Just Asking: An Appeal for Voluntary Disclosure

Brooke Williams

Scholars at these think tanks have attracted media attention as experts on everything from China’s defense spending, to drones and oil pipelines, to new toll lanes and Medicaid. Just in the past week, they’ve collectively released dozens of policy and research papers. They’re shaping decisions that impact our day-to-day lives.


But who is funding their work? At 16 of the top 50 think tanks in the country, as ranked by James McGann for his report at the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the International Relations Program, University of Pennsylvania,1 it’s tough to say. Unlike others on the list, they don’t disclose donors. Indeed, some promise anonymity.

To be sure, the 16 think tanks vary widely, from a shop in Los Angeles advancing a free market, libertarian agenda, to a progressive group in Washington, D.C. whose executives have ties to the Obama administration and are among the most frequent visitors to the White House. However, they all have two things in common: they’re considered to be among the most influential think tanks, and they don’t provide the public with details on where they get money.

So we asked.

On April 16, we mailed letters to the top executives of 16 think tanks asking them to voluntarily disclose a list of any corporations, corporate foundations, and foreign governments that donated in the past five fiscal years, and how much these entities had given the think tanks. We will provide updates on their responses.

These letters are part of an ongoing project at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics that is examining how corporations and foreign governments donate to think tanks and shape public discourse and policy and from behind the scenes, often leaving the public in the dark about how and why they’re involved. In addition to asking, we are gathering data on corporate and foreign government donors from tax filings and other records in an effort to make at least some of the information publicly available.

Although more narrow in scope, this type of request worked well for author Stephanie Epstein and Charles Lewis, founder and then-executive director of the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit journalism organization in Washington, D.C, for “Buying the American Mind” in 1991. They asked a handful of think tanks to disclose donations from the Japanese government or interests. Five think tanks reported receiving $5.4 million in donations from Japanese interests between 1985 and 1990. Epstien found that those receiving that funding were the same think tanks promoting policies favorable to Japanese interests.2

Most think tanks in this country are nonprofit organizations, and the law does not require them to disclose donors. Even so, many do. While following up on the letter we sent, we’ve asked some of the 16 institutions why they choose not to disclose.

At the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., which seeks to advance “principles of limited government, free enterprise, and individual liberty,” Sam Kazman, general counsel for CEI, says it is about protecting the privacy of donors who don’t want to be named. He pointed to five Supreme Court rulings, as well as several from lower courts, addressing “the importance and the constitutionally-protected status of donor confidentiality.”

“If you think about the situation in the South in the 1950s, you can imagine what the impact of compulsory disclosure would have meant for groups like the NAACP,” Kazman said.

Kazman said CEI does not accept money from foreign governments.

The Center for American Progress, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C., takes credit for shaping national debate on its website, but does not say who is paying for it.

CAP spokeswoman Andrea Purse said CAP “follows all financial disclosure requirements with regard to donors.”

“Our policy work is independent and driven by solutions that we believe will create a more equitable and just country,” she said.

At the National Bureau of Economic Research in Cambridge, Massachusetts, President James Poterba said scholars must disclose all sources of funding in every paper it publishes. Period.

That said, he acknowledged NBER does not reveal the names of donors who contribute to its general operations. The most recent tax filings show nearly 82 percent of $33.3 million NBER received in 2010 was in government grants. Poterba said the remaining $6 million came from foundations, corporations and individuals, which the organization does not name.

NBER is different from many other think tanks since it does not take positions or make policy recommendations, though Poterba said he certainly hopes lawmakers are reading the papers.

Poterba said our request for voluntary disclosure has caused his organization to consider, “Should we be doing something different here?”

“We’ll certainly think about this question,” he said.

At the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., unnamed corporate donors can “gain access to the leading scholars in the most important policy areas for executive briefings and knowledge sharing.”

“We respect the privacy of those who choose to contribute and therefore we do not publicly list donors,” AEI spokeswoman Judy Mayka said in an email.

At the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research in New York City, donors who give $25,000 can “engage in one-on-one meetings with Institute Scholars,” among other things.  Spokeswoman Lindsay Craig, said in an email that the think tank doesn’t name them because “donor information is private.”



[1] “2012 Global Go to Think Tanks Report and Policy Advice,” James G. McGann, Ph.D., Director, Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program, University of Pennsylvania, page 49

[2] “Buying the American Mind: Japan's Quest for U.S. Ideas In Science, Economic Policy, & the Schools,” Stephanie Epstein, Center for Public Integrity, chapter IV, pages 36, 37

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