Think Tanks under Pressure to Disclose Funding Sources

Thursday, May 08, 2014

Many of the nation’s leading think tanks, both on the right and the left, have been reluctant to disclose their major donors, raising questions about whether their research is being swayed by special interests.


Transparify, a small nonprofit organization supported by the Open Society Foundations, which is funded by billionaire George Soros, examined many of the top think tanks to see which ones reveal the names of their key contributors.


It gave low marks for lack of transparency to research bodies such as the conservative Hoover Institution and the liberal Center for American Progress, as well as others whose reports are highly regarded in Washington, such as the Center for Strategic and International Studies and the Hudson Institute.


“Think tanks globally play an important role in the public conversation,” Hans Gutbrod, Transparify’s executive director, told The New York Times. “It’s important that people can have confidence in the integrity of the research, and if you are concealing the sources of funding that is relevant, as people don’t know how your research may be motivated.”


Some well-established research organizations received high marks for publishing the names of donors who give $5,000 or more to them. These included the Brookings Institution, the Heritage Foundation, the Woodrow Wilson Center and the Urban Institute.


In some cases, think tanks that weren’t disclosing contributor names were prompted to do so in order to avoid getting a poor grade in the Transparify report (pdf). Two examples were the Stimson Center, which focuses on foreign policy, and the Center for Global Development, which addresses poverty issues.


“The Transparify project has been useful in prompting some reflection about how Stimson can best provide this information in a way that honors consumers of Stimson’s analysis and the donors who support our work,” Cheryl L. Ramp, chief operating officer at the center, told the Times after the organization revealed a full list of its donors.


Transparify didn’t even mind biting the hand that feeds it. The organization gave its benefactor, Open Society Foundations, zero stars because it doesn’t list the source of its funding on its website. However, Soros’ name is listed in its publicly available tax return.


The issue of think tanks keeping secret their funding sources came up last year as well, when the watchdog group FAIR (Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting) released its own assessment of 25 leading research groups.


FAIR’s study found 16 of them accepted financial support from at least one oil company. Thirteen had taken money from ExxonMobil, the world’s largest petroleum producer, while nine were funded by Chevron and seven by the conservative Koch brothers, who own numerous oil-related businesses.


The 2013 report also found that almost half of the think tanks had received checks from defense contractors, including General Electric, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and Raytheon.

-Noel Brinkerhoff


To Learn More:

Major Research Groups Are Given Low Marks on Disclosing Donors (by Eric Lipton, New York Times)

Who Pays for Think Tanks? (by Rick Carp, Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting)

Elizabeth Warren Wants Banks to Disclose Think Tank Donations. Shouldn’t Everybody? (by Lydia Depillis, Washington Post)

Think Tank Plays Down Role of Donors (by Eric Lipton, New York Times)

Hiding Political Donors Is Key Reason IRS Applicants Sought Tax-Exempt Status (by Danny Biederman and Noel Brinkerhoff, AllGov)


Leave a comment