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

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

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.

Seeing Stars: How and Why NRGI Improved Its Financial Reporting

Guest blogger Daniel Kaufmann from the Natural Resource Governance Institute looks back on his organization’s journey towards full financial disclosure.

“Walking the talk.”“Practicing what you preach.” These oft-invoked metaphors speak to the importance of matching actions to words. Another cliché is “pulling back the curtain”—showing the world that you have nothing to hide. At the Natural Resource Governance Institute (NRGI), we assumed we were doing all of these things—until Transparify rang our bell.

Let me explain: Over the years we have conducted much research, policy analysis and technical assistance on transparency around the globe.  The evidence clearly suggests that transparency matters, whether with regard to socioeconomic development in general, or in key sectors like the extractive industries.

So it’s no surprise that we at NRGI are deeply committed to the principles of transparency, accountability and good governance in the oil, gas and mining sectors. We’re passionate about those principles—without information, citizens can’t hold their governments accountable for the proceeds from natural resources that should fund human and economic development.

Shining a light in dark corners, where information valuable to citizens is often hidden, is one of the pillars of our work. Yet, we had never really turned our critical gaze inward to determine whether we were observing the very disclosure practices we advocate.

Last year, Transparify assessed more than 150 think tanks in over 40 countries, focusing on the extent to which organizations disclose information about who funds their work. NRGI was rated above average, receiving three out of five stars. But what is above average for some,was worse than mediocre for us; the rating was a real wake-up call. It served as an important impetus to our efforts to immediately improve our own transparency, so we did the homework and took concrete action.  We are pleased that this year we have been given a five-star rating by Transparify—signaling that our disclosure of donor funds is now “highly transparent.”

In the spirit of our multi-stakeholder approach, our review involved consultation with our board, staff, donor partners, Transparify, and organizations previously awarded five stars, like the Center for Global Development and the World Resources Institute. Within a few months of our 2014 rating, we disclosed additional financial information, going beyond what is traditionally made available in annual financial statements and IRS tax forms. Specifically, we published donor names, total grant amounts, annual grant amounts, grant periods and short descriptions of how funds are being used. We provided this data for contributions and grants of $100,000 or more, which account for more than 90 percent of NRGI’s annual funding.

Transparify’s work in the think tank sphere complements initiatives to improve the transparency of official development aid funding, such as Publish What You Fund (PWYF) and the International Aid Transparency Initiative (IATI), with which I have collaborated. We at NRGI appreciate Transparify’s initiative to make transparency organizations more transparent. Its efforts have nudged us to ensure that we are fully in sync with our own policy prescriptions and open to the scrutiny that we—and all who work in the public interest—deserve. But we will not rest on these five-star laurels—instead we strive to continue improving on all facets of transparency.

Daniel Kaufmann is the president of the Natural Resource Governance Institute, which discloses comprehensive and detailed funding data online. 

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. 

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.