Binaifer Nowrojee To Head Open Society Foundations Of George Soros


March 14, 2024

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Binaifer Nowrojee is incoming president of the Open Society Foundations, the world’s largest private funder of independent groups working for justice, democratic governance, and human rights.

Binaifer Nowrojee

With over three decades of experience, Nowrojee navigates politically sensitive operating environments to drive meaningful change. Her strategic leadership spans national, regional, and international levels, encompassing policy research, campaigning, grant making, litigation, and investment. Nowrojee brings deep expertise in Africa and Asia, where she has spearheaded advocacy initiatives to promote social justice and equality.

Previously, Nowrojee held key positions within the Open Society Foundations, including the vice president of Programs on the Executive Leadership Team, East Africa Foundation director, regional director for Asia Pacific, and vice president for Organizational Transformation. She played a central role in orchestrating a significant strategic and structural realignment of Open Society, enhancing its capacity to effect change in a rapidly evolving global landscape.

Prior to her tenure at OSF, Nowrojee served as legal counsel at Human Rights Watch and as a staff attorney at the Lawyers Committee for Human Rights. She has worked extensively on prosecuting sexual violence under international law and testified as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. Nowrojee’s commitment to advancing justice extends to academia, where she has served as a lecturer at Harvard Law School and was awarded a Carr Center fellowship.

Nowrojee holds a JD from Columbia Law School and an LLM degree from Harvard Law School, underscoring her strong academic foundation and expertise in international law and human rights. With her wealth of experience and unwavering dedication, Nowrojee is well-equipped to lead the Open Society Foundations into a new era of impactful and transformative change.

Who Is Binaifer Nowrojee, the New President of Open Society Foundations?

Michael Kavate

In 1993, George Soros realized he could not keep giving away his billions on his own. Needing a manager for his philanthropy, he hired Aryeh Neier, a veteran human rights advocate, law professor and cofounder of Human Rights Watch.

Neier ended up staying for nearly two decades, and in the dozen years since, three more leaders have come and gone at Open Society Foundations. All have been men, and all but one have been white.

That changed on Monday, when the philanthropy announced that Binaifer Nowrojee, who has overseen much of OSF’s long-running restructuring and recently served as vice president of programs, will take over as president of the grantmaker. She’ll take the helm in June, when OSF’s current leader, Mark Malloch-Brown, will step down.

Nowrojee will be the first woman ever to lead OSF, a titan of funding for progressive causes and global human rights. She brings to the table an impressive resume, having spent years as a human rights lawyer, law professor and advocate. And unlike past presidents, Nowrojee already has deep experience with OSF, having served at the funder for over two decades. That will no doubt serve her well, as the institution continues to navigate the tricky evolution into its leaner post-George Soros era.

Born in London to an Indian family and raised in Kenya, she is perhaps best-known for her central role in the grantmaker’s multi-year restructuring, under which the once-massive operation has laid off staff, shuttered programs and closed offices, even as it has maintained its grantmaking levels.

“After largely completing the organization’s transformation, it’s the right time for a new generation of leadership to take the reins,” said Mark-Malloch Brown in a statement.

While she represents a historic first, there is also an echo of OSF’s earlier presidents in Nowrojee’s resume. Like Neier, she has a background in law and academia and is a former Human Rights Watch staffer. Both spent more than a decade at the advocacy group, which is still a major OSF grantee. Nowrojee is also the second person of color and second from the Global South to lead the institution, following in the footsteps of former president Patrick Gaspard.

Soros, who made his fortune partly through bets on the British pound, Thai baht and other currencies, sees the appointment as a realization of his ambition to create a “truly global” philanthropy. “At the outset, that was merely an aspiration. But now I feel that this ambition has been fulfilled,” said the 93-year-old in a statement.

Nowrojee takes the helm of an organization still not quite finished with an overhaul that formally began in 2021, and is under the new leadership of Alex Soros, the financier’s 38-year-old son, who took over from his father as board chair in June. The long-running restructuring, which has also led to rounds of tie-off grants to grantees, has tested staff morale. Last July, the philanthropy announced it would lay off 40% of its workforce, and it has closed many of its international offices or converted them into fully independent foundations over the past year.

The effort to rein in OSF stretches back, at least conceptually, to the grantmaker’s second president, Chris Stone, who was hired to bring order to an operation with offices around the globe and funding in dozens more countries, yet with no unified budget.

The most recent phases were largely overseen by Nowrojee herself. OSF presidents since Neier have struggled with the mandate to reshape the sprawling organization. But Nowrojee managed not only to push through major changes, but also win the support needed to ascend to the top role, even as she acknowledged those shifts were difficult.

“We have endured a prolonged period of disruption, and this has not come without pain and loss, as many of you have said goodbye to colleagues and ended relationships with long-time grantees,” she wrote in a note to staff, according to the Associated Press. “As we navigate the remaining elements of change, I promise, first and foremost, to remain committed to Open Society values and to George Soros’s vision of critical thinking, local knowledge, and risk-taking.”

Her ability to do so with care may have won her key fans.

“I’ve seen firsthand @NowrojeeOSF’s compassionate leadership in the face of difficult circumstances,” tweeted Alex Soros, whom Nowrojee once accompanied during his trips to Asia, including to Rohingya refugee camps in Bangladesh. “She is an incredible human rights advocate who believes in the transformative power of OSF’s work. She embodies the spirit of OSF, and I’m confident that she will ably lead our next chapter.”

Her appointment, too, has met with enthusiastic replies from staff and former colleagues on social media.

“Truly remarkable to have a woman of colour leading OSF, and most importantly, someone who has come through the ranks,” wrote Erlin Ibreck, a former regional manager for Africa grantmaking at OSF who took a 2021 buyout, in a LinkedIn message.

Nowrojee joined OSF in 2004, leaving her position as a lecturer at Harvard Law School to lead Open Society’s East Africa office in Nairobi. After a decade in Kenya, Nowrojee moved to Singapore to become OSF’s regional director for Asia. She stayed there for seven years before beginning her role in the restructuring. Her work then impressed Stone, who was president during that time.

“When we worked together at OSF a decade ago, Binaifer did a brilliant job creating a new regional programme for the Asia-Pacific region, building strong teams with strong values,” he said in an email.

Her appointment this week did not go unnoticed in her home country. A bevy of headlines declared a “Kenyan human rights lawyer” had taken the top spot at one of the world’s largest foundations. Multiple outlets noted she is the daughter of Pheroze Nowrojee, a veteran human rights lawyer, poet and writer.

Prior to OSF, Nowrojee worked for years prosecuting sexual violence under international law. Her experiences include testifying as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which tried suspects in the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi.

Gara LaMarche, who was vice president of OSF and director of U.S. programs during the mid-1990s and early 2000s, said by email that her expertise made her an “inspired choice” to head the network. “OSF has been the world’s leading philanthropic supporter of human rights, and she is a deeply respected and experienced human rights lawyer and advocate,” he wrote.

One more thing Nowrojee shares with predecessors like Neier is that she’s an author and frequent commentator. While at Human Rights Watch, she wrote a short book, “Divide and Rule: State-sponsored Ethnic Violence,” and co-authored another, “Failing the Internally Displaced.” She’s also written more recently for Time, the Asia Times and OSF’s blog, including one post in 2021 on the restructuring and another late last year on funding women’s political leadership.

One of her most recent writings? An extended LinkedIn post published Monday, laying out her journey to and with OSF.

“I share these details to provide you with insight into the fabric from which I am cut,” she wrote. “It is a fabric woven with the threads of dedication, integrity and a deep-seated belief in the transformative power of our work.”

Kenyan lawyer Binaifer Nowrojee to head Open Society Foundations


Kenyan human rights lawyer Binaifer Nowrojee will become the first woman from the Global South to head the Open Society Foundations, ending a three-year period of restructuring for the pro-democracy organisation.

Ms Nowrojee was appointed the president of Open Society Foundations (OSF) in a unanimous decision by the Board of Directors for the organisation, a dispatch said on Monday. She will replace Mark Malloch-brown who will be stepping in June this year.

Currently the vice-president for programmes at OSF, she joined the organisation in 2004, having previously worked at the Human Rights Watch (HRW).

George Soros, the founder of OSF, said this appointment is part of efforts to make the organisation “truly global”.

“At the outset, that was merely an aspiration. But now I feel that this ambition has been fulfilled with Binaifer Nowrojee as president of the Foundations, supported by an international team,” Soros said in a statement.

Educated at Columbia, and Havard law schools, Nowrojee has been in the human rights work for nearly three decades, having also been Director for OSF in East Africa, regional director for Asia Pacific and Vice President for Organisational Transformation.

She once testified as an expert witness at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda., which was trying suspects of the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi.

“I have accepted this position because I know that when Open Society is at its best, it is an inspiring place to work,” she told OSF staff in a statement.

“We have endured a prolonged period of disruption, and this has not come without pain and loss, as many of you have said goodbye to colleagues and ended relationships with long-time grantees.

“As we move into becoming a more integrated network, it is time for us to redouble our commitment to the important work that we are here to do, even as we support each other to restore the health and vitality of the organisation,” she said.

“As a lawyer, much of my professional life has focused on pushing international courts to deliver justice to victims of sexual violence in conflict. I am Kenyan, of Indian origin, and have lived and worked in Kenya, Tanzania, Singapore, the UK and US.”