The road to transparency is not entirely straightforward

By Keith Burnet

Director of Communications & Publishing, Chatham House

Think tanks can have an important role to play in providing objective analysis in the current political climate of change general instability, the rise of populist movements and a backlash against mainstream politics.

At the same time, they have rightfully been subject to increasing public scrutiny. Indeed, it would be disingenuous and wrong of think tanks to promote their ideas without being open about the sources of the funding that supported their development and dissemination in the first place.  

Transparify’s aim of encouraging greater financial transparency in the think tank sector is helping think tanks to put this goal into practice proactively.

In Chatham House’s case, the foundations for greater transparency were already in existence. We adhere to a set of principles for ensuring the continued independence of our research. The institute is required by its 1926 Royal Charter to maintain rigorous impartiality and objectivity across all activities and outputs.

Ensuring the institute adheres to this requirement is a principal responsibility of our Council, made up of individuals drawn from, and elected by, Chatham House members. Since the founding of the institute we have recognised the importance of avoiding any financial obligation that would undermine our independence and which, of course, would instantly damage our credibility. We also consider  the diversity and breadth of our funding base an essential element for protecting Chatham House’s independence.

The process of becoming more transparent has not been particularly easy. The publication of our all of our financial income details was not straightforward and raised new questions for us to grapple with: how best to account for a £150k grant given for a three year project? Do you report the entire sum up front in year one or as £50k each year for three years? What if the project runs over time? What if the grant is extended?

Multiply those questions by the 156 projects Chatham House is currently running in the context of nearly £17m income from over 500 individual sources. What is more, we must compile this information from the fundraising activities of eleven different research teams, our Leadership Academy and income from membership subscriptions, conference and event sponsorship, discretionary donations and publications.

In the end, our method includes an overarching rule that recognises funding as it is spent and accounted for rather than as it is received. The only exception to this is endowment gifts, where it is more transparent to recognise the full value of the gift as one sum at the time it is given.

Following a substantial institutional effort, Chatham House has made several key changes to the way it publishes sources of income:

  • an ‘our funding’ section on our website with a clear income breakdown
  • a full list of our donors based on recognised income to reflect how much of a specific donation was spent in a given financial year
  • a funding webpage for each research department (see, for example our Africa Programme updated on a regular basis to reflect current core and project donors

We recognise that a positive and constructive response to Transparify’s efforts can help think tanks improve public understanding of their otherwise relatively opaque working processes. This is why I am keen that Chatham House shares its processes and methodologies with other institutions. We will continue to improve these methods, as well as think about and be open to new ways to be as transparent as possible.

New Transparify report shows which think tanks are transparent – and which are not

Which think tanks reveal who funds them? And which keep their donors secret?

On Wednesday 29 June 2016, Transparify will launch a report on the financial transparency of 200 think tanks worldwide. We rated each institution on a scale from 0 to 5 stars based on how much information it reveals about where it gets its money from.

Transparify’s special focus this year is on think tanks in the UK. We have convinced some of the largest and best-known policy shops in Britain to disclose details of their funding, and look forward to honouring their commitment to transparency. Our UK ratings this year include 28 institutions, providing wide coverage of the entire UK think tank sector.

The report will give citizens, journalists and policy makers the ability to identify think tanks that are committed to transparency and integrity in policy research and advocacy. At the same time, it will shine a spotlight on those organizations that accept money from hidden hands behind closed doors.

Beyond the UK, Transparify has re-rated all think tanks covered in our previous reports. In total, we rated 200 think tanks from 47 countries in Africa, the Americas, Asia, Europe and Oceania, providing a unique overview of national and regional policy research landscapes and global trends in think tank transparency.

The results of previous Transparify studies have been covered by the New York Times, Washington Post, Financial Times, and over 20 other media outlets worldwide. Our initiative has been welcomed by major think tanks and transparency advocacy organizations.

Embargoed advance copies of Transparify’s 2016 report are now available. Interested editors and journalists are invited to contact us via Twitter, or by emailing our team members Dustin Gilbreath (global media enquiries) and Till Bruckner (UK media enquiries only). Members of the media can find more background on think tank transparency and why it matters here and here.

Transparent Donors, Opaque Grantees: High Time for a Nudge

While we are finalizing our ratings, we are here reposting a contribution that Hans Gutbrod previously published with Philanthropy in Focus, a platform by Worldwide Initiatives for Grantmaker Support

In recent years, donors have increasingly embraced transparency and accountability. Transparency seems to be on its way to becoming the new norm for donors. Yet at the same time, many nonprofit grantees are lagging behind. A recent study by Transparify, the initiative I work with, has shown that even among the world’s leading open data advocacy groups, over half are not fully transparent about who funds them. Similarly, despite significant recent improvements in that field, over half of major think tanks worldwide still do not fully disclose their funding online.

The cost of this opacity was brought home powerfully to me when I was working at a donor organization and needed to go to lunch with a colleague on the same corridor just to understand what work his program was doing with some of our grantees. We needed to talk to each other because sharing this basic information through an internal database was cumbersome and the data did not capture intent. As for the relationships of our grantees with other donors – who gave how much, when, and for what purposes – we usually simply did not know.

Grantee opacity causes severe problems for all stakeholders involved. For donors, it precludes effective coordination, leveraging of synergies and avoidance of overlaps. For grantees, working with blindsided funders leads to inefficiencies and cycles of over- and underfunding. For external stakeholders such as local government bodies, it makes it hard to identify who is doing how much of what, and when current funding is likely to run out. Finally, financial opacity undermines the reputation of integrity and credibility of the nonprofit sector as a whole because citizens are left wondering where all that tax-exempt money comes from, and what it gets spent for.

Transparent organizations are part and parcel of a modern democratic society, not an optional add-on; this applies to grantees as well as to their funders. However, in terms of transparency, some very good donors have a remarkable number of not-so-good grantees. How can the sector move forwards?

First, it is important to realize that the most useful location of information on projects is on the grantee’s website, where it’s visible to everyone – donors, potential partners, citizens and any other interested stakeholder. Crucially, compared to a donor database, the grantee’s website is far closer to the interface where the grant money (hopefully) benefits citizens, and thus the best location to render account to beneficiaries.

Second, donors can easily nudge their opaque grantees by making transparency the new default setting. The cost of doing this is negligible to both donors and grantees, as recent experiences in Georgia (Caucasus) have shown. There, two innovative donors, the Eurasia Partnership Foundation in Georgia and the ACCESS Program of the East-West Management Institute have recently added a single line to their grant application forms that asks potential grantees to provide a link to their own financial disclosure webpage. This nudges all applicants to update their websites and disclose information on who funds them, with what amount, for what purpose, to show that they align with the donors’ preference for transparency. Other donors are planning to implement similar changes soon.

There are many excellent arguments in favor of transparency. Some of the most compelling arguments have been put forward by grantees themselves, including by the Center for Global Development, Global Integrity, Natural Resources Governance Institute, Sunlight Foundation, Stimson Center, Transparency International Georgia, and the World Resources Institute. Equally, a compellingly simple gold standard for nonprofit transparency exists in the form of Transparify’s 5-star benchmark.

With a simple nudge – a one-line addition to the application form (see here and here for examples) – donors could advance such transparency. The first innovative donors are beginning to implement this change. We hope this will spread, so that transparency indeed becomes the norm.

Transparify to Re-Assess All Think Tanks in November

Transparify will begin re-rating think tanks worldwide on November 02, 2015. The assessment will cover all 169 think tanks that we have already rated twice for our previous flagship reports, in order to document their progress. Transparify assesses to what degree think tanks disclose who funds their research and advocacy, using a 5-star rating scale.

Transparify will this year for the first time additionally rate dozens of major think tanks in Britain and Australia. In Britain, we expect to be able to document huge progress from a low baseline. In Australia, the baseline was even lower when we last looked, but the trend there is also positive, with several think tanks reporting that they plan to disclose additional information shortly.

Our ratings process follows a strict protocol designed to ensure data reliability. To date, Transparify has released over 300 data points for think tanks and advocacy groups around the world, and has been widely endorsed. The method is replicable, and has been used by a number of external efforts inspired by Transparify's method. 

The full rating results listing all think tanks will be published in our annual flagship report in February 2016. In past years, our rating results have attracted wide media coverage, ranging from a front page story in the New York Times to the main evening television news programme in Namibia.

Over the past years, the field as a whole has taken huge strides towards greater funding transparency. We look forward to welcoming even more think tanks into the ranks of the transparent this time around!

The Transparify Team


More 5-Star Institutions - Momentum Towards Transparency Continues

Next to the 150+ institutions that Transparify rates every year, we have heard from additional policy research and advocacy organizations that are committed to transparency. These organizations either already were fully transparent about their funding, or engaged with us to update their disclosure.

We are glad to highlight the 5-star transparency of these five organizations. They set a great example for other institutions:

Please join us in congratulating these organizations on their 5-star transparency. We are glad to see that the momentum towards more transparency continues. The spread of countries – Bosnia, Canada, Georgia, United States – shows that this move towards more transparency has a global dimension.

If current trends continue, transparency will indeed soon be the norm for all quality think tanks and policy advocacy organizations. This is why it is so valuable that more organizations commit to 5-star transparency. Why is this transparency important? See what institutions themselves have to say on this issue.

Do you want to find out how to get 5-star transparency? Check here how to become fully transparent

Why Transparency Matters: the Think Tanks’ Perspective

[a previous version of this post appeared On Think Tanks]

Transparency sometimes can appear like a hard thing to do. Making information available can be an extra effort. Transparency may also invite additional scrutiny. It’s thus not obvious that institutions always welcome disclosure.

Yet Transparify’s experience over the past two years suggests otherwise. Many think tanks welcomed our work. They were enthusiastic about becoming more transparent. Several dozen think tanks engaged, increasing their disclosure, as our 2015 report highlights.

Why? Ask the think tankers themselves – they make a very powerful case in favor of transparency. Here is an overview of their contributions to our blog. 

One common theme across many of these contributions is that transparency is part of research excellence – it communicates confidence in the integrity of one’s findings. In that way, transparency contributes to an open and constructive debate.

This, too, is a reason why we think that transparency should be the default for policy research and advocacy. We hope that more think tanks will join to help set the standard. We believe journalists should routinely ask think tanks and policy experts how they are funded, and highlight when funding sources remain opaque. Also, we think that donors should nudge their grantees to become more transparent. Funding transparency by itself is not a guarantee of integrity, but it is one of the best starting points for a broader debate.

If you want to share your perspective on the importance of transparency, we would very much welcome your contribution to our blog or, as an additional step, you could connect to this theme through On Think Tanks itself.  

Interested in how to increase your transparency? Go here to find out how to get 5-star transparency

Do transparency advocacy groups practice what they preach?

Transparify so far has primarily looked at the transparency of think tanks. Yet transparency also matters in many other sectors, including policy advocacy.

Citizens should be able to find out who pays for that advocacy. 

Transparency is particularly relevant for pro-transparency organizations. In line with that idea, we assessed 34 organizations who feature prominently at the Open Data Conference (#IODC15) in Ottawa, Canada. The #IODC15 event, which runs May 28-29, 2015, brings together the leading pro-transparency organizations, experts and donors, from across the world. It thus allows an excellent assessment of the field of pro-transparency advocacy.

Using Transparify's well-established methodology, we rated the extent to which participating organizations publicly disclose through their websites where their funding comes from. 

How transparent are the pro-transparency advocates? 

The news is fairly good, but there is quite some way to go before the sector itself is a role-model. Of the 34 organizations we assessed:

  • 12 are already transparent about who funds them
  • 7 told us that they plan to become transparent in the near future
  • 15 are opaque and seem not to want to disclose more funding data. 

With an average of 2.7 stars, the pro-transparency sector still is less transparent than the leading 35 US think tanks are (3.2 stars). 

Follow us on Twitter to keep up to date about reactions to this report from #IODC15 participants.

We believe that non-profits should embrace transparency for a variety of reasons:

  • non-profits are key actors in democratic societies
  • non-profits enjoy tax free status
  • transparency builds credibility with donors, clients, policy-makers and other stakeholders
  • the sector as a whole is huge, e.g. in the United States it accounts for over 8% of GDP
  • voluntary transparency is the best way to dissuade burdensome external regulation.

We will re-assess all 34 institutions later this year to track and document their progress. To receive our follow-up report by email, sign up here.

To find out who the most transparent pro-transparency advocates are, read our MAY 2015 IODC TRANSPARENCY REPORT.

Transparency and Funding of Think Tanks in France

 A compilation of publications on think tank funding and think tank transparency and a review of relevant websites in French language published on the Transparify website today provides a snapshot of relevant debates in France and suggests that French think tank may be less transparent than their peers elsewhere in the European Union.

The literature review section shows that debates about think tanks’ influence, their financing and their intellectual independence are global in scope. Do think tanks strengthen or weaken democracy? How do funding pressures shape think tanks’ operations? How independent are policy wonks from those who fund them? Which economic sectors finance which think tanks, and why? Clearly, these questions are seen to be relevant beyond the world of “Anglo-Saxon” policy research.

The author, Alexis Courbon Michel, also visited the websites of some prominent French think tanks and reviewed their conflict of interest policies, funding strategies and available financial data. A mixed picture emerges from his review. On the one hand, French think tanks seem aware of debates about the intellectual integrity of the field. Many seek to signal their credibility by detailing how they manage donor relations, and/or by disclosing substantial amounts of financial data. On the other hand, the author was unable to find any funding information whatsoever on the websites of several prominent French think tanks.

This suggests that think tanks based in France may on average be less transparent than their peers in the European Union. Transparify’s 2015 report, released last month, showed that nearly a third of EU think tanks are transparent or highly transparent. Most other policy shops in the EU assessed by Transparify provide at least some funding information. (Only two think tanks surveyed, both in Britain, are completely opaque: the Institute of Economic Affairs and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. In addition, numerous Spanish think tanks are reportedly also keeping their books firmly shut.)

Transparify would like to thank Alexis Courbon Michel for generously sharing his research with us, and with the wider think tank community. Those interested in learning more about the policy research landscape in France should visit the website of the French Think Tank Observatory


Roundup of Reactions to Transparify’s 2015 Report

Two weeks ago, we released our 2015 REPORT documenting significant progress towards greater think tank transparency worldwide. Especially the U.S. results were encouraging – over half of think tanks there are now transparent. In contrast, results for the UK were disappointing.

The Financial Times led off its coverage with the observation that “British think-tanks are less transparent about their sources of funding than their European counterparts.” It noted that “only one of 11 British think-tanks assessed, the Institute for Public Policy Research, was rated as transparent,” while three prominent institutions including the International Institute for Strategic Studies were rated as highly opaque.

The Brussels-based EU Observer titled its article “UK and Hungarian think tanks least transparent in EU”. It noted that think tanks based in Brussels itself performed well: “Three of the thinktanks evaluated are based in Brussels: Bruegel (5 stars), International Crisis Group (4 stars), Centre for European Policy Studies (3 stars).”

One World led with the sentence that “Only three think tanks got ‘significantly more opaque’ during 2014, and one of them is Britain’s Overseas Development Institute.” The author suggested that our survey “addresses an important issue because secrecy about funding sources undermines the credibility” of many think tanks.

Broadcaster KBC in Kenya noted the 5-star performance of two Kenyan think tanks, adding that “donor funding has been a contentious issue in the not-for-profit sector with government proposing stringent laws to cap funding to ensure accountability and openness of funding sources”. The issue is also controversial in Hungary, where the government has recently been accused of orchestrating a crackdown on independent NGOs, including think tanks. Transparify’s report sparked a lively debate in Hungary that is still ongoing; we will provide a separate summary at a later point. Several media outlets in Georgia and Montenegro have also covered the story.

On Think Tanks produced a great map of the global results.

Numerous think tanks released statements explaining their commitment to transparency.

“AERC endeavors to observe best global practices in everything it does, and it is encouraging that our outstanding efforts are receiving global acknowledgment,” said Prof. Lemma Senbet, the Executive Director of the African Economic Research Consortium, a think tank based in Kenya with strong global name recognition among international development experts.

Also in Kenya, Kwame Owino, the Executive Director of its Institute of Economic Affairs, tweeted that “If we fail to aim for high transparency, we reduce our ability to demand budget transparency in #Kenya".

In Sweden, Johan Kuylenstierna from the Stockholm Environment Institute (SEI) commented that “we believe transparency is essential for building trust and credibility. We provide full disclosure of our funding and invite our partners and stakeholders to assess our objectivity and hold us accountable to our mission… Transparency is a keystone in bridging science and policy.”

Why does transparency matter to think tanks? A list of statements by think tanks on their 2015 transparency ratings, including links to the full text of each, is below.


Check also the contributions by several think tanks on our own blog, by scrolling down.  Transparify will begin re-rating think tanks in November 2016. We look forward to being able to report even more transparent institutions in our next report!

Transparency in Hungary – Political Capital

Guest blogger Péter Krekó from Political Capital, a think tank in Budapest, reacts to Transparify’s recent report, and highlights the country context in Hungary.

Political Capital’s funding transparency recently was assessed by Transparify, and the rating was not particularly flattering. Political Capital does embrace transparency and has nothing to hide about its finances. Given that our institute only receives project funding from its donors, and no core funding, we had put the list of donors on our thematic project websites, here, here and here. We also highlighted our funders with every study, in our press releases, and at our public events.

Transparify's ratings, however, offered a good reminder to make this information even more easily available, therefore we have recently published the list of our Foundation donors on our main website. Additionally, most of our donors do publish information about funding they give to us on their respective websites. We are currently in touch with our donors to ensure that they all agree to publish more information. We are committed to increase our transparency to at least a 3-star level.

At the same time, it is also important to note the regional and national context of transparency. In Hungary for example, there have been several governmental attacks against NGOs and think-tanks over their foreign funding, following the Russian model of action against NGOs. While we are still embracing transparency, as most of the NGO actors in Hungary do, the readers of the study should also understand that the “dangers” of transparency nowadays definitely are higher in some countries in Eastern Europe. 

For more information on the Political Capital Institute, see


Transparify proudly presents its 2015 think tank transparency report, detailing the levels of financial disclosure of over 160 think tanks located in 47 countries worldwide.

Good news:

·         Over 26 think tanks have disclosed significantly more data over the past year

·         A total of 31 policy research institutions are now highly transparent (5-star)

·         Over half of U.S. think tanks are now broadly or highly transparent

For more details, please see our 2015 REPORT and accompanying PRESS RELEASE with media contact details.

Over the coming two days, we will collect reactions from the media and think tankers worldwide and post a summary on this blog.

Why is think tank transparency important? Nobody can answer that question better than think tanks themselves. Scroll down to learn why three excellent institutions – the Natural Resource Governance Institute, the Social Policy and Development Centre, and the Stimson Center– chose to become fully transparent, and follow the links to their funding pages to see what full disclosure looks like in practice.



Stimson: Being Transparent Builds Trust and Boosts Impact

Guest blogger Brian Finlay from the Stimson Center, a leading U.S. think tank, explains why his institution is committed to transparency.

Since its birth in the early 1900s, the American think tank has come to occupy a unique space in American democracy and the international policy landscape: that of the collaborative ‘problem solver’. As the world grows increasingly complex, addressing the grand global challenges of our time necessitates inclusion and innovation. Meeting the threat of climate change, the scourge of terrorism, or the plague of inadequate public health cannot be achieved in isolation—aloft on the Hill or in the ivory towers of academia. Rather, transparent, trusting relationships within and between governments, with industry, and across civil society must be forged in order to evaluate, critique and implement effective policies to sustainably meet these challenges. This is the function of the modern think tank.

Stimson has continually been recognized as an innovative, creative and effective institution. Through our rigorous and non-partisan analysis, Stimson develops unique approaches to the major challenges of our time — including resource competition and scarcity and  humanitarian crises, while playing an important brokering role in debates on nuclear proliferation, arms trafficking and defense policy. 

Stimson is on the cutting edge in its sector, not only in our innovative research and analysis, but also on financial transparency following the belief that think tanks must ‘practice what we preach’. With transparency and cooperation as main tenets of our theory of change, they must be prerequisites to all of the work that we do. In Transparify’s 2015 report, the Stimson Center is awarded a 5-star rating, the highest possible, in recognition for its leadership in the global think tank movement towards transparency.

Since its non-partisan founding twenty-five years ago, Stimson has worked to serve a larger purpose—taking pragmatic steps toward peace and security, and not that of partisan groups such as the US government, foreign governments, corporations or any other funder of our work. This top rating for financial transparency demonstrates Stimson’s successful commitment to the highest standards of integrity and transparency in our research and in our coalition-building: openly identifying our supporters and ensuring the highest standards of scholarly independence and freedom of expression.

Stimson’s dedication to the transparency movement echoes the pride we take in our partnerships and in our research.  Full disclosure about funding and partnerships enhances trust within and outside of our organization, strengthens our recommendations and findings, and ultimately facilitates the organization’s ability to effect change according to our mission of providing pragmatic solutions to the global security threats of our time.

Brian Finlay is the Vice President at Stimson and also directs the Center's Managing Across Boundaries initiative. Stimson’s website features its annual funding report and the think tank’s internal guidelines on corporate and government funding.


Transparency as a Public Good: Why SPDC Publishes Who Funds Us

Guest blogger Muhammad AsifIqbal from the Social Policy and Development Centre, a leading think tank in Pakistan that is highly transparent, explains why his organization posts detailed donor information online.

Being a civil society organization, the Social Policy and Development Centre (SPDC) considers its own financial transparency an obligation towards society as a whole and towards its stakeholders in particular.  SPDC is non-profit research think tank established in 1995 with the mission to contribute to national economic and social development policies and programmes in Pakistan to make them more accountable, pro-poor, engendered and equitable.

Under Pakistani law, financial statements must be provided to the corporate regulating authority, the Securities and Exchange Commission of Pakistan.Although any citizen can request this body to provide audit reports of public and non-profit companies, public awareness in this regard is generally lacking.

Almost four years ago, SPDC’s management committee (which comprises the managing director and senior research staff) decided that in order to manifest our commitment toward transparency, we should make our financial information public and place it on the website. The debate in the management committee revolved around the issues of public good and organizational integrity.

Since civil society organizations are meant to work for public good, citizens have the right to know about their work and financial sources. Unfortunately, development NGOs in Pakistan have a very limited (or almost non-existent) constituency of local donors such as indigenous philanthropy or government support; they have to rely on the international donor community. The attitude of government and media (and sometimes of the general public) towards these organizations is not always positive. Their integrity is frequently questioned on the grounds of transparency.

We at SPDC felt a need to improve the communication between civil society organisations and their stakeholders in order to deal effectively with the prevailing misconceptions. Making financial information easily accessible to the public is very important in this regard. Therefore, SPDC decided to upload its audited accounts on the website.

Later, after communicating with Transparify, we felt that the information provided on our website could be made more ‘reader friendly’ since the financial statements are in a format that can be difficult for some people to understand. Consequently, we also shared our annual reports (detailing activities) and a summary of donors’ grants on SPDC’s website. We are committed to maintaining and further improving the communication with our stakeholders and citizens.

Muhammad AsifIqbal is SPDC’s Principal Economist. The think tank’s funding page can be found here.