Think Tanks by the Numbers

Guest blogger Donald Abelson discusses the impact of think tanks, and how impact can be quantified. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

When it comes to assessing the impact or influence of their organizations, directors of think tanks generally have two prepared responses.  The first, which is directed to scholars and to investigative journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks, tends to be more circumspect. As the head of a Canadian think tank said to me in a recent interview , “measuring our impact on public policy is virtually impossible.”  But what directors of think tanks are willing to concede behind closed doors is a far cry from the message they convey in public. Indeed, the narrative that is carefully crafted for stakeholders prepared to support and endorse the work of think tanks is very different.  When potential funding dollars are on the line, think tanks can ill afford to be modest. “We have enormous influence when it comes to shaping public opinion and public policy,” directors of several US-based think tanks often claim. “Just look at the numbers.”

What kind of numbers are directors of think tanks referring to, and do they help us to better understand how much or little impact think tanks wield?  Recognizing the importance of convincing donors that public visibility or exposure should be equated with policy influence, think tanks go to great lengths, and often to great expense (by hiring media consulting firms) to monitor how often they are cited in newspapers, on television, and on the internet.  Many organizations also keep a close watch on how many publications are downloaded from their website, as well as the frequency with which their experts are called upon to testify before legislative committees.

While these and other indicators of public exposure might be useful in highlighting how active certain think tanks are in attempting to shape the parameters around important policy debates, they tell us little about the actual impact of think tanks in influencing policy decisions.  After all, policy outputs (such as publications and testimony) are very different from policy outcomes (the decisions made by policy makers). Yet, rather than asking directors of think tanks to explain, in concrete terms, how and to what extent their organizations  contributed to particular policy outcomes, those of us who monitor the activities of think tanks have in some ways helped them to foster the illusion of policy influence. This needs to change.

Several scholars and journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks participate in the annual Global Go To Think Tank s Index Report, an initiative of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Released since 2006, the report both tracks the number of think tanks worldwide, and ranks the top think tanks (in various categories) according to over a dozen criteria.  Although an ambitious undertaking, the reports’ rankings are widely seen as arbitrary and impressionistic. Not only are the numbers of think tanks reported worldwide inflated (indeed many of the organizations included in the study are not think tanks), but the manner in which the rankings are conducted needs to be far more transparent.  Although scholars can debate the strengths and limitations of the survey, what is more important is the fact that the top-ranked think tanks (usually those that are the largest and best funded) use the rankings to mobilize more support for their work. If think tanks do indeed matter, than the issue of how numbers are used to validate their activities needs to be explored further. 

Donald E. Abelson teaches at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His work focuses primarily on the role of think tanks and their efforts to influence public opinion and public policy.

2014 Report: How transparent are think tanks? The answer is…

…that it depends first and foremost on each individual think tank itself. Transparify today releases its report on 169 think tanks across 47 countries worldwide, and the results show that think tanks with an excellent level of disclosure can be found in all continents. The 21 “highly transparent” think tanks we identified are distributed across 16 different countries. Surprisingly, we found more highly transparent think tanks in Montenegro than in the entire United States.

Transparify also found that there is great momentum towards transparency in the think tank community as a whole, especially in the United States. We expect the number of transparent and highly transparent think tanks to grow steeply by the time we conduct our next rating at the end of the year.

This momentum towards transparency is a broader trend that our initiative at best served to catalyse and accelerate. When Transparify contacted think tanks and encouraged them to increase their level of disclosure, we often received an enthusiastic response. Our impression is that many think tanks used the occasion of our rating to implement changes that had been internally discussed for a long time beforehand.

Finally, think tank transparency is a global issue. The role of policy research institutions is growing worldwide, notably in developing countries. As Publish What You Fund have pointed out, the arguments for aid transparency that international donors subscribe to equally apply to donor support for think tanks. In this context, we strongly encourage our readers to have a look at our detailed data set, which covers all think tanks across 47 countries.

We hope that our report and data will serve as a starting point for a lively discussion within the think tank community on how we can promote excellence in research, inform democratic debates, and improve decision-making on global, national and local issues that affect us all.

Click here to access our documents:

Full-On Transparency in Georgia

Guest blogger Eka Gigauri from Transparency International Georgia explains how her organization uses financial transparency to boost its credibility. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Transparency International (TI) Georgia is the Georgian chapter of the global anti-corruption movement Transparency International. In all of its operations, TI Georgia is and acts as an independent local nongovernmental organization which has been using in-depth analysis and targeted advocacy to promote accountability and transparency in Georgia over the last 14 years.

Much of our research is related to revealing the power relationships in areas where important decisions are made that affect the lives of citizens. We have been a pioneer think tank in Georgia that identifies and brings to public attention the corruption risks in a number of areas, including government-business relations, public procurement, media, and political party financing. Moreover, based on the findings of our studies, we have been able to advance a great deal of progressive reforms in various areas of public policy and have successfully advocated for changes in legislation and practice. One of our current advocacy campaigns, conducted with a number of partner organizations, aims to change the secret surveillance status quo in Georgia.

In Georgia, probably as in many places nowadays, there is a growing distrust towards influential think-tanks as some parts of the society believe that these organizations receive money from ‘suspicious’ sources and are therefore working for the benefit of anonymous donors rather than for the good of society. We understand that, in order to maintain the high credibility that we currently enjoy, we must keep our profile transparent and available for public scrutiny. After all, in an empowered society, which we are trying to build, public scrutiny is an important tool for achieving accountability.

At TI Georgia, we believe that we need to contribute to establishing and reinforcing the culture of accountability. This is part of our organization’s culture and representing the global Transparency International movement in Georgia involves the responsibility to be transparent. Through internal regulations, such as the procurement policy and annual independent financial audits, we ensure that integrity is at the heart of all financial decisions.

We therefore disclose all the information about our financing through the ‘Our Funding’ section of our website which provides the full list of our donors and the exact amounts that we have received from them, as well as all private donations above EUR 1,000.

We have recently started accepting donations online. We have made it our policy not to accept donations above EUR 50 if they come from an anonymous source (it is impossible for us to control where the micro-donations come from). Even if this implies losing some potential donors, we would rather face that loss than risk our reputation.

Politicians and public officials in Georgia often respond to critical statements of civil society organizations by questioning the integrity of those organizations and saying that they would be interested to know the sources of their funding. We are proud to be able to reply to every statement of this sort by directing them to our website where all the relevant information is available for public scrutiny.

Eka Gigauri is the Executive Director of TI Georgia, which forms part of the Transparency International network. Full disclosure: A member of Transparify’s team was a TI Georgia employee during 2008-2009. TI Georgia was included in our data set based on a list provided by Transparify’s donor, the Think Tank Fund, rather than on our own initiative. The former TI Georgia employee had no role in selecting TI Georgia for inclusion in Transparify’s global ratings, and had no role in rating its website.

A Culture of Transparency at the World Resources Institute

Guest blogger Steve Barker from the World Resources Institute explains how transparency about funding can complement overall efforts to maintain intellectual independence. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

There’s an old saying that knowledge is power. That’s why transparency—or open access to information—is a key tenet that guides the work of the World Resources Institute.

Take one of our key projects, The Access Initiative. TAI is the world’s largest network dedicated to ensuring that citizens have the right and ability to influence decisions about the natural resources that sustain their communities. Working with more than 250 civil society groups in more than 50 countries, TAI helps citizens secure access to environmental information, access to public participation, and access to justice. By securing these rights, citizens are aware of the environmental decisions that directly impact their lives and livelihoods—and they’re empowered to hold governments accountable, organize social and political change, and demand improvements. 

Transparency is important not just for how citizens interact with powerful government and business interests, but also for organizations like ours that accept funding from a variety of donors. As Upton Sinclair once said, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends on his not understanding it.” Understanding how an organization is funded helps observers to judge that organization’s independence.

Without proper protections and transparency, donations could have undue influence on think tank research and policy recommendations.

How World Resources Institute Practices Transparency

That’s why World Resources Institute (WRI) made the decision to be completely transparent about where its funding comes from, and how donations support the valuable work that we do.

For example:

  • Information about WRI’s funders is available on our website, With just two clicks from our homepage, any visitor can view a spreadsheet with a specific breakdown of donations ranked by size, covering 85 percent of our fiscal year 2013 funding. The remaining 15 percent comes from many small donors. The spreadsheet includes the name of the donor, the amount donated, and the program goal supported. In a separate document, we list all of our funders, including individuals who donated to WRI.
  • Many organizations place donations from corporate foundations in a “foundations” category. WRI categorizes these donations as “corporate” funding, an extra step towards transparency.
  • WRI also observes transparency in our internal communications. Transparency guides interactions between accounting and our program staff. For example, we share our financial results and indirect costs freely throughout our organization. And our leadership displays appropriate transparency in communications to staff and the public around major institutional decisions—including financial decisions.

Transparency Matters for WRI’s Reputation for Independence

Transparency supports one of WRI’s core values: independence. At WRI, we believe that our ability to achieve our mission depends on research and program work that rises above partisan politics, institutional or personal allegiances, or sources of financial support. When accepting donations, we convey to our partners and funders our strict commitment to unbiased judgment in our research findings.

WRI works closely with corporate partners and takes corporate donations in part because the private sector moves faster and can be quite influential with the public sector. But WRI makes clear to funders that our work product cannot be changed or require sign off from a donor—the integrity of our research and our on-the-ground projects always comes first.

WRI prides itself on rigorous, independent analysis. Financial transparency helps reinforce our reputation. This candor ensures our credibility, and helps build trust for WRI as an independent organization that works to “turn big ideas into action.”

Steve Barker is the Chief Financial and Administrative Officer of the World Resources Institute, a global research organization based in the US that works closely with leaders to sustain a healthy environment.

CGD’s Decision to Walk the Transparency Walk

Guest bloggers Katie Douglas Martel and Todd Moss from the Center for Global Development explain why they decided to publish how their think tank is funded. The views expressed in this blog are those of the authors alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

We at the Center for Global Development (CGD) believe strongly that transparency and accountability can foster better development outcomes. That’s why our policy research and ideas include open government contracting, biometric identification systems, extractive revenue management, illicit financial flows, as well as more general work on the benefits of openness.

Our transparency work led to a logical question: If it’s is good for development, what about development think tanks? What’s more, we were receiving a lot of very good questions from our supporters and networks about where our money comes from and where we apply it. So, spurred in part by our friends at Transparify and frank discussions about think tank strategy by Enrique Mendizabal’s On Think Tanks blog and Andrew Selee’s book What Should Think Tanks Do?, we decided it was time to up our game on our own financial transparency.

Thus, we launched CGD’s How We’re Funded in March 2014. This web page, currently in a Beta version (improvements coming!), lists all grants and donations we received in 2013 and so far in 2014 above $100,000 or roughly anything more than 1% of our annual budget. We will also continue our practice of disclosing the membership of the Center’s Partners Council (corporate and individual contributors who give $2,500 and above) and CGD Society ($150-$2,500). Donations received from these groups are also aggregated in the Funding table.

How We’re Funded goes beyond what’s traditionally disclosed in US tax forms and annual reports. A benefit of our approach is that we are able to show how multi-year grants are allocated over time, as opposed to simply showing the year in which a grant was awarded and providing a potentially misleading view of our revenue streams. (The tax data can inadvertently and falsely suggest volatility.)

We also have another agenda here:we hope that our move towards transparency and posting How We’re Funded will encourage other nonprofits to do the same. By aiming to raise the standards for the whole field, we hope to bolster the credibility of think tanks as independent voices.

CGD conducts research with the aim of shaping rich countries’ and development actors’ policies that affect poor people in the developing world. Katie Douglas Martel is Deputy Director of Institutional Advancement, and Todd Moss is Chief Operating Officer and a Senior Fellow.

Secret Think Tank Funding and Reputational Risk

Important note: Below, we present two 2013 case studies to illustrate a general argument about transparency and the media. The use of these case studies should not be taken to imply that Transparify regards either of the think tanks involved as particularly transparent or opaque.

Transparency can be a tough sell. Some think tanks worry that disclosing who funds them may provide ammunition to their critics. But do they ever worry about the potential reputational risks of non-disclosure?

Let’s briefly review two cases from the past year in which think tank funding data was cited critically by the US media.

Think Tank A and Kazakhstan. In 2013, a prominent research institution somewhat reluctantly released a list of foreign donors in response to a demand by 25 Republican senators. The list showed that the think tank had received funding from 15 foreign governments, including that of Kazakhstan; these did not fully match the names in a different list already on the institution’s website. Journalists claimed that a conference on Kazakhstan organized by the think tank and paid for by a company that had vast oil interests in the country was essentially a “love poem” to Kazakh president-for-life Nazarbayev.

Think Tank B and Taiwan. After the think tank’s staff had over several years published opinion pieces arguing that the US should sell sophisticated weapons systems to Taiwan, journalist Eli Clifton through a filing error acquired tax documents that showed that the institution had received a 550,000 dollar contribution from Taiwanese public funds in 2009, a financial relationship that the think tank had not previously publicly disclosed (and was not legally obliged to disclose). The article noted that if the institution “took direction” from the government of Taiwan or “honored requests” after receiving the funds, it would have broken the Foreign Agent Registration Act, which requires the agents representing the interests of a foreign country in the US to periodically disclose their relationship.

What can we learn from these episodes?

First, in both cases the availability of financial data enabled journalists to ask questions that were legitimate, important and should be publicly discussed in a democracy. Should respectable American institutions accept money from authoritarian governments? Is the need to solicit funding undermining the intellectual independence of policy wonks? Are foreign governments wielding hidden influence, maybe in breach of US law? Transparency is important because it enables all sides in public discussions to be informed by a common pool of data.

Second, the most damaging narratives revolve not around donor money as such but around integrity and intellectual independence. What think tanks do after they take the money is what generates most reputational risk. While the media could not present solid evidence of the two institutions compromising their independence or integrity after taking the money (how could they?), the think tanks were equally unable to present evidence that could conclusively refute such suspicions (how could they?).

Without hard evidence on either side, appearances become very important. And in terms of appearances, taking money behind closed doors is one of the worst things a think tank can do, as every subsequent step the institution takes can easily come to be seen and interpreted in the worst possible light.

To conclude, keeping donors secret is a bad reputational risk management strategy for think tanks. It may initially prevent tricky questions from being raised by critics, but when the donor relationship eventually does become public knowledge – as it very often does – initial secrecy substantially increases the potential for severe reputational damage.

Taking donors’ money behind closed doors may seem the easy option today, but in the long term, transparency pays greater dividends.


Transparency from a Southern Think Tank’s Point of View

Guest blogger Natalia Aquilino of the Argentinian think tank CIPPEC discusses transparency from a Latin American perspective. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

A discussion on think tanks’ transparency and accountability, as well as one about the evaluation function, is still pending within Latin American.

From CIPPEC’s point of view as a southern think tank, we believe it is very relevant to strengthen the debate on think tank legitimacy not only in the northern part of the world, but also in Latin America.

However, both the context and the reasons why it matters are different over here.

First, it’s a matter of values: transparency builds credibility. We believe the current lack of transparency undermines think tanks’ reputation and weakens our position as an independent, nonpartisan organization. In our case, letting everyone knows where the money comes from allows us to enhance the “research to policy” link.

Second, in our political context, where increasing polarization has been a key feature over the last 10 years, it definitely matters who finances you. This shapes the research agenda, but also conditions the fundraising strategy. For instance, it is getting harder to work with some donors that have different interpretations on how democracy should work in our countries from the interpretations of our governments. The risk here is not only not to get funded but also to become irrelevant to the local context.

Third, technology and digital resources facilitate the accountability function in our institutions. Given appropriate software for think tank management, information systematization and publicity becomes easy and smooth. Customization can also be provided via web sites as you may find in the section on donors on our website.

Last but not least, accountability and transparency needs to be a part of the think tank impact equation. Being accountable as an organization is a smart way of complementing the so-called "think tanks impact assessment" which most of the time just concentrates on resources management, reputation, media coverage, output quality or research uptake (as for instance in the Go To Think Tanks Index). 

Transparency completes the ‘policy impact’and ‘research to policy’ concepts by bringing in the issue of who supports your work. And of course, it can help to present a good accountability report in an innovative format. But we’ll discuss the usefulness of being transparent for think tank management in another post!

Natalia Aquilino is Director of the Influence, Monitoring and Evaluation Programme at the Centro de Implementación de Políticas Públicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC), a leading Argentinian think tank. 

The Marketplace of Ideas Under Threat

Guest blogger Richard Epstein of the New York University School of Law argues that the principle of free speech is in danger of being forgotten. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Ninety five years ago, Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes uttered in Abrams v. United States the one sentence that encapsulates best the ideals of the First Amendment protection of freedom of speech:

“when men have realized that time has upset many fighting faiths, they may come to believe even more than they believe the very foundations of their own conduct that the ultimate good desired is better reached by free trade in ideas -- that the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market, and that truth is the only ground upon which their wishes safely can be carried out.” 

In that case, Holmes protested the conviction under the Espionage Act of socialists  who protested the United States’ involvement in the war against Germany.  The dissent that became law took the view that there was no direct incitement to the use of force or fraud, so that the speech was protected no matter how much discomfort it gave to those who disagreed with it.

That principle, which gained much support in the aftermath of the First World War, is now in danger of being forgotten.  I am struck today by how many people are so sure that they know the right answer that they think that their solemn duty is to expose the bad motive and corrupt arguments of their contemptible opponents.

One instance is of course the opposition to global warming, which has if anything gained some momentum because the original gloomy predictions on the subject have not been supported by the most recent evidence which shows little or no global warming over the last fifteen years even though there have been substantial increases in the levels of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. 

No one should say that this single data point necessarily means that the debate is over. But it should caution us to be aware of the apocalyptic visions of doom that lead to the denunciation of any individual or organization that takes the contrary position.

I read with dismay the guest blog recently offered by Robert Brulle on Transparify’s website that denounces those nameless conservative foundations for their hidden support of think tanks that speak the forbidden language.  But what is striking about his and similar arguments is that they take it for granted that his opponents “deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat.” 

Yet at no point is there the most meager effort to look at the evidence on both sides of the issue so that readers can make up their minds.  Instead we are told that it is now imperative to engage in “rating think tanks on their transparency.”  But it is never explained who is entitled to the high ground on this issue, or how the rating process will be viewpoint neutral if the raters themselves have strong substantive views, as Professor Brulle surely does. 

The only cure, I think, is competition in the rating market. Holmes would have approved.

Richard Epstein is a professor of law at the New York University School of Law. He is also a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, and the James Parker Hall Distinguished Service Professor of Law Emeritus and a policy advisor for the Heartland Institute. He is a prolific blogger and the author of several  books.

Disclosing Funding Data to the Media: Why Shoot Yourself in the Foot?

Guest blogger Robert Bourgoing argues that think tank managers should welcome greater scrutiny of their funding data by the media. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Recently, the Sunlight Foundation had a great 7-part blog series listing ‘50+ reasons not to release open data’: apathy, confusion, it’s hard, cost, staffing concerns, legality, accuracy.

One important reason which I believe was missing from the list is the concern that it could unleash unwanted scrutiny, especially from journalists. After all, good news generally doesn’t make the news.What guarantees that disclosing funding data will not backfire at some point, especially when you’re a large organization dealing with multiple partners?

It is naturally tempting to not fully walk the transparency talk. This was made clear in a conversation I once had with a senior manager of an organization widely regarded as highly transparent:

“We are presenting information and data in a way that is positive to [us]. We show the main performance indicators, the success stories, the positive changes brought by [us]. But we’re not necessarily going to focus on a country which is not working because of all kinds of other contextual information that we don’t necessarily want to talk about or go in much detail. It makes sense: we’re not going to shoot ourselves in the foot”.

Does it really make sense? I was confronted by this question when I tried to initiate a training program for media representatives to make use of a former employer’s funding data. “Why invite the press to dig up stories that could potentially be embarrassing,or create more communication crises than we could deal with?” I was asked. Here is what I think:

  • Being open about what goes wrong (and what you do about it) is good for your reputation. It shows courage, a sense of responsibilities and seriousness regarding transparency. Transparency is not meant to paint a rosy picture of reality but to highlight things as they are: successes AND challenges AND failures. Failure is okay as long as it allows you to learn and to act on what needs improvement. Running a negative story yourself – taking the time to prepare, put things into context, show what is being done to address the problem – will always be better than fighting allegations of a cover-up.
  • Bad news may be good news when it is factual, fair and balanced.It can help to flag problems while there is still time to do something about them. Large think tanks, global organizations and multi-stakeholder partnerships cannot watch over everything everywhere. Providing journalists with easy access to the whole story about their funding data may serve as an early warning system, to flag issues before it is too late, to limit the damage done by mismanagement, misuse of funds or corruption.

Embracing transparency half-heartedly maybe a more risky option than not being transparent at all, a missed opportunity to work alongside the media for positive outcomes.

Robert Bourgoing is an independent consultant and aid transparency expert. He maintains a blog and a LinkedIn discussion group on the demand side of aid transparency in developing countries.

Pulling Back the Curtain

Guest blogger Robert Brulle reports on his attempts to uncover the sponsors of think tanks engaged with the issue of climate change. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Over the past forty years, there has been an enormous expansion of ideologically focused think tanks. These think tanks have become increasingly important in the development and advocacy of public policies on a range of issues. They have also increasingly been funded by undisclosed sources. So it is difficult to judge the validity of their assessments without full disclosure of their funders.

For example, my work has focused on think tanks engaged with the issue of climate change. What we see in this area is a group of think thanks that foster confusion about the science of climate change, and oppose action to address this issue. These think tanks have been bankrolled by funders known for their overall commitments to extreme free-market ideologies. Where funding can be traced, it has come from foundations driven by an encompassing ideological vision that posits government “interference” in markets as inherently illegitimate. Regulations and taxes are demonized, yet both are ingredients of proposals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Despite thorough efforts, I could not find all of the sources of funding for organizations that mount climate-change denial efforts because the law allows secrecy. Many of the actors and organizations that have done so much to block U.S. actions to counter the global warming threat are able to operate in the shadows. Americans hear denial arguments funded on a grand scale by unknown wealthy manipulators.

This is a big problem for democracy. The U.S. constitution guarantees free speech, and the current Supreme Court enforces that right for corporations as well as individuals. In addition, current U.S. rules applying to “nonprofit” organizations make it easy for political activities to be supported on a huge scale in hidden ways. Nonprofit organizations not required to reveal their donors can simply collect funds and pass them to campaigns and think tanks. This hidden-funding system needs to change through the revision of nonprofit reporting laws. Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible.

Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. So in this area, as well as many others, we have unaccountable funding flows to these think tanks from unknown sponsors trying to influence public policy in an enormous way, and that really runs counter to the whole notion of democracy and open debate.

Rating think tanks on their transparency is a first step in the right direction. This web site will allow citizens to see which think tanks are fully transparent about their funding sources, and those that hide behind a veil of secrecy. At the end of the Wizard of Oz, Dorthy’s dog Toto pulls back the curtain on the Wizard, who is manipulating the image of Oz. This exposes the true nature of power. I hope this web site will do the same.

Robert Brulle is Professor of Sociology and Environmental Science at Drexel University

Corporate Interests and Think Tanks – An Overview of Current Debates

How and why do corporations fund think tanks? How do think tanks manage potential conflicts of interest? How transparent and traceable is corporate funding to think tanks?

In order to answer these questions, Transparify has located, compiled and reviewed dozens of media stories and research papers. Today, we release the results of our work, an annotated bibliography on “Corporate Interests and Think Tanks”. This is the fourth and last in our series of think tank bibliographies.

Most authors suggest that many corporations fund think tanks out of strategic self-interest. For example,financial industry players in both the US and the UK are thought to systematically support think tanks that produce work that furthers their sponsors’ agendas within a context characterized by intensive lobbying efforts across multiple fronts.

Corporations’ possible influence on energy policy and climate change debates via their funding of think tanks has drawn particular attention. For example, one author claims that “climate change denial” by think tanks has been funded via trusts that enabled their donors to remain anonymous and untraceable despite over one hundred million dollars allegedly passing through such channels. Another retorts that the renewable energy industry too has vested interests, and that it sometimes promotes and defends these interests by… you guessed it… funding policy wonks. A third observer alleges that calls for financial disclosure by think tanks engaged in climate change debates have often been one-eyed as well as one-sided. (Here at Transparify, we simply believe that all think tanks should fully disclose who funds them, regardless of the policy stances that they take.)

Possible conflicts of interest also lurk when think tanks weigh in on questions of war and peace. In a recent guest blog on our website, Gin Armstrong explored such possible conflicts of interest that may have been at play when think tank experts with defence industry ties took to the airwaves in 2013 to discuss US military strikes against Syria. In recent days, she has voiced similar concerns with regard to policy advice being proffered on the ongoing crisis in Ukraine. Mind you, in an industry dependent on public sector contracts that is notorious for its revolving doors, even public funding for think tanks has not been immune against suspicions of self-interested dealings.

Does the tobacco industry really employ think tanks as mercenaries to fight on its behalf? Do car manufacturers really pay think tanks to talk governments into bailing them out with public funds? Indeed, can any think tank still accept funding from any source without immediately coming under suspicion of having been “bought” by some public or private vested interest?

We at Transparify don’t have the answers. For us, this little media review yields one conclusion: the think tank community may soon face a comprehensive crisis of credibility. If current trends continue, even the most sophisticated and methodologically scrupulous policy research outfits will find it hard to get their findings, ideas and policy recommendations taken at face value.

In an environment increasingly characterized by finger pointing, suspicion and paranoia, think tanks committed to intellectual independence and excellence in research need a way to actively signal to policy makers and the media that they deserve their trust and respect.

Transparify’s aim is to provide think tanks with a tool for signalling their credibility: a policy research institution publicly recognized for its exemplary financial transparency can hardly be accused of harbouring “hidden” agendas.

(For your reference, the bibliography discussed above is accessible here.)

Think Tanks and the Right to Information

Guest blogger Michael Karanicolas explores the applicability of the right to information to think tanks. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

The right to information is internationally recognised as a human right which lies at the core of democratic accountability. Since State institutions are funded by public money, it is only natural to expect that the people have a right to know how their resources are being spent. In a democratic society, access to information held by the government is vital to ensuring that the electorate is fully and accurately informed, and can properly engage in the decision-making process. The right to information also fosters trust in government, and promotes efficiency through robust public oversight.

The right to information is not limited to State institutions. International standards hold that the right to information should apply to any private organisations that receive State funding or perform a public function to the extent of that funding or function. It is clear that, where an NGO – a category that includes most think tanks – is substantially funded from a State budget, a duty of transparency should apply.

However, many think tanks and other NGOs are not supported by State funds, and here the question becomes more difficult. Most right to information laws do not apply to NGOs, but there are exceptions. Indonesia’s Public Information Disclosure Act applies to NGOs which receive funding from public donations or from foreign sources, as well as any that receive money from the State budget. South Africa’s Promotion of Access to Information Act, 2000 allows for requests to any private organisation, including NGOs, if the information is required for the exercise or protection of any right. Sierra Leone’s Right to Access Information Act, which was passed in late 2013, includes a similar provision.

Several countries also impose additional transparency requirements on organisations which claim charitable status. This makes sense as charitable status is, in essence, a tax subsidy provided by the State.

Transparency is generally a good thing. However, there are legitimate reasons why NGOs may be wary of these requirements. For one thing, many smaller or developing world organisations lack the resources to respond efficiently to access to information requests, particularly if their records are not digitised. Another issue is that NGOs will sometimes require a certain amount of space to operate. Advocacy strategies, for example, will often need to be kept under wraps in order to ensure their efficacy. Although it is conceptually dangerous to start expanding the legitimate limits of exceptions to the right to information, these ideas require development to be properly applied to the NGO sector. 

But beyond the legal requirements of what NGOs must publish, there are legitimate operational reasons to want to push more information into the public domain. If an NGO seeks to pressure governments or corporations into being more transparent, while simultaneously guarding the secrecy of its own documentation, it runs the risk of being labelled a hypocrite.

Good advocacy means practicing what you preach, even if this may lead to some operational difficulties. Strictly speaking, the right to know does not generally extend to information that is held by NGOs. But if an NGO seeks to be an effective voice for transparency, it may need to lead by example.

Michael Karanicolas is the Legal Officer of the Centre for Law and Democracy, in Halifax, Canada.

Think Tanks Would Benefit from Better IRS Rules for Nonprofit Political Activity

Guest blogger Emily Peterson-Cassin of the Bright Lines Project argues that all nonprofits would benefit from a clearer definition of political activity. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Since the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, 501(c)(4) “social welfare” groups that can collect donations without disclosing their donors have proven irresistible to those looking for ways to spend millions on manipulating elections in secret. Through these groups, corporations and individuals were able to raise and spend more than 300 million dollars in the 2012 election cycle, leaving voters in the dark about their identity and unable to evaluate their motives.

To its credit, the IRS has recognized that this influx of dark money is a problem for its current system of classifying nonprofit entities.In November 2013, it proposed new rules for 501(c)(4)s that garnered more than 146,000 public comments – a record. The proposed rules are problematic for a variety of reasons, including that they don’t do enough to stop the dark money flowing into our elections. 

Nevertheless, groups that would be affected by the new rules overwhelmingly want the rulemaking to continue. 67% of organizations commenting or signing on to comments on the rules – the very entities the new rules would most affect –encourage the IRS to move forward in their effort to change the rules governing nonprofits, according to our analysis of the comments.

The existing rules not only have allowed groups to aggressively flout tax rules and pour millions into manipulating elections, but they also have constrained smaller groups dedicated to civic engagement. Too afraid of jeopardizing their nonprofit status, smaller groups have not participated in America’s democracy as fully as they are allowed. The IRS’ new rules seek to fix this imbalance by resolving the ambiguity of the current “facts and circumstances” test. Improving this definition will lead to more clarity for IRS agents as they work to monitor abuses and will help nonprofits engage confidently, knowing with certainty what they can and cannot do.

Currently, 501(c)(3) nonprofits such as think tanks are not allowed to engage in any political activity, and neither the proposed rules nor the Bright Lines Project’s suggested rules would change that.

However, the rules as proposed could jeopardize the daily operations of some 501(c)(3)s by complicating their relationships with (c)(4)s. Unless the same rules apply to all 501’s, organizations that fund or work with (c)(4)s could find that they are engaging in prohibited political activity merely by donating to a (c)(4), or possibly even linking to a (c)(4)’s website. 

That’s why the Bright Lines Project has advocated for clear rules that apply to all nonprofits.  Bright-line rules have the potential to greatly increase the amount of civic participation think tanks can undertake. 

The IRS has a long review process ahead, but should not lose focus on the realities that nonprofits face in navigating the confusion caused by the current rules.  The 67% of organizations that want to continue the rulemaking are resoundingly telling the IRS that they have taken a necessary first step. It’s essential that IRS continue the rulemaking and create a final rule that will help bring dark money into the light.

Emily Peterson-Cassin is the project coordinator of the Bright Lines Project, which was formed nearly five years ago to draft and advocate for clearer tax rules governing nonprofits. The project is housed at Public Citizen in Washington, D.C.