How We Rate Think Tanks’ Financial Transparency

Transparify rates the extent to which think tanks disclose who funds them, with how much, to do what work. While looking into think tank finances is not a new idea – a variety of other players have done so in the past and some continue to do so today – our initiative differs in two regards.

First, we exclusively look at what information think tanks disclose publicly through their websites. We do not contact institutions asking them to provide us with lists of their funders or similar funding data because we believe that transparency involves being transparent towards all interested stakeholders by default, rather than constituting a favour that an institution may choose to bestow upon request. In our view, if information is not accessible, it is not public. For example, a journalist may not have time to wait for think tank’s clarification of who funded its research on a given issue before her deadline expires and her piece goes to press.

Second, our scope is global. We rate think tanks across dozens of countries, applying the same rating criteria to all. A policy research institution based in a small and poor nation may not enjoy a high profile on the international stage, but within its home country, its findings and recommendations are more likely to remain unchallenged by other researchers and thus may have significant impact on policy formulation. Plus, our findings to date indicate that many well-funded think tanks in rich countries can learn a lot about transparency from some of their smaller peers in Africa, Asia and Latin America. We want to recognize excellence wherever it occurs.

So how does it work? Each think tank is assessed by two or more raters following a standard protocol. Working independently from each other, they award between zero and five stars according to the type and extent of financial information available on the think tank’s website.

Think tanks that score the maximum possible five stars enable stakeholders to see clearly and in detail who funds them, how much each donor contributed, and what projects or activities that money went towards (some great examples are listed here). Think tanks that do not provide any up-to-date information on where they get their money from receive zero stars. Most institutions we have looked at so far fall in between these two extremes.

We pre-tested this methodology in late 2013 and found that the results returned by different raters tend to be highly consistent. In the few cases in which raters do assign different scores, an experienced external adjudicator reviews their findings, revisits the institution’s website, and determines the final score.

Best of all, anyone can visit the website of any think tank we rate and compare the information provided there using our rating tool and criteria – so our findings will be easy to check up on.

By the way, in case you were wondering – we plan to release our final rating results before the end of this month.