Philanthropy’s Role in Ukraine and Other Foreign Policy Crises

Late in April 2022, Philanthropy Roundtable hosted a private donor webinar with special guest Dr. Marin Strmecki, senior vice president and director of programs at the Smith Richardson Foundation. The Roundtable’s Vice President of Development Windle Jarvis led the discussion by focusing on the intersection of philanthropy and foreign policy, a subject of intense donor interest given Russia’s current war of aggression against Ukraine.

Following are some highlights from the webinar entitled “Foreign Policy and Philanthropy: Past, Present and Future.”

Philanthropy and Foreign Policy: A Deep Relationship

Philanthropy has historically played an important role in U.S. foreign policy, helping to foster freedom and secure peace on the global stage.

“There’s a very deep relationship between actions of philanthropists and effective U.S. foreign policy,” Strmecki said. “[We’ve] seen philanthropists create entire fields of study that are related to foreign policy, and that develops the kinds of experts and creative thinkers who then [move] into the U.S. policy community.”

Strmecki credited the Carnegie Corporation, the Smith Richardson Foundation and several other foundations with supporting scholars who “essentially invented the field of security studies” and bolstered area studies and helped guide policymakers during the Cold War, working “side by side” with the government at home and abroad.

Together, philanthropists and the U.S. government co-founded Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, a media agency that “promotes democratic values and institutions and advances human rights by reporting the news in countries where a free press is banned by the government or not fully established.” 

Strmecki also touted the impact of philanthropically-supported foreign exchange programs, which he said during the Cold War reduced the ability of Communist regimes to “demonize the West.”

Meanwhile, think tanks, such as The Heritage Foundation, Council on Foreign Relations and American Enterprise Institute, and others, “feed their ideas into our public debates [and] raise the level of those debates,” Strmecki said, noting they also provide government agencies with talent and expertise. 

“They are incubators of ideas and personnel and all that is made possible by philanthropic dollars,” he said.

Foreign Policy Philanthropy “Under Stress”

Despite philanthropy’s longstanding engagement in foreign policy, Strmecki described the current ecosystem as “under stress.”

“At the end of the Cold War, you saw many of the big foundations leave the field or maintain just a small program on a select set of issues,” Strmecki said. “I’d say the field of foreign policy and defense policy in academia and in think tanks [today] is probably under-resourced across the board.”

The Smith Richardson Foundation, however, has been a notable exception.

“We decided the world was going to be more complicated and therefore required the same or more resources to help generate the intellectual capital to enable the United States to make the right decision[s],” Strmecki said. “We actually increased the resources that were going [to support] defense policy at the end of the Cold War rather than diminish it.”

Ukraine: How to Help

When it comes to the research front of the Russian war in Ukraine, Strmecki said the Institute for the Study of War is “hands down the best place for people who are not in government to follow the conflict.” The institute publishes a daily report that contributes to “our ability to make good decisions in Ukraine.” 

He also discussed the importance of ongoing humanitarian relief efforts on the ground in Ukraine and in bordering countries. The Smith Richardson Foundation provides its humanitarian support through Americares, a rapid response organization that delivers relief supplies. Additionally, Strmecki highlighted Spirit of America, “an innovative, smaller entity that works hand in hand with the U.S. government to bring the efforts of private Americans to bear on humanitarian issues like this.”

Strmecki closed the discussion by stressing the importance of foreign policy philanthropy and encouraging philanthropists to get involved in this sector of giving. 

“There are no more important issues than the issues of war and peace,” he said. 

Check out the Roundtable’s compilation of ways to support Ukrainian refugees on the ground and here in the United States.