Interview with Nadia Schadlow

For 20 years, Nadia Schadlow was a program officer at the Smith Richardson Foundation, a leading funder of national-security philanthropy. Over the years the foundation, with $726 million in assets, has supported scholars, books, and conferences aimed at strengthening U.S. defense and diplomacy. In 2017, Schadlow moved to the White House, where she served as Deputy National Security Adviser. Now out of government and a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute, she spoke with Philanthropy about niches where donors can support the U.S. in world affairs through their giving.

Philanthropy: How is philanthropy relevant to defense and diplomacy? 

Schadlow: Good national-security policy requires analysis and critical thinking, and in this country much of that is done by individuals in our think tanks and universities, paid for by philanthropic funding. For example, the Smith Richardson Foundation, my previous employer, has sought to support research and analysis on important foreign-policy and national-security challenges facing the United States. Unfortunately, since the end of the Cold War, too few other foundations have made this a priority.

Philanthropy: How does the critical thinking that happens in government differ from its counterpart in the philanthropically supported think-tank world?

Schadlow: Timeline is the main difference. In government, events occur quickly and sometimes unexpectedly, and often require crisis management. Because of the pace, it’s difficult to develop longer-term assessments. For that, policy officials depend upon analysis done outside of government, by experts who don’t face the pressure of events and who can undertake in-depth studies. 

Philanthropy: What threats to national security need more analysis today? 

Schadlow: One big question is what type of organizations are required to safeguard American interests. Many of today’s international institutions were built in the 1945-50 period, when the world was very different. We need to think anew about the design of these bodies. 

Another important question is how democratic countries with market economies should compete with authoritarian regimes. Also, what are the implications of new technologies for democracies? For instance, what do we need to understand about the economic and national-security implications of artificial intelligence? 

Plus, the policy community still needs expertise on key regions where U.S. interests are at stake. We need to have people who understand the internal politics and foreign policies of Russia, China, and key countries in the Middle East. Ideally, these individuals will move in and out of the policymaking, think tank, and academic worlds. And the help of philanthropists is needed when these experts are developing ideas and strategies outside of government.

Philanthropy: How do you suggest philanthropists get involved?

Schadlow: They could support existing think tanks and programs or work with individuals at these institutions to identify the gaps that exist and then build new programs to meet such needs. Philanthropists can provide fellowships to develop younger talent or to support research. Philanthropists can take risks more easily than government can. And they should—we need to test new concepts and approaches.

 Philanthropy: When a donor takes a risk, how should that person think about impact and evaluation? How do you think about progress in analytical work?

Schadlow: You can trace the evolution of ideas by the books that are published and the policy debates that emerge. With research and analysis, you are trying to build a body of knowledge, and that takes time. And the outcomes need to be looked at more by quality than quantity. 

Donors can have big effects. Missile defense is an example. The idea that we should be able to defend ourselves against incoming nuclear-armed missiles was a controversial concept for a long time. Then President Reagan challenged the conventional wisdom. Donors funded think-tank studies on how missile defense affected deterrence and the nuclear balance, and these became very influential. 

Philanthropy: What are some big national-security ideas where philanthropy was important?

Schadlow: During the Cold War, most of the Soviet Studies field was built through support by philanthropists. They funded language programs at universities, fellowships for travel, and key books. Philanthropists supported theorists who were crucial to thinking about nuclear deterrence. More recently, philanthropists powered much of the work on counterinsurgency strategy, which led to better approaches to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Philanthropy: What’s your assessment of the bench right now in foreign policy? Is the amount of talent in this area thick or thin?

Schadlow: The talent is there, but many think tanks focused on foreign policy are struggling. They continue to need sources of funding, especially because they want to avoid reliance on foreign funding. It takes money to educate people, to support their travel and research, to gain better understanding of complex problems, to disseminate new ideas, and to assess results. Philanthropists should try to support a full ecosystem producing experts and ideas that lead to better outcomes for the United States. 

Philanthropy: What do you wish someone would have told you when you first started as a program officer?

Schadlow: The Smith Richardson Foundation values ideas developed through serious research and analysis, and then sharing them and learning from others. Donors need to talk to people and assess what seems to be working and what does not. You should encourage experts—who are often stovepiped into disciplines or topical areas—to compare notes. 

Also, you also need to cultivate a culture of risk, within reason obviously, and based on sound information. That’s the real opportunity and excitement of philanthropy. That’s where philanthropy can do much more than government. The government, for many reasons, tends to be risk averse.

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