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.)

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