NET WORTH: $25.2 billion
SOURCE OF WEALTH: Soros Fund Management
FUNDING AREAS: Democratic Ideals, Humanitarian Efforts, Economic Development, Education, and Policy Reform
OVERVIEW: George Soros has probably put more philanthropic resources toward promoting democratic ideals than anyone else on the planet. Soros has made significant contributions to health, education, and humanitarian efforts worldwide. "We try to understand who is vulnerable, who is marginalized, who is oppressed, society by society, place by place," says Chris Stone, president of Soros's Open Society Foundations. Much of his funding for various initiatives through the foundations is conducted through Open Society's offices, which support individuals and organizations whose missions coincide with the missions of his foundations.
BACKGROUND: Born to a Jewish family in Budapest, Hungary, George Soros came from humble beginnings. He was lucky to survive the Nazi occupation of Hungary and the Battle of Budapest during WWII. He immigrated to England in 1947, where he went to the London School of Economics and worked as a porter and waiter. Eventually he decided he wanted to work in finance, so he wrote to every managing director of every merchant bank in London until he got an entry-level position. In 1956, he crossed the Atlantic, moving to New York City, where he worked his way up from an arbitrage trader and analyst to a vice president and investment fund manager. In 1973, he founded Soros Fund Management.
DEMOCRATIC IDEALS: When Soros set up his first non-U.S. foundation in Hungary in 1984, most of its resources were spent on distributing photocopiers to universities, libraries, and civil society groups. The goal was to promote the free flow of information and ideas, a critical tool in weakening authoritarian regimes and transitioning toward democracy. A major component of promoting democratic ideals has been to focus on promoting higher education, though the foundations have supported talks and given grants for work on issues such as media freedom, freedom of information, and anticorruption efforts.
Soros has personally supported many organizations that engage in political activity both in the United States and abroad, including substantial support to MoveOn.org and American Bridge 21st Century.
HUMANITARIAN EFFORTS: During and after the wars in the former Yugoslavia in the mid-'90s, Soros contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to humanitarian relief efforts. His foundations also support a variety of other related causes, including women's, LGBTI, and disability rights, discrimination against Muslims in Europe, international justice, and national security and counterterrorism. In addition, Soros has made major donations to the International Crisis Group and UNICEF, giving each $5 million, and in early 2016 donated $4 million to the University of Connecticut's Human Rights Institute.
ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Soros has donated more than $75 million to the Millennium Promise and Millennium Villages Project. The project is helping to end extreme poverty in Africa through a holistic approach, addressing issues such as education, access to health care, business development tools, food, water, and energy.
EDUCATION: Soros's focus on education goes hand in hand with the development of open societies. In the 1970s, he was providing funds to help black students attend the University of Cape Town in apartheid South Africa. In response to the collapse of Communism, he helped found the Central European University in Budapest, contributing $880 million to its endowment since the early '90s and serving as chairman until 2007. Soros also has donated more than $100 million to universities throughout the former USSR. He supports educational development in early childhood and K-12, but the majority of his support goes toward higher education and programs that support disadvantaged minorities.
POLICY REFORM: Many of the efforts that the Open Society Foundations support also aim for policy reform, particularly concerning minority rights but also in regard to drug policy.
LOOKING FORWARD: Soros's long-standing commitment to democracy and minority rights should continue to lead him into new territory, particularly in the wake of the Muslim spring. Also look for a greater commitment to initiatives addressing the influence of money in politics, an issue that is becoming increasingly central to maintaining democratic ideals in the United States.