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Soros to Donate $100 Million to Human Rights Group

George Soros, the billionaire investor and philanthropist, plans to announce on Tuesday that he is giving $100 million to Human Rights Watch to expand the organization’s work globally.

George Soros
Axel Schmidt | AFP | Getty Images
George Soros

It is the largest gift he has made, the largest gift by far that Human Rights Watch has ever received, and only the second gift of $100 million or more made by an individual this year, according to the Center on Philanthropy at Indiana University.

“We’re seeing noticeably fewer charitable gifts at the $100 million level from individuals reported than we did just a few years ago,” said Patrick Rooney, the center’s executive director. “Between 2006 and 2008, an average of about 13 gifts a year of that size by individuals was reported. In 2009, it dropped to six, and this year, we know of only one other.”

The largest known gift in 2010 was $200 million pledged by an anonymous Baylor University graduate, to be dispensed upon the donor’s death, for medical research at the university.

Uncertainty about the direction of the economy has made even the wealthiest individuals more cautious about making big philanthropic commitments, Mr. Rooney said.

Contrariness, however, is a hallmark of Mr. Soros, both as an investor and as a philanthropist. While others have held on to their money, he has made bigger gifts than ever. And he said in an interview that the gift to Human Rights Watch is the first of a series of large gifts that he plans to make.

“This is partly due to age,” said Mr. Soros, who celebrated his 80th birthday last month. “Originally I wanted to distribute all of the money during my lifetime, but I have abandoned that plan. My foundation should continue, but I still would like to do a lot of giving during my lifetime, and doing it this way, with such size, is a step in that direction.”

Last year, in the depths of the recession, Mr. Soros gave the Robin Hood Foundation, a charity that fights poverty in New York, a $50 million contribution that helped it raise significantly more than that amount. He also gave every family with children on welfare in New York State $200 to buy school supplies, a grant worth $35 million that enabled the state to gain access to some $175 million in federal money for which it would not otherwise have qualified.

So far this year, Mr. Soros has donated about $700 million to various causes, including the gift to Human Rights Watch. His hedge fund, Quantum Endowment, grew 29 percent in 2009, earning him $3.3 billion in fees and investment gains.

Human Rights Watch will use the gift to add about 120 staff members to its team of 300 around the world, expand translation of its reports and open new offices. The intent, said Kenneth Roth, the advocacy group’s executive director, is to increase its influence in emerging power centers. The group, which is based in New York, investigates and draws attention to human rights abuses around the world.

Mr. Roth said that South Africa had more sway in Zimbabwe than the United States and other Western powers. Similarly, India, China and Japan are more influential in Sri Lanka. “We need to try to generate pressure on those governments, those emerging powers, now, which means expanding our capacity to deploy our information,” Mr. Roth said.

Mr. Soros put it differently. “I’m afraid the United States has lost the moral high ground under the Bush administration, but the principles that Human Rights Watch promotes have not lost their universal applicability,” he said. “So to be more effective, I think the organization has to be seen as more international, less an American organization.”

He said the gift to the organization was “also from my heart,” an acknowledgment of the training in human rights issues and philanthropy that he received from the group when he was just starting to emerge as a major donor.

“Every Wednesday morning at 8 o’clock, a group at Human Rights Watch got together and discussed issues with the managers,” Mr. Soros recalled. “I was an active participant in that group, and human rights remains an important element of my foundation’s current activities.”

Mr. Roth said few people then knew who Mr. Soros was. “We were just trying to figure out what we were going to do that week and so on, and he was just a guy at the meeting,” he said.

The grant is structured as a challenge that asks the group to raise $10 million from new, primarily international sources, each year for the next decade, but Human Right Watch will receive the Soros grant regardless. Roughly 30 percent of its revenue comes from countries other than the United States, but less than 1 percent is from non-Western countries, where much of the organization’s work is focused.

Mr. Soros wants to see the organization raise more money in places like Brazil, Mexico, India and China, which will be challenging, Mr. Roth said. “This is a transformative grant in more than one way for sure,” he said.

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