpy ride at the Open Society Foundations over the past few years. When George Soros hired Chris Stone in 2012 to lead OSF, he asked him to bring more order and cohesion to a far-flung philanthropic operation known for its creative chaos.

Stone set to work. As he told me last year, his goal was to create a more professional foundation that is “working with a meaningful budget” designed to advance “a meaningful strategy that is clear and expressed,” which the board had “a meaningful role in shaping.”

Those may sound like pedestrian goals, but they were a big deal for a foundation that felt more like an archipelago than an island, with offices in 37 countries and famously fragmented lines of authority. Even consolidating OSF’s global spending—which is over $900 million a year—into a single budget was a daunting task.

As is often the case when organizations go through big changes, Stone’s reforms brought a fair degree of disruption and unhappiness, with some staff feeling jerked around by the process.

That’s part of the context of a vote yesterday by OSF employees in New York City and Baltimore to join a union, the Communications Workers of America. The votes were cast by all program officers and support staff, with the exception of those who work in HR or IT, with the final tally coming in at 109 to 80 in New York and 7 to 2 in Baltimore. 

Stone told me today that the unionization push channeled concerns "regarding the way the restructuring was handled, as well as other issues of workplace culture." In addition, he said, it reflected a broader view about the value of unions embraced by OSF staff. We're in a moment, he said, of "a renewed sense of the importance of unions and the rights of working people in areas where labor has not traditionally organized."

This is the first time that employees of a private foundation have joined a union. The move raises interesting questions about the role of unions in philanthropy that have never surfaced before. Does collective bargaining for foundation staff make sense? Will this trend spread to other big foundations? And if it does, how will it affect how these institutions operate? 

Such questions aren’t entirely novel, since there’s a long record of nonprofit staff unionizing—in top orchestras, hospitals, social service providers, and advocacy groups like the ACLU. 

Still, the arrival of collective bargaining in foundations is new and different. This is where the real money and power lies in the nonprofit sector, generating a perennial debate about accountability. The upshot of that debate has been that those in command of foundations aren’t much accountable to anyone. And while unionization—if it ever does spread widely in foundations—seems unlikely to greatly alter that picture, the vote at OSF certainly introduces a new wrinkle into the accountability conversation.

It’s fitting that staff at America’s largest progressive foundation are leading the way here. In its grantmaking, OSF has long backed collective bargaining rights for workers—both in the United States and abroad. “We believe in unions,” Chris Stone told me earlier this month, and noted that many OSF staff felt that the foundation should practice what it preached in its own internal operations. 

The union drive at OSF really started percolating earlier this year, creating a tricky situation for Stone and the board. It’s one thing to favor unionization of, say, the fast food industry with its low-wage business model. It’s quite another to deal with union reps in contract negotiations within your own institution—especially when it’s time to make major organizational changes, as most foundations do periodically.

Stone told me that he tried to be scrupulously neutral as the unionization effort unfolded, and even supportive. He said he understood that the unionization push was not about OSF employees winning higher pay and benefits, but about issues that often matter far more to white-collar workers—having a greater say in organizational decisions that affect their jobs and lives.

These same themes, it should be noted, have often been the key drivers of nonprofit union activity. Staff at nonprofits tend to understand that there’s not a lot of extra cash floating around for pay hikes, but may see collective bargaining as a way to bring greater democracy to the workplace.

The big question is whether more workplace democracy is really a good idea in foundations. A fear is that it could limit the nimbleness of these institutions. It’s crucial for foundations to be able to change direction and reorganize themselves as circumstances evolve—as well as to streamline themselves in ways that free up more resources to advance their missions. If collective bargaining makes that harder, it could undermine the impact of foundations.

Foundations have long drawn criticism for growing too bureaucratic and self-satisfied, elevating the prerogatives of staff above the needs of grantees and losing the sense of urgency needed to advance change. Also, as any foundation president can attest, making big changes at these organizations is no easy thing as it stands.

The overarching problem, of course, is that foundations aren’t beholden to any clear bottom line or to outside constituencies who can force steps to boost their effectiveness. These institutions are uniquely at risk of being captured by self-interested inside players and drifting along—a mediocrity marked by middling performance and excessive overhead.  

It’s worth noting that these dangers initially made George Soros hostile to the idea of creating a permanent foundation. Up until 2005, Soros planned to spend down his fortune—only to give up on that idea as his wealth piled higher, and as he came to see the need to provide ongoing support to open society advocates worldwide. But I’m guessing that Soros still harbors fears about how foundations can drift toward ossification. 

It’s hard to know whether the unionization of foundation staff would exacerbate such tendencies, but the risk seems real. Yes, collective bargaining could impose more accountability of a kind—finally—on those who lead big foundations, though maybe not in a good way. A common critique of unions is that they sometimes put the short-term interests of their members above the long-term imperative of institutions to make bold changes in the face of new challenges. The damaging role of unions in orchestras comes to mind, with some of these nonprofits facing near-fatal constraints on their ability to adapt to threats facing classical music.

But I’m getting ahead of the story.

So far, we’re just talking about the U.S. arm of the Open Society Foundations voting to join CWA, and it’s too early to say how that will affect the foundation’s day-to-day operations, much less its effectiveness. Stone says that "the last few months have given rise to important conversations about the kind of workplace we want to have and the union drive played an important role in that." And he added, "we look forward to developing a collaborative relationship with CWA, one that will help us be even more effective at advancing open society principles and values."  

As for whether staff at other foundations will be tempted to follow suit, stayed tuned.

I'll be writing more about this story in the next day or two to further unpack the issues at play and reactions in the philanthrosphere. If anyone wants to chime in with thoughts, my email is davidc@insidephilanthropy.com.

Related:  Philanthropy vs. Tyranny: Inside the Open Society Foundations' Biggest Battle Yet