News and analysis
May 09, 2011

Head of George Soros’s Philanthropy Network Plans to Retire

Derek Lieu, for The Chronicle

Aryeh Neier will retire in 2012 after nearly two decades as head of the Open Society Foundations.

Aryeh Neier, a veteran international human-rights advocate who for 18 years has led George Soros’s extensive network of philanthropies, plans to announce this week that he will step down as president in April 2012.

Mr. Neier became the first president of what is now called the Open Society Foundations in 1993, back when Mr. Soros, the billionaire financier, still did much of the work for the foundations himself. People familiar with the institutions credit Mr. Neier for bringing order to the fast-growing foundation network and helping it to become a leading supporter of the global human-rights movement.

“It will undoubtedly be a new era,” Mr. Soros says. “We have had a very productive relationship: two different characters, two different types of people, each respecting the other and having a creative tension between us. This will be disrupted by his departure.”

Hoping to Stay On

Succeeding Mr. Neier will indeed be difficult. In addition to his close relationship with Mr. Soros—the two men often talk several times a day—Mr. Neier has incomparable knowledge of the foundations and a vast number of responsibilities.

Officials at the foundations say those responsibilities, which include overseeing a six-week-long budget-review process, may be divided up among employees, depending on Mr. Neier’s successor.

Mr. Neier, a former director of the American Civil Liberties Union and a founder of Human Rights Watch, says he always intended to step down when he turns 75, which he will do next year, and doesn’t regret the decision.

“At a certain point, I think it’s healthy for an institution to have new leadership,” he says. “I’ve had a long run, I’ve enjoyed it immensely, and I expect to continue to enjoy myself.”

He says he intends to keep working at the foundations in a role he plans to create with his successor. Perhaps if Open Society’s new president doesn’t have a background in human-rights advocacy, for example, Mr. Neier could focus on that cause, he says.

In addition to the foundations’ work nurturing human-rights organizations, Mr. Neier says the accomplishments that he is most proud include the philanthropies’ role in the adoption of freedom-of-information laws in 90 countries and in protecting the rights of minorities, such as the Roma in Eastern Europe.

Frequent Disagreements

Mr. Soros and Mr. Neier first met in 1978, when a woman who worked part-time for Mr. Soros slipped Mr. Neier a copy of an article on the hedge-fund manager—titled something like “Is This the Smartest Investor in the United States?”—and asked if she could get the two of them together for dinner.

Mr. Neier recalls of the article: “It said he’d made $100-million, which sounded like a lot of money at the time.”

Following the dinner, Mr. Neier invited Mr. Soros to join him and other leaders of Human Rights Watch for their weekly Wednesday morning meetings. Mr. Soros has called those meetings formative in shaping his approach to philanthropy.

But despite their decades-long partnership, the two men often disagree. One philosophical difference, according to Mr. Neier: Mr. Soros likes to take a top-down approach to social change, by trying to influence governments and political leaders, while Mr. Neier favors a grass-roots approach.

A workaholic whom colleagues describe as a walking encyclopedia of the foundations, Mr. Neier says he does not want to cut back too much on his duties.

However, he adds, “Here and there, I’d like to take a week and go someplace and relax.”