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!


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.



Think Tanks Are A Billion Dollar Business

A new data set compiled by Transparify shows that a group of 21 top U.S. think tanks broke the billion-dollar expenditure barrier in 2013, showing just how huge the sector has become.

The 21 think tanks in the sample collectively spent over one billion dollars in 2013, probably for the first time in history, and employed a total of 7,333 people, including part-time employees. Their total net assets grew 8% to USD 2.65 billion.

Many individual think tanks in the U.S. are larger than the entire sector in most other countries of the world. The median think tank in our sample had a revenue of USD 39m, expenditures of USD 32m, held assets worth USD 87m, and had 211 employees.

“America’s think tank sector is far bigger, and far more influential, than most people realize,” said Hans Gutbrod, Executive Director of Transparify. “This underlines the importance for think tanks to be transparent about who funds them, and for what purposes.”

Transparify put together the data to provide fellow researchers, funders and think tanks themselves with a comprehensive snapshot of one aspect of the sector. We would like to emphasize that the most important thing about a think tank is the integrity and quality of its research, not the size of its budget or staff. Therefore, the figures presented permit no conclusions about which think tank is “better” or “worse” than its peers – only which is bigger or smaller in size.

The narrative report and a separate data set in Excel format can be accessed from our publications page.

Please follow the On Think Tanks blog for more detailed analyses of the data presented here and to join in discussions of the findings. Also, follow us on Twitter or connect on Facebook to get notified of reactions by journalists, bloggers and assorted wonks.

To request the think tank data in Excel, sign up here.

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:

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.

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.)

Are Think Tanks Turning into Lobbyists?

Transparify today releases an annotated bibliography on how think tanks influence policy makers containing dozens of media stories and academic articles on the nexus between policy wonks and policy makers.

Think tanks influence policy in multiple ways. Their staff pen op-eds, appear on television, testify in hearings, cultivate close relationships with politicians, build coalitions on policy issues, and shape public debates. In the US, government representatives by now are reportedly utilizing think tanks’ research outputs more often than they use the Congressional Research Service, but this does not necessarily reflect a global trend. For example, think tanks in India are thought to lack access to government officials, while in China, the degree of access seems to depend on where an institution is located. In Brussels, their lack of influence on debates is reportedly limited by… their boringness

Where think tanking ends and lobbying begins is often unclear. Many think tanks would argue that educating politicians is distinct from lobbying them, and do not want to be associated with lobbying. However, think tanks have often been criticized for overstepping the line, with many senior staff in the US reportedly moonlighting as lobbyists even as they work for supposedly independent research institutions. On the far end of the spectrum, there are rumours of some public relations firms setting up fake ‘think tanks’ in order to lend their propaganda a veneer of impartial scholarship. The distinction is not only ethical, but also carries legal implications, as a lobbying outfits most certainly are not charitable organizations and therefore do not qualify for tax free status. In at least one case in the UK, the country’s Charity Commission concluded that a registered think tank was in fact a lobbying front and shut it down

Where should the line be drawn? What the legal and regulatory issues are at stake? Is freedom of speech in peril once regulators start stepping in? If you want to share your views, post a comment below or contact us to submit a guest blog on the subject.

For your reference, our latest bibliography is here.

Does It Matter Who Funds You?

What do the American IRS and British parliament have in common? Both are beginning to look closely at think tanks amid concerns that hidden political financing and clandestine lobbying sometimes cloak themselves in the mantle of non-partisan policy research. Our new bibliography on think tank funding released today shows that think tanks’ non-profit status and associated tax and donor confidentiality privileges may have attracted a few sharks to the pool – and the pool wardens are following in their wake.

Most commentators focus on the influence of ‘big money’ on the policy landscape. However, our compilation of media stories shows that government bodies and trade unions are also thought to have vested interests that may influence the policy recommendations provided by the think tanks they fund. Some governments have apparently formed proxy “phantom think tanks” that are independent only in name.

To what extent do think tanks play the tunes ordered by their paymasters? Do some think tanks really sell policy prescriptions for cash? Or are there more subtle influences at work, like self-censorship by individual policy wonks who want to hold on to their jobs? Or is there in fact no problem at all, because donors throw coins only into the hats of those pipers whose tunes they like listening to anyway? At least one think tanker claims that donors tend to choose think tanks that hold views similar to their own, effectively arguing that their influence is limited to amplifying some of the music already being played – the musicians need not compromise.

Some observers worry especially about funders that are based abroad. If some Americans raise the alarm about the influence that donations to think tanks from foreign governments might buy inside the mighty US, what about the influence that US money could buy overseas? It’s worth remembering that in many developing countries much – if not most – think tank funding comes from foreign sources. For example, think tanks in poor landlocked Nepal are so heavily dependent on foreign donors that they reportedly “find themselves compromising their goals” in order to survive financially. But are domestic donors really preferable to foreign ones? Some Latin American think tanks reportedly feel that embracing foreign money leaves them with more independence than accepting funds from their own governments would do…

What do you think? Does it matter who funds your work? Or are other factors more important in safeguarding the independence and quality of think tanks’ policy analysis? Post a comment below. 

For your reference, our summary of the debate on think tank funding is here.

Who Is Who in Thinktankistan?

Who cares about think tanks? More people than we expected! So many, in fact, that we have drawn up a list of organizations involved in researching, investigating, strengthening, monitoring, representing, rating, blogging and commenting on think tanks.

At least six blogs/sites are exclusively devoted to think tanks:

In case that makes you think that there can be nothing new under the think tank sun, visit the Think Twice Think Tank Review Project, which strives to provide a kind of quality review process for think tank publications, or Muckety, which uses maps to locate selected think tanks within larger webs of political and economic influence.

Also of interest are the Philanthropy Roundtable and its ACR project, who both argue against greater transparency in think tank funding.

One thing that really struck us in compiling our little ‘Who is Who’ is the extent to which US organizations traditionally focusing on lobbying and campaign finance have now begun monitoring think tanks. It may come as a surprise to most think tank professionals how often their sector is discussed in the same breath as “deceptive PR”, “front groups”, and even “institutional corruption”.

Our recently published bibliography on think tank transparency illustrates some of the issues involved. Over the coming weeks this blog will explore the darker sides of hidden think tank funding, as well as illuminate some brighter aspects of transparency.

What do you think? What lines divide think tanks from lobbyists or partisan political campaigners? And how should regulators deal with think tanks that cross these lines? Contact us if you want to submit a guest blog, or post a comment below.

(Again, for your convenience, our Who is Who is here.)