Think tanks in the United States have been under 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.