The Smith Richardson Foundation's Neoconservative Legacy

As the Bush administration recedes into history, the neoconservative school still makes its influence known. Most recently, this crew helped lead the charge against Donald Trump, with Donald Kagan and William Kristol—neoconservative figures—blasting the presumptive GOP nominee. Like many influential worldviews in Washington, neoconservative thought didn’t emerge fully formed from the wellspring of American public sentiment. It was nurtured, and the Connecticut-based Smith Richardson Foundation is one key nurturer.

Compared to other major conservative policy funders—think Bradley, Scaife, and Olin—Smith Richardson's most distguishing trait is its heavy focus on foreign policy: the U.S. as beacon to the world. That story begins with the philosophy of its founder, H. Smith Richardson, a firm believer in American exceptionalism. For Richardson, “America, the new world…has offered to humble families, native born or immigrant, the Opportunity [sic] to gain a fortune… if they were diligent and lucky.”

That creed underpins a vigorous history of grantmaking to think tanks and universities to support policy that the foundation sees as protecting American security and extending American influence. (Critics, of course, might have a different take.) The money’s source is Vicks, manufacturer of Vicks VapoRub, NyQuil and DayQuil. Now owned by Proctor & Gamble, Vicks got its start as a purveyor of cold remedies under H. Smith Richardson’s father, Lunsford Richardson.  

While it's been around since 1935, the Smith Richardson Foundation began its modern career in the 1980s. Back then, the Cold War was in its final stages, President Reagan was in the White House, and manifest destiny was back in style with a modern twist. 

During those years, the foundation backed the rise of neoconservative ideas, fostering work by Irving Kristol, Penn Kemble, and others. Devon Gaffney Cross, a foundation research director at that time, later became a director of the Project for the New American Century, the prominent neoconservative group formed in 1997, which was widely credited with mainstreaming the idea of "regime change" in Iraq to remove Saddam Hussein power.

In recent years, the Smith Richardson Foundation has supported big names in conservative and neoconservative policy research. Some notables are the American Enterprise Institute (nearly $10 million since 1998), the Hudson Institute ($5,543,000), the Jamestown Institute ($5,163,000), Freedom House ($4,302,000), the Hoover Institution ($3,521,000), the Manhattan Institute ($2,232,000), and the Center for a New American Security ($1,595,000). Smith Richardson has also been a prominent backer of Dui Hua, an organization dedicated to protecting human rights, American-style, in China.

The foundation has also given numerous grants to prominent universities and centrist policy shops like Rand and Brookings.

And foreign policy isn’t the only focus. Smith Richardson breaks its grantmaking programs into two categories: International Security & Foreign Policy and Domestic Public Policy, emphasizing economic growth. Policy research is key, but the domestic portfolio includes some direct service programs.

With total assets of $518 million and grants totalling nearly $22 million in 2014, Smith Richardson is a prominent player in the tight-knit conservative space. The foundation also remains firmly under Richardson family control. President and Board Chairman Peter L. Richardson is the nephew of longtime President R. Randolph Richardson, and family members dominate the list of trustees. Marin Strmecki, senior vice president and director of programs, has been a foreign policy advisor to the U.S. government numerous times during both Bush administrations and under President Nixon.

Like many of its policy-oriented peers, Smith Richardson also operates a fellowship program. Two of them, actually. Its Strategy and Policy Fellows program supports several academics’ work per year with $60,000 grants, while the World Politics and Statecraft Fellowship awards 20 grants at $7,500 each to support Ph.D. dissertation research foreign policy and international security. Many of the funder’s copious individual grants to academic institutions also subsidize similar work.

Related: Funders for Global Security and Human Rights