In April, we asked 16 think tanks to voluntarily disclose the names of all corporate and foreign government donors. Some of the results are in, and they range from disheartening to promising.
Knowing who funds think tanks is important, because many are helping to shape public policy as trusted, independent research institutions while at the same time catering to private interests. In donor pitches, many of the most influential think tanks in this country put a price on everything from public policy papers to meetings with lawmakers.
So far, 11 think tanks have responded to our letter and subsequent phone calls and emails. One promised to release a donor list within the next few months, two assert they already disclose funders, and the rest say it is not the public’s business.
The National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, plans to publish a list of all corporations that contribute to its general operating budget in July.
James Poterba, president of the think tank, said in a letter that he spoke with the board of directors, and there was “general agreement that the NBER should move to a complete-disclosure regime.” He said they are notifying donors first. The think tank doesn’t receive donations from foreign governments, he said, and scholars list funders in each paper published.
“I am grateful to you for drawing my attention to an issue that our organization had not considered in some time,” he said.
At the Center for Strategic and International Studies, Andrew Schwartz, senior vice president of external relations, said the think tank already discloses donors.
“We’re not obligated to do it but we are very transparent about who funds each report and study,” he said in an email. “It is listed in each work we produce.”
He did not respond to questions about whether or not CSIS discloses all donors or just some, and if this includes any foreign governments.
“Just as another aside for your reference,” he wrote, “we have recently had a successful building campaign and plan to publicly acknowledge the donors to our building in this new setting at the appropriate time when we move in and get settled.”
Think tanks that declined to turn over donor details include the Center for American Progress (you can check out their internal, confidential list, thanks to Lab fellow Ken Silverstein), American Enterprise Institute, Hudson Institute, Center for the National Interest, Manhattan Institute, Competitive Enterprise Institute, and the Independent Institute.
The Reason Foundation, based in Los Angeles, pointed to the fact that it annually publishes a list of donors who gave $1,000 or more in its magazine. The list, however, includes donations from “Anonymous” at each level of giving.
Also on Reason’s list of contributors is Donors Trust, a group that enables anonymous giving to free-market think tanks. An examination of tax filings shows Donors Trust and its sister organization, Donors Capital Fund, have given to 9 of the 16 think tanks we contacted requesting voluntary disclosure.
The letters are part of my ongoing project at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, in which I examine how corporations and foreign governments donate to think tanks to try and shape public discourse and policy from behind the scenes, thereby leaving the public in the dark.