New Report Rates Think Tank Transparency

by Brooke Williams

Transparify, a small group based in Tbilisi, Georgia, released a report today that rates think tanks around the world based on how much, if anything, they publicly disclose about who funds their work. Only 12 percent of think tanks surveyed—a total of two in the United States—received the highest, five-star rating. But even those two don’t publicly name all of their donors.

Hans Gutbrod, executive director of Transparify, said in the report that a lack of transparency about funding “can raise questions about hidden agendas” and “undermine the effectiveness of the think tank sector as a whole.”

The ratings, he said, seek to provide those think tanks that are highly transparent about their funding “a tool for signaling to policy makers, the media and the public that they deserve their trust and respect.”

Jennifer Lappin, spokeswoman for Transparify, said they are offering only those think tanks rated with five stars a logo to display on their websites.

Transparify rated 169 think tanks in 47 countries, from Ukraine to Brazil to Ghana. This is a tiny fraction of the 6,800-some think tanks worldwide.

It selected “leading think tanks” from third party lists, noting that institutions in Central and Eastern Europe are overrepresented because the area is of particular interest to its donor, the Think Tank Fund, a program of billionaire George Soros’ Open Society Foundations. (Transparify gave Open Society zero stars while noting it doesn’t actually consider itself a think tank and is “funded exclusively by George Soros.”)

One other organization in the U.S. received zero stars—the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School. Belfer doesn’t publish a donor list online, but it also doesn’t appear to solicit or accept donations on its website. A spokesman for Belfer hadn’t seen the report and declined to comment Tuesday afternoon.

Also at the Kennedy School, the Center for International Development (CID) received a two-star rating because it lists donors online but doesn’t include amounts.

Chuck McKenney, communications manager for the CID, said they must consider broader school policies on donors and gifts and are looking into the possibility of publishing dollar amounts online.

“Harvard is a leader, so it will be really great to see if Harvard takes a lead,” Transparify’s Lappin said.

Two think tanks in the U.S. received five-star ratings—the Center for Global Development (CGD) and the World Resources Institute (WRI). Both recently changed the way they publicly disclose who funds their work.

In a Labcast published May 6, executives of the Center for Global Development in Washington, D.C. talk about how and why they recently created a beta webpage devoted to “How We’re Funded.” It lists amounts and purposes of all grants and donations more than $100,000, but three of the donors are labeled “anonymous.”

Katie Douglas Martel, deputy director of Institutional Advancement at CGD, said they solicited feedback from all of their donors before launching the webpage. She said the three anonymous donors are individuals who had longstanding requests not to be named.

“I think moving forward, we will continue to honor those requests, especially from individuals,” she said. “If a corporation or a larger entity wanted to be anonymous, I think we’d really have to think about that and respond to that as it happened.”

Douglas Martel said no foreign government or corporate donors have requested anonymity.

At the World Resources Institute, Steve Barker, chief financial officer, said publishing more details about its funding was fairly simple. WRI did not broadly alert or seek feedback from all donors, he said, though they might have reached out to a few.

Barker said there are a few small, individual donors who wish to remain anonymous, and WRI will continue to honor those requests. He said no corporate or foreign government donors are anonymous.

“I think there are other organizations who might want to obfuscate that somewhat, but we’re just not like that at all,” he said.

Gutbrod, executive director of Transparify, said in an email that while their methodology says five star organizations have “all donors listed,” they ended up allowing for a small percentage of anonymous donors. He said it became clear that “you cannot easily identify donors that previously were promised anonymity.”

In all, at least 15 think tanks changed their disclosure practices between January and April 15, according to the Transparify report, and another 23 said they would be making more details about their funding publicly available in the “foreseeable future.”