A New Book on George Soros’ “Life in Full” Examines His Giving—and Impact on Philanthropy

The cover of a new book about George Soros includes a long list of descriptors: “survivor, billionaire, speculator, philanthropist, political activist, nemesis of the far right, global citizen.” In essays by eight authors, experts and colleagues, “George Soros: A Life in Full” attempts to shed light on all the many facets of the billionaire philanthropist’s extraordinary life. 

The biography, edited by journalist and publisher Peter L.W. Osnos and published by Harvard Business Review Press, includes vivid descriptions of Soros’ family and his early years in Nazi-occupied Hungary, written by author and Polish emigre Eva Hoffman. Sebastian Mallaby, a journalist and senior fellow for international economics at the Council on Foreign Relations, provides an examination of the hedge fund manager’s financial wizardry. China expert and author Orville Schell reflects not only on Soros’ forays into that country, but on his larger role as a public citizen. 

We’ll focus here on George Soros the philanthropist, which Darren Walker discusses in a chapter titled “Philanthropy with a Vision.” Walker was an apt choice to write the chapter; the Ford Foundation president has a long and highly respected track record in philanthropy, and is among the most influential voices in the sector.

Philanthropy watchers tend to focus on current funding news at major philanthropies—the latest grant cycles, operational changes, or shifting program priorities. Here at IP, for example, we’ve pointed out organizational challenges and staffing changes at the Open Society Foundations (OSF), Soros’ philanthropy. In a recent article, we examined OSF’s priorities in the context of Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Walker’s essay, however, provides a broader overview of Soros’ philanthropy, stepping back and considering his giving from a historic perspective, and underscoring its influence on other philanthropists and its relevance today. 

It’s important to note that “George Soros: A Life in Full” is itself a Soros-funded project. In his introduction, Osnos writes that the book was funded by “a private entity that is backed by Soros’ wealth (though not by his Open Society Foundations). That money will be repaid from revenues the book accrues. In other words, this book is a business venture of an unusual kind, and given the subject, this should not be altogether surprising.”

Having said that, “A Life in Full” avoids the fawning tone of many authorized biographies, probably because of the lineup of experienced writers that Osnos enlisted for the job. While keeping in mind Soros’ role in the book’s publication, it is nonetheless full of fascinating information and anecdotes.

Open societies 

A dinner companion once asked George Soros when he first realized that he liked making money. “I don’t like it,” he told her. “I’m just good at it.” Relating this anecdote, Walker points out that even after Soros had accumulated a fortune (some consider him the most successful investor of all time), “he had little interest in the status symbols or luxuries that wealth can buy.”

In fact, philosophy has been George Soros’ lifelong passion. According to Walker, Soros worked for years on a book called “The Burden of Consciousness” “that he dreamed was going to be his ticket to the pantheon of great thinkers of humanity. But he could never get this magnum opus to work and finally set it aside.” Philanthropy would become a passion, but for Soros, it didn’t start out that way. He ventured into philanthropy with few goals or ideas for how to give away his money—beyond a desire to lower his tax burden. 

That changed over time, Walker says, as Soros “gradually awoke to the possibility that by applying his philosophy to real-world problems, he could do great good.” Soros developed his idea of the open society based on the work of philosopher Karl Popper, his mentor at the London School of Economics. 

A new approach to philanthropy

Walker situates George Soros in the context of American philanthropic heavyweights like John D. Rockefeller and Andrew Carnegie, but draws a sharp distinction. Soros had less faith than his philanthropic predecessors in the pillars of capitalism and their ability to create a just society. His own experience convinced him that creating and sustaining open democratic institutions was a matter of vigilance and hard work, and that philanthropy could play a critical role in strengthening and helping to maintain those institutions. 

“As industrialists, Rockefeller, Carnegie and others had an absolute belief that Americans like themselves, with science and industry, could solve the world’s problems,” Walker writes. “They could look past social injustice because ultimately, science would address that, too. But Soros’ focus on open society is broader than scientific or developmental progress. His vision is of a world and a nation where the open society principles, human rights, and equity are the objectives.” 

Soros worked to put that vision into practice by supporting projects in countries around the world. One of his first ventures was into South Africa in the early 1980s, at a time when apartheid had a tight grip at every level of government and society. Soros provided scholarships for Black students, believing that a university education “was the best way to prepare young people for participating in open societies.” 

Before the fall of the Soviet Union, Soros provided grants to dissidents and intellectuals in Poland and Hungary so they could travel and meet peers in other countries. By the time the Soviet Union collapsed, Soros had established an Open Society Foundation there, and in Poland, Ukraine and China. By 1993, there were twenty-five of his foundations across the former Soviet empire. A network of Open Society Foundations also spans Africa; Walker calls that network “the most consistent and robust funder of human rights, doing pioneering work in the empowerment of women in African societies, on economic justice, on public access to healthcare, on accountability and transparency in governance, and much more.” 

Corruption’s role in propping up repressive governments became a major target for Soros in the 1990s. OSF supported organizations like Berlin-based Transparency International, which tracks corruption in countries around the world with its Corruption Perception Index and its Bribe Payers Index. 

In that decade, OSF also expanded into the United States. Soros understood that to validate his beliefs, according to Walker, “Open Society needed to address the flaws of open societies, as well.” OSF found plenty of flaws to address. The foundation has supported prison reform, healthcare, after-school programs, LGBTQ issues, voting rights, rights for those with disabilities, racial justice, and more across the U.S. (Soros has also ventured into American electoral politics, which is explored in another chapter of the book.) 

Today, Open Society Foundations is active in more than 120 countries around the world, comprising a staggering range of programs that Walker could only touch on in his lengthy chapter, and is far too vast to examine in detail here. Soros himself has trouble keeping up with all the projects he supports, according to Walker: “Soros took delight in happening upon projects sponsored by his foundation unbeknownst to him—a treatment program for recovering alcoholics in a Polish prison, a weeklong international conference of teachers on a new approach to health education.” As we’ve covered at length at IP, as OSF prepares for a future without the 91-year-old George Soros at the helm, it’s undergoing a radical transformation to prune some of those endeavors and streamline the sprawling operation. 

That omnipresence has contributed to Soros’ accumulation of critics over the years, including authoritarian leaders like Vladimir Putin and Viktor Orbán, the prime minister of Soros’s native Hungary. Putin banned OSF as a “state security threat” in 2015, and after Russia invaded Ukraine in February, OSF immediately launched the Ukraine Democracy Fund to aid that country, as IP reported. Orbán, who has attacked immigrants and homosexuals and sharply limited press freedoms, passed a “Stop Soros” law aimed at anyone who helps undocumented immigrants.

Soros is also a favorite target for right-wing conspiracists and Fox host Tucker Carlson, whose recent documentary praises Orbán and blasts Soros for waging “a kind of war — political, social and demographic war — on the West.”

Sense of urgency

Darren Walker concludes his essay with a discussion of Soros’ influence on contemporary philanthropy, pointing to MacKenzie Scott, Laurene Powell Jobs and Jon Stryker as billionaires “who have followed in the steps of his radical social-justice grantmaking and system of beliefs.” Without naming names (or needing to), Walker draws a contrast between these funders and the many new tech billionaires “who are libertarians and as arrogant as Ayn Rand,” and whose philanthropy reflects their technocratic ideas and values. 

IP observed recently that “Soros’ decades-long, globe-spanning project to advance open society and oppose authoritarianism is one of the most interesting and ambitious philanthropic endeavors of our era.” That project seems more important than ever as Russian tanks plow through Ukraine, China stomps out dissent in Hong Kong and imprisons its Uyghur citizens, and, here at home, our former president contests the results of a free and fair election.

“George Soros: A Life in Full” reminds us that the philanthropist’s vision, like his giving, is shaped by his personal history. He grew up in a country that was first taken over by the Nazis, then dominated by the Soviet Union, and now ruled by Orbán.

“Seeing democracy destroyed there had a profound impact on him that lasts to this day,” Walker writes. “It gives him a sense of urgency. He knows what happens when democracy and democratic institutions are harmed.” An open society is something that George Soros has never for a moment taken for granted.