Features

Chris Stone

Christopher Stone
President
Open Society Foundations

Christopher Stone is the president of the Open Society Foundations. He is an international expert on criminal justice reform and on the leadership and governance of nonprofits. 

Prior to joining Open Society, he was the Guggenheim Professor of the Practice of Criminal Justice at Harvard University’s John F. Kennedy School of Government and director of the Hauser Center for Nonprofit Organizations. Before that, Stone spent a decade as director of the Vera Institute of Justice. He founded the Neighborhood Defender Service of Harlem and served as a founding director of the New York State Capital Defender Office and of the Altus Global Alliance.

Stone received his BA from Harvard, an MPhil in criminology from the University of Cambridge, and his JD from Yale Law School. He was awarded an honorary Order of the British Empire for his contributions to criminal justice reform in the United Kingdom. 


 

 

Ann Paisley Chandler: What makes the Open Society Foundations different from other philanthropies?

Chris Stone: Three things make Open Society different: our founder, our network design, and our capacity to engage with the political dimensions of the world’s problems. In other ways we’re similar to many foundations: our efforts to balance strategy with opportunity, our commitment to our own learning and accountability, our understanding of the need to take big risks to achieve big successes are all familiar themes in philanthropy. But our ability to engage in political fights, our structure as a network of more than 20 national and regional foundations around the world, and George Soros himself make Open Society different and explain why a lot of us are here. Let me just say one or two things about each of those three features.

First, there’s George Soros himself. He knows that many of the problems we tackle are insoluble, but if the problem is important, even when there is no reason for hope, you need to fight and be engaged. Still, he’s not an idealist. He pushes us constantly to look reality in the eye—no matter how harsh; to see things as they are, not as those in power, or even as our own ideologies would have us believe. Not to discourage us, but to give us a chance to make a real difference. He knows that even the best solutions are flawed, and that the work of building open societies is never done. He’s also willing to use his philanthropy against his own economic interest. It’s a matter of principle with him that the public interest should take precedence over private interest when the two conflict.

Then there’s our network structure. The Open Society Foundations make up a family of semi-independent national and regional foundations. That structure lets us get involved in many more things than a centralized structure ever could, and much of the creativity and innovation comes from those modestly sized national foundations from Haiti to the Balkans, to Indonesia. The boards of those foundations, as well as the larger regional foundations in Africa, make their own grant decisions and propose their own strategies. Sometimes George Soros disagrees with their ideas, and he’ll tell them so, but he often let’s them pursue their plans anyway, and he loves telling the stories of the foundations that proved him wrong. That kind of independence is very rare in philanthropy and it makes working within the Open Society Foundations particularly exciting. It gives the work a local legitimacy that, I think, very few global organizations can achieve.

Last, there’s our ability to engage politically. Of course we don’t endorse candidates or parties, but we were among the very first foundations that took advantage of new tax rules that allowed U.S. foundations to affiliate separate entities that can conduct lobbying, and in the last year the Open Society Policy Center in Washington, D.C., has been active in lobbying on immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and for declassification of the so-called “torture report” compiled by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. Those are the kinds of issues you can’t advance without engaging their political dimensions, and we have a similar office in Brussels that engages with the European Union. I don’t know any other foundation working globally that is willing to deal with political obstacles like any other impediments when they are blocking sensible and principled solutions.

Chandler: Can you give me an example of some political obstacles you’ve tried to overcome?

Stone: Our work for the European Roma has us working hard to overcome the xenophobia poisoning much of European politics; our work on corporate transparency has us pressing governments including the United States to issue regulations that require disclosure of payments to governments for mining and drilling projects. Perhaps the issue closest to my heart is the effort to make policing more professional, which has to overcome efforts by politicians to use the police to suppress dissent or to take illegal shortcuts in dealing with crime and disorder. We, like others, support research on police tactics, but we also support groups that try to raise the political stakes, putting pressure on politicians to do the right thing on police practices.

Chandler: How do the Open Society Foundations make grant making decisions?

Stone: We start with strategy. Part of every strategy at Open Society involves long-term support to the fields and places in which we work. This may take the form of grants to organizations or grants to individuals. We look for people and organizations that know better than we do what should be done, and we back them, usually over many years. They may disagree with one another, but by supporting different approaches we maximize the chance that something will work. In our support to fields and places, we seek ongoing relationships with those who share a commitment to social change based on common values and principles and who have demonstrated their effectiveness. We try to build these relationships on mutual understanding and respect.

Another part of every strategy consists of concepts or initiatives that we ourselves have helped to craft—specific actions that we believe will advance specific solutions to a problem. When we’re executing those parts of our strategies, our grant making is more focused on achieving specific results.

Chandler: Do you measure both short-term impact on the individuals served and long-term income on the society?

Stone: I think measurement is important, but it’s been overemphasized in the last couple of decades of philanthropy. We regularly assess the results of our grants and advocacy, and we’re becoming much more rigorous in those assessments. Measurement is an important part of how we assess our work, but it is only one of several ways in which we push ourselves to look back and question the decisions we made, articulate the lessons we’ve learned, and adjust our strategies. We don’t measure to count victories; we use multiple assessment tools to make corrections and improve our strategies.

I find that the best things we accomplish are rarely the things we set out to achieve. We and our grantees need to be flexible, so even as we’re executing our plans we’re alert for how circumstances are changing, our efforts are falling short, and new opportunities are arising. Some measurement systems get in the way of that flexibility. So we are building assessment routines that ask retrospectively not just what was achieved, but which achievements surprised us. What turned out far better than expected, and where were we disappointed. What we learn from this kind of review makes an immediate difference in how we work going forward.

Chandler: How does Open Society Foundations ensure the sustainability of small grassroots organizations?

Stone: There can never be any guarantees that an organization, big or small, will sustain itself forever. Even endowments are no guarantee, and Open Society almost never provides endowment support. What we can do, and should do, from the start of our relationship with any organization is to pay attention to organizational health, and encourage the board, leadership, and supporters of the organization to focus both on operations and organizational health.

For the small, grassroots organizations you’ve asked about, that often means asking early about governance and about basic financial management. Good governance and financial integrity are not necessarily expensive, they’re really about habits of mind. Not all organizations care about sustainability, and that’s fine. Some organizations spring up to solve an immediate problem, and then are happy to disband. But if a small organization is going to last, its members need to think carefully about governance and management, finding solutions that are right for them.

Diversifying funding is also important, even for small, grassroots groups. We often provide the first funding that organizations receive, but it’s in the long term interests of the group to get other donors as quickly as possible. The more revenue streams feeding into any organization, however small, the less power any one donor has over it and the faster it will mature.

Chandler: Could you address the role of non-profit and government partnerships in tackling fair trial issues: corruption, torture and counter reforms in the criminal justice systems in Latin America while balancing public security?

Stone: There’s an element of torture in almost every penal system, and corruption in almost every system of justice, but they’re found to different degrees in different places. In the United States, our jails and prisons include awful examples, but police practices have become far less corrupt and reliant on torture than they once were. There are parts of Latin America where torture and corruption among police remain as commonplace as in the prisons. For many in Latin America, these conditions and practices represent holdovers from the era of military dictatorship, so there is a growing impatience that the corruption and torture has continued so long into the democratic period. That impatience has brought governments and human rights activists closer together on these issues in some countries in the region. In others, however, the coexistence of corrupt and brutal justice with democratic governance is becoming the new normal.

Progress here requires courage in both government and civil society, and the good news is that Latin America increasingly has leaders with the necessary courage. Not enough, but a growing number. They understand that reducing corruption and torture is entirely consistent with expanding public safety if there is genuine commitment to achieve both together. In the last two decades, Latin American scholars have entered this field deepening our knowledge and understanding, police and prison officials have designed and implemented a wide range of reforms, journalists have learned how to expose and analyze the abuses, and millions of ordinary citizens have been mobilized in the streets to demand improvement. All of those efforts benefit from the support of foundations like Open Society.

Chandler: What’s an example of initiative you are doing in New York City?

Stone: Open Society has been engaged for many years in criminal justice reform and school discipline reform in New York City. In part that has been a partnership known as the Young Men’s Initiative with Mayor Bloomberg and now Mayor de Blasio. A separate effort by the foundation involved criticizing the previous administration and the police department for their stop-and-frisk practices.

With the election of Mayor de Blasio, we became heavily involved in civic engagement, creating far more opportunities for New Yorkers to participate in their own government. Last November, we led a consortium of several foundations to create Talking Transition. The idea was to extend broad participation beyond election day, into the policy debates during the mayoral transition. We set up a tent in downtown Manhattan where New Yorkers could make suggestions to the new administration and debate the issues facing the city. The tent brought together residents, activists, and elected officials so that they could engage one another. It worked fabulously well, with a mix of elite and street in numbers I’ve never seen before, in a setting and with technology that will keep the experience sharp in people’s minds well into the administration. We started before the mayor had made any appointments, but today literally dozens of new city officials were among the participants in Talking Transition.

Chandler: Is there a continued role in the future for the national foundations in Europe, Asia, Haiti, and South Africa with which George Soros began the Open Society Foundations?

Stone: Yes! Just look at Ukraine. We’ve had a national foundation in Ukraine since 1988: the International Renaissance Foundation. Since late last year, the foundation has been closely engaged with the revolutionary events and has played a helpful role in the emergence of this new Ukraine. The situation remains fraught as we speak today, but there is more hope than there would have been without the foundation’s involvement, and the work over these last several months has been possible only because of the decades of solid work that the foundation has accomplished with civil society and successive governments.

Our national foundation in Haiti, FOKAL, played a vital role there after the earthquake, again building on years of patient, daily work with civil society and government. In Ukraine, Haiti, and around the world, the national and regional foundations in the Open Society network allow us to bring international resources and expertise into the service of legitimate local organizations and leaders in times of crisis and times of opportunity. These foundations remain an essential element of what we do and who we are.

In my first year as president of Open Society, I made a point of visiting each of the national and regional foundations, meeting with their boards, their staff, and some local partners. It was an exhilarating experience, especially so because I repeatedly discovered great projects that I had no other way of knowing about. When I told the foundation’s Global Board about my strengthened commitment to these foundations, George Soros commented that he was glad to hear it. He, too, it turned out, keeps learning about things on such visits that he had no idea he was funding, and he finds them among the most exciting and innovative projects in the network.

 

 

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