US Think Tanks Continue to Grow – New Transparify Analysis

Think tanks in the United States continue to grow, according to 2016 numbers that now are available. The expenditure of the top 21 think tanks in the United States grew by 6% and revenues by 5% between 2015 and 2016, significantly above inflation. While net assets stayed flat, employee numbers grew slightly, by 3%. The number of staff paid more than $100k increased by 10%, thus showing particularly strong growth.

Within the group of think tanks, there were significant differences. In terms of expenditures, the Wilson Center (60%) grew particularly strongly, as did the Center for New American Security (CNAS, 27%), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI, 22%), the New America Foundation (19%), and the World Resources Institute (WRI, 16%).

The German Marshall Fund (GMFUS) decreased its budget by 11%, and Brookings (-3%) and the Heritage Foundation (-2%) also decreased their expenditure.

The numbers show that think tank funding is choppy. Not too much should be read into a year-on-year change, as funding often comes in lumps, for example through a targeted campaign or a large one-off gift. Yet long-term, the trends are interesting to follow. In 2016, CSIS had a 97% increase in funding, the Wilson Center 72%, CNAS 68%, New America 65%, and the WRI 37%. We are happy to note that New America and the World Resources Institute are 5-star transparent think tanks, too, and that CSIS has 4-star transparency.

In terms of funding decreases, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) had a 49% reduction, though this primarily is a result of a high yield in 2015, and CBPP is now broadly back to its previous funding levels. The same pattern applies to the AEI, with its 29% decrease, after a particularly successful year. The International Crisis Group however, experienced a substantive cut of -29%, down to $13m, and is at its lowest level of funding in more than ten years.

The numbers continue to illustrate the size of the entire sector. The largest institutions remain the RAND Corporation (by far, with its $327m budget), followed by Brookings ($105m), WRI ($90m), the Urban Institute ($88m) and the Heritage Foundation ($81m). In total, the top 21 institutions have a combined budget of $1.15bn, combined net assets of $2.59bn and they employ more than 7,700 people in the United States. (Anyone who pays taxes in the US is in the counts, so this will include interns and non-research staff, and exclude staff in offices outside the US.)

One remarkable change is the increase in the number of staff paid more than $100.000. This has increased by 10% across the institutions, and together there are more than 1,700 people with that level of salary, reflecting that at least in some institutions, expertise is well remunerated.

These are only some of the headline numbers. The spread sheet has much more detail, averages and medians, maximum and minimum, and is sortable. (Thanks to the Transparify team and to Johann Schmidt for assembling the numbers.) It should thus be of interest to anyone who wants to compare think tank numbers.

The data broadly reflects the state of play for 2015 and 2016, as it is taken from IRS sheets for 2014 and 2015, with financial years ending across the year, for the institutions. One fascinating question is how think tank funding has evolved after the 2016 election. We will keep tracking budget data, and analyze future developments.

The data sheet is here. If you find it useful, we are grateful for a quick note via Email or Twitter.

Interested in think tank research? Try Find Policy, a tool in which you can search multiple think tanks in a single search window, giving you instant quality results:

[This item was cross-posted with On Think Tanks.]

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.


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 Debate Worth Having: Anonymity & Remaining Opacity

As think tanks, especially in the United States, have been putting more information online, their disclosure has invited scrutiny and public debate. In the last days there were several items, see Greg Sargent for the Washington Post and Dan Berman in the National Journal

We welcome the debate and attention to think tank funding. Greg Sargent quotes our statement on this debate in detail, and we are reposting it here once more: 

Transparify strongly welcomes the Center for American Progress' recent shift towards greater transparency. While we have not formally assessed and rated CAP's new disclosure level yet, it is clear that it represents a substantial improvement over CAP's previous level of disclosure. CAP's move reflects a broad and significant shift by the American think tank community as a whole towards greater transparency over the past year. 

Some commentators have highlighted the fact that CAP, like some other think tanks, has not disclosed the names of some of its donors. Transparify obviously encourages full disclosure, but at the same time realizes that large institutions in particular may need to take one step towards transparency at a time. CAP is definitely moving into the right direction. 

Should there be anonymous donors at all? As Transparify has documented, there are various sides to the debate. Some donors do not want to be named. While we prefer as much transparency as possible, our ratings at this point make allowance for up to 15% of donations being anonymous. The rationale is that sensible organizations typically will not risk their reputations for a small portion of their funding. This rule-of-thumb is not meant to settle the discussion on anonymous funding. It is intended to make it possible to have a constructive debate on such funding, in the first place.

Meanwhile, a small (and rapidly shrinking) minority of American think tanks continue to dig their heels in and refuse to open their books. It's understandable and legitimate that the public is focusing on the funding makeup of institutions who are opening their books.  However, in terms of research integrity, what is far more worrying is what is completely unknown -- the funding makeup of opaque think tanks. 

It's important to ask who is funding 3% of a more transparent think tank's operations. But it's even more important to ask opaque think tanks who do not disclose who their main donors are why they continue to keep their books closed while their peers are progressively disclosing more data.

[one typo amended from original statement]

We will soon be releasing our transparency rating of 150+ think tanks from around the world. To be notified, follow us on Facebook, sign up to our mailing list or follow us on Twitter

Thinks Tanks Begin Planning for the 2016 Presidential Transition

Guest blogger Heath Brown discusses the role of think tanks in the US presidential transition, and calls for more transparency in the process. 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.

It may seem shockingly early to start talking about the 2016 campaign, but with a near permanent campaign infrastructure in place, the major candidates are getting ready. Funding plans, social media strategies, and celebrity endorsements are discretely in the works for Hillary Clinton, Jeb Bush, and Rand Paul.

Less attention has been drawn to the equally important planning for the 2016 presidential transition – the 11 week period between the election and the inauguration. While media consultants are busy cutting the first campaign advertisements, wonks are figuring out the mechanics of a transition between presidents to insure a safe, efficient, and orderly process occurs. Most of these wonks and policy experts now work for the research think tanks that dot Washington and other major US cities.

Starting this early is not a new thing. In 1960, the most famous think tank, the Brookings Institution, practically invented the concept of a carefully planned presidential transition when it briefed representatives of candidates John Kennedy and Richard Nixon during the later stages of the campaign. Brookings feared Cold War threats might be exacerbated if partisan wrangling interrupted the work of the foreign policy establishment prior to the January inauguration.

Twenty years later, and prior to when President Reagan was elected in 1980, scholars at the Heritage Foundation – the conservative think tank founded in the early 1970s by Paul Weyrich, Edwin Feulner, and Joseph Coors – had already mapped an initial policy agenda and identified specific individuals to be appointed to the new Reagan administration.

And in 1999, long before the controversial recount, George W. Bush had tasked one of his closest advisers, Clay Johnson, with developing a personnel plan for his White House. The American Enterprise Institute and other conservative think tanks eventually advised on elements of the Bush transition, including the controversial Energy Task Force chaired by Dick Cheney (see:

In 2008, the Center for American Progress (CAP) had been aggressively planning for the transition, and the president-elect chose that think tank’s leader, John Podesta, to co-chair his transition team (see: Ultimately many of CAPs key staffers were appointed to the Obama White House and other important federal positions.

So, it is not too early to expect the planning to begin, but where can we expect presidential planning in 2015? Since we do not even know who is officially running, we can just speculate at this point.

If Hillary Clinton decides to run, it is reasonable to expect that the Center for American Progress will again be actively planning, since John Podesta is already talked about as a member of the inner circle of her campaign team. But it is also reasonable to expect that the dozens of experts at the Clinton Foundation are developing some of the foreign policy and international affairs ideas that could later make up a Clinton policy agenda.

If Jeb Bush decides to run, many of the same think tanks that supported his brother in 2000 – including the Heritage Foundation and the American Enterprise Institute – will again be active. But organizations tied to Jeb Bush’s favored policy issues, especially school reform, should also be central. Bush founded the Foundation for Excellence in Education and continues to serve as the Chair of its Board (see: His foundation will likely be identifying ways to reorganize the US Department of Education and which education policymakers might be nominated to crucial positions.

If Rand Paul decides to run we cannot rely on precedent as we can for Clinton and Bush. Instead, Paul’s libertarian leanings might invite the Cato Institute into the process, and a new array of policy experts with a very different perspective would take part in the process.

Unfortunately, the moment word gets out that a candidate is even tacitly coordinating transition planning they will be accused of “measuring the White House drapes” or “counting chickens before they hatch.” The tendency of the media to frame pre-election transition planning as presumptuous prevents candidates and think tanks from the type of transparency that would advance rather than hinder democracy.  Think tanks should be involved in planning, but transition planning should be made as public as Federal Election Commission regulations require major aspects of the campaign. Greater transparency would reduce concerns that voters and other large segments of the country are shut out of a critical aspect of federal policymaking. Think tanks can be leaders in this move toward openness if they openly report the transition planning that will likely dominate their work in the new year.


Heath Brown is assistant professor of public policy at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, City University of New York. He is the author of Lobbying the New Presidents: Interests in Transition that has just been released in paper-back (see:

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.

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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Media Needs Higher Standards, Too

The recent discussion on foreign governments gaining influence through US think tanks seems to be going into another round. Attention now is shifting onto the role of the media.

Recent cases have shown that major media outlets have run op-eds by contributors who did not disclose important potential conflicts of interest. These contributors identify themselves as retired public servants or researchers and neglect to mention other relevant affiliations. The most recent case is that of a university professor who apparently failed to disclose her relationship with a state-owned oil company in the Caspian region. (Please follow us on Twitter for updates on this breaking story.)

Transparify is advocating for more integrity in policy discussions, so this is an issue of of concern.

This issue may be partially fixable

  • by demanding routine funding disclosure and highlighting to readers when such disclosure is not offered.
  • by asking individual contributors to explicitly state that they do not have conflicts of interest. This would turn misrepresentation into an act of commission, rather than neglect. Explicit declarations by now are standard practice in medical journals, and we believe they are a good idea for policy-related outlets, too.

These are realistic proposals that can be implemented. Of course, even more could be done, such as posting, with a link, the disclosure forms and maybe even resumes of individual contributors. This may be a measure for media outlets that are particularly keen to advance disclosure practices. The key is to shift the default towards transparency.

Taking such steps could contribute to more integrity in debate. Without such measures, we are likely to remain in a never-ending cycle of mini-scandals. These will increase cynicism about the contribution of policy experts to public debate, and needlessly damage the many good think tanks who are committed to transparency.

Policy research has much to offer to public debate. Last week, the media reminded think tanks that they should hold themselves to high standards. Yet the media needs to hold itself to higher standards, too. We believe that our suggested two steps are great steps in that direction.

Think Tank Disclosure Amendment | Transparify's Statement

In the hearing of the SubCommittee on Rules and Organization of the US House of Representatives, Representative Jackie Speier (Democrat, California), put forward an amendment that would require witnesses before the House to disclose payments they receive from foreign governments. For Speier's full statement, check the video clip here.

Eric Lipton at the New York Times has covered this proposed amendment, and a number of major reactions. Transparify is also quoted. The NYT piece is here.

Our full statement on the proposed amendment is the following:

"Transparify welcomes U.S. legislators' interest in verifying the funding sources of witnesses that testify before committees, including those working for think tanks. However, limiting such disclosure requirements to recipients of foreign government money alone is problematic. For example, the proposed rule does not cover payments by foreign companies, including state-owned enterprises or by foreign oligarchs. Transparify believes that the current debate on foreign funding for think tanks only touches the tip of the iceberg. This "foreign-government funding" debate ignores the far greater amounts of money that are poured into think tanks by domestic players, including corporations and trade unions, which should also be disclosed. This well-intentioned amendment is too narrow in scope and will not solve the problem of disclosing potential conflicts of interests from think tanks and other expert witnesses, including those not affiliated with think tanks. Instead, Congress should work with those think tanks that already voluntarily disclose who funds them and with watchdog organizations to develop rules and laws that will work effectively in practice."

For further information or comment please contact Hans Gutbrod at

New Discussion on Think Tank Funding in the US

Earlier this week, the New York Times published a piece on foreign funding of US think tanks. The article by now will be familiar to most people interested in think tanks in the US, but not to all of our readers in other places. (To be clear, we were not involved with it.) We thus wanted to highlight key pieces on this debate. The ongoing discussion complements earlier debates, which we have summarized in four documents.

In a first post, we will highlight key contributions. Subsequently, we will also publish a more detailed comment.

The item by the New York Times is here.

There are two more detailed responses, that we recommend to any reader. David Roodman describes his take, as a former think tank researcher. Enrique Mendizabal provides a detailed discussion, putting the discussion in broader context. (Routine disclosure: Transparify is part of the OnThinkTanks Labs, a group of policy research ventures.)

Think Tank Watch keeps a roster of responses, that are updated regularly, here.

Among think tank responses, the ones we have seen at this point include

  1. response by Strobe Talbott, the President of the Brookings Institution.
  2. official statement by the Brookings Institution.
  3. statement by the Center for Global Development.

We welcome the debate. In the discussion, people have disagreed what to make of the article. Where we see agreement, hopefully, is that we need more transparency. In the past this has often been seen as a side issue. The debate illustrates that transparency demonstrates confidence in the integrity of one's research. It is central to the credibility of think tanks.

More to follow.

Think Tanks by the Numbers

Guest blogger Donald Abelson discusses the impact of think tanks, and how impact can be quantified. 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.

When it comes to assessing the impact or influence of their organizations, directors of think tanks generally have two prepared responses.  The first, which is directed to scholars and to investigative journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks, tends to be more circumspect. As the head of a Canadian think tank said to me in a recent interview , “measuring our impact on public policy is virtually impossible.”  But what directors of think tanks are willing to concede behind closed doors is a far cry from the message they convey in public. Indeed, the narrative that is carefully crafted for stakeholders prepared to support and endorse the work of think tanks is very different.  When potential funding dollars are on the line, think tanks can ill afford to be modest. “We have enormous influence when it comes to shaping public opinion and public policy,” directors of several US-based think tanks often claim. “Just look at the numbers.”

What kind of numbers are directors of think tanks referring to, and do they help us to better understand how much or little impact think tanks wield?  Recognizing the importance of convincing donors that public visibility or exposure should be equated with policy influence, think tanks go to great lengths, and often to great expense (by hiring media consulting firms) to monitor how often they are cited in newspapers, on television, and on the internet.  Many organizations also keep a close watch on how many publications are downloaded from their website, as well as the frequency with which their experts are called upon to testify before legislative committees.

While these and other indicators of public exposure might be useful in highlighting how active certain think tanks are in attempting to shape the parameters around important policy debates, they tell us little about the actual impact of think tanks in influencing policy decisions.  After all, policy outputs (such as publications and testimony) are very different from policy outcomes (the decisions made by policy makers). Yet, rather than asking directors of think tanks to explain, in concrete terms, how and to what extent their organizations  contributed to particular policy outcomes, those of us who monitor the activities of think tanks have in some ways helped them to foster the illusion of policy influence. This needs to change.

Several scholars and journalists familiar with the complex world of think tanks participate in the annual Global Go To Think Tank s Index Report, an initiative of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania. Released since 2006, the report both tracks the number of think tanks worldwide, and ranks the top think tanks (in various categories) according to over a dozen criteria.  Although an ambitious undertaking, the reports’ rankings are widely seen as arbitrary and impressionistic. Not only are the numbers of think tanks reported worldwide inflated (indeed many of the organizations included in the study are not think tanks), but the manner in which the rankings are conducted needs to be far more transparent.  Although scholars can debate the strengths and limitations of the survey, what is more important is the fact that the top-ranked think tanks (usually those that are the largest and best funded) use the rankings to mobilize more support for their work. If think tanks do indeed matter, than the issue of how numbers are used to validate their activities needs to be explored further. 

Donald E. Abelson teaches at the University of Western Ontario in Canada. His work focuses primarily on the role of think tanks and their efforts to influence public opinion and public policy.

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.