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Who funds think tanks?

21 June 2012

4:00 PM

21 June 2012

4:00 PM

I was very interested to see the launch of the Who Funds You? website today. This is an intriguing new initiative to examine the transparency of think tanks. The tendency over recent years to outsource political policy to these micro-institutions makes it ever more important for the public to know the sources of their funding.  

In keeping with the spirit of the exercise, the website’s founders are entirely transparent about the sources of its funding (it has none). And in the same spirit, I should disclose that one of the people involved is a friend of mine, Paul Evans, the founder of Political Innovation and editor of Local Democracy blog.

I like the ramshackle nature of British think tanks, which often provide research of at least the quality of their slicker, more generously funded American counterparts. They often work on limited budgets with hard working staff stretched to their limits. Too often they are tempted into the systematic use of free labour and some even build unpaid labour into their business model, but that’s another story. There should be no reason for think tanks to be coy.

Who Funds You has a scoring system based on the following criteria:

1. Does the organisation disclose its income?
2. Are financial details published online?
3. Are individual donors named and the amount of each donation published?
4. Are corporate donors named and the amount of each donation published?

This exercise seems to demonstrate that left-leaning think tanks are more transparent than right-wing ones. The Adam Smith Institute, ResPublica  and the Tax Payers’ Alliance don’t appear to publish any information about their funding. This compares unfavourably to Compass, the IPPR, the New Economics Foundation, the Resolution Foundation and Progress, who are all models of transparency.

I would be very interested to know how much of this has to do with which party is in power. Were the left-wing think tanks quite so transparent when the stakes were higher? Perhaps they were. But it strikes me that it is only human to believe that generosity motivates donations in opposition while sinister motives are attributed to those who give to think tanks close to government. It’s just possible that the secrecy is driven by a desire to protect donors from people jumping to conclusions? Of course, it could just be rich people trying to buy influence.

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