How to Report - And Not Report - On Think Tanks

On October 30th, the Washington Post published an article titled At fast-growing Brookings, donors may have an impact on research agenda”. This latest piece about a prominent American think tank comes in the wake of heightened U.S. media interest in the issue, first sparked by an article on foreign funding for think tanks that ran in the New York Times in early September. (Note that Transparify was not involved in researching or writing any of these articles.)

Below, Transparify outlines its views on the recent media coverage, with particular reference to the the recent Washington Post article.

Attention to nuance

The headline of the recent Washington Post piece, “…may have an impact on research agenda”, sets the tone for what follows. Indeed, the issue discussed in the article is donors’ possible power to shape agendas, not the cash purchase of ready-made opinions or hiring of lobbying proxies.

At Transparify, we appreciate the measured tone adopted in the article, and the way the authors clearly go to great lengths to present multiple perspectives. For example:

“Lobbyists say they warn clients not to expect that they can dictate research results from an elite think tank such as Brookings‘You can buy attention, but not a point of view or an outcome.’”

The journalists are keen to avoid sensationalizing the issue. Lobbyists are reported as confirming that quality think tanks in the U.S. are not compromising their integrity for cash. Who said that good news was no news?

Check on think tanks’ internal safeguards

The WaPo piece also sets strong standards in terms of letting Brookings explain at length how it shields its research processes and findings from potential donor pressure.

“Brookings officials said they have created a strong internal system to maintain independence. And outside analysts credit Brookings’s conflict-of-interest and disclosure standards, which they say exceed those of other think tanks… Guidelines require most paid employees to annually list conflicts of interest on forms that are reviewed internally. In addition, Brookings officials said, no single donor provides more than 2.5 percent of the overall budget, limiting the influence that any one funder can have on the institution.”

Such balanced reporting, with attention to internal safeguards, is especially refreshing when compared to some of the less considered media coverage Transparify has reviewed in recent months.

Report whether a think tank discloses its funders

The WaPo piece quotes think tank expert James McGann as saying that “Brookings provides an unusual level of disclosure regarding its funding”. Indeed, Brookings was rated by Transparify as “broadly transparent” in early 2014, placing it in the top third of major U.S. think tanks in terms of its financial transparency, demonstrating that it feels it has nothing to hide.

(Contrast the performance of Brookings with that of the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, which at this point discloses no information whatsoever on who funds it, the Center for American Progress, where the sources of over 94% of funds remain in the shadows, or any of the other 23 prominent U.S. think tanks that were less transparent than Brookings when Transparify last rated them.)

At the same time, Brookings conceded to the WaPo that the funding data presented in its annual reports could be somewhat misleading – which is why Transparify continues to encourage Brookings, along with all other think tanks, to embrace five-star transparency and list all donors with precise funding amounts and funding purposes.

Ask questions, listen carefully, report fairly

Would we be living in a better, more democratic world if all think tanks disappeared tomorrow? We don’t think so. On the whole, think tanks are making a positive contribution to society, in the U.S. and beyond.

At the same time, every think tank needs money to operate, and every donor who donates to a think tank has some kind of interests.  As Strobe Talbott, the president of Brookings, has publicly noted, there are two imperatives that virtually every think tank must reconcile: protecting its independence while raising the funds to stay in business.”

Hence, to paraphrase the Federalist Papers: even if all donors were angels, disclosure would still be sensible. For think tanks to maintain their intellectual integrity, it is essential that the media and other watchdogs engage in a constructive dialogue with institutions and ask them to publicly explain just how they defend their intellectual independence in the context of the ever-changing funding environment, if only to provoke critical reflection within think tanks. And in order for that dialogue to be based on objective facts, journalists need to be able to see who funds whom, and how funding trends are evolving over time.

In this context, Transparify would like to congratulate both Brookings and the Washington Post. We congratulate Brookings on choosing to voluntarily disclose funding data that it is not legally obliged to disclose, and for taking a lot of time to explain its inner workings to the media. And we congratulate the Washington Post for asking important questions, listening carefully to the answers, and reporting its findings in a fair and balanced way. It’s good to see democracy at work, and it will work even better with more transparency.


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Why American Think Tanks Are Becoming More Transparent

Guest blogger Brooke Williams outlines her ongoing research into the funding of US think tanks. Transparify does not edit the content of guest blogs; the views expressed in this blog are those of the author alone, and may not reflect the views of Transparify.

Think tanks in the United States have been under an increasing scrutiny in the past few years, with reports of them shilling for corporate and foreign government donors and using cozy relationships with lobbyists and lawmakers to shape public policy – all without disclosing exactly who paid them how much to do it. But things are changing. Slowly.

Indeed, there is hope for transparency advocates or those who simply want to follow the money. Some of the most powerful think tanks in the country are reevaluating their policies and making decisions that could give people more access to details about who funds their work and why.

Executives at the Brookings Institution, one of the most influential think tanks in the world, have been meeting internally to try and be more transparent about donations from 19 foreign governments. This is in response to a letter the Lab@Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University sent to top U.S. think tanks asking for details about donations from corporations and foreign governments. Brookings currently lists the names of donors (unless they ask to remain anonymous) in its annual report, grouped by funding ranges.

Also in response to the letters, which I sent as a part of my project on think tanks for the Lab, the National Bureau of Economic Research decided to publish its corporate donors. James Poterba, the think tank’s president, said they had to get approval from the companies first – which they eventually did for most. In July 2013, they published the list online, which shows more than a dozen companies have given between $10,000 and $25,000, including global giants such as ExxonMobil, Pfizer and General Motors.

Most think tanks were not eager to increase transparency. Most wouldn’t consider it. Common reasons provided were donors’ rights to privacy – one think tank attorney pointed to five Supreme Court rulings he said confirmed these rights – as well as the concern that other groups seeking charitable money would harass named contributors. 

But in the end, it is almost certain the information will come out one way or another. Corporations often give through their nonprofit foundations, which must disclose contributions to think tanks in tax forms. As a part of my project for the Lab@Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, I have built a database of these donations, which soon will be available to the public online. 

Not long after journalist and former Lab fellow Ken Silverstein wrote about corporate donors to the Center for American Progress, and as its president John Podesta moved back to a position in the White House, the think tank decided to start disclosing the names on its own.

It’s likely more think tanks will release donor names voluntarily, whether it’s due to a revolving door with the government, questions from journalists or, perhaps, simple recognition of people’s right to know how private interests are paying to shape public opinion and policies.


Brooke Williams is an investigative journalism fellow at the Lab at Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University. Follow her on Twitter @reporterbrooke