Foreign Funding of Think Tanks in America

Summary of Study

Bottom Line: American think tanks receive a substantial amount of funding from foreign sources, which they are not required to disclose. Since these donations can influence a think tank’s research, these groups should be required to publicly disclose all foreign funding.

“Despite largely flying under the public’s radar, think tanks have long played a critical role in shaping U.S. public policy.” The Heritage Foundation functionally programmed the first Reagan administration, while the Center for American Progress has worked closely with Democratic lawmakers since 2003, as well as the Obama administration.

In addition to shaping public policy through their interactions with lawmakers, think tank scholars frequently pen op-eds for major newspapers and appear as talking heads on news programs. Through this, think tanks “play a large role in shaping the public narrative about U.S. government policies.”

Finally, think tanks influence public policy thanks to the “revolving door.” Think tank officials are frequently tapped to serve in cabinet agencies, and federal officials often move to think tanks after leaving government. “In short, while think tanks may not be widely understood, they play an enormous role in shaping the U.S. government and public policy in America.”

According to the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, there 1,872 think tanks in America, “more than double the number of think tanks in existence in 1980 when the Heritage Foundation provided its recommendations to Ronald Reagan.”

While think tanks assert that donors don’t influence their research, it’s clear that this is largely false. “Most funding comes with explicit strings attached,” like writing reports or holding events on certain issues -- or, conversely, not doing so.

As a result, it’s problematic that think tanks “are not required to publicly disclose their funding,” and are generally “reluctant to reveal the full scope of” the funding they receive from foreign sources. This is especially troublesome because, while foreign donors are often friendly Western countries, “a significant number of these foreign donors are undemocratic, authoritarian regimes whose aims often diverge significantly from U.S. interests.”

Only “two think tanks—the Center for Global Development and the Chicago Council on Global Affairs—reported the exact amount received from foreign donors.” The rest are less forthcoming. To shed some light on that, the Foreign Influence Transparency Initiative attempted to chart foreign contributions to the top 50 think tanks in the United States from 2014 to 2018. They found nearly 900 different donations from more than 80 countries, totaling over $174 million.

The World Resources Institute received the most funding from foreign powers, taking in $63 million from “at least 27 foreign sources,” including Western governments as well as donors in China. “With at least $27 million in foreign funding, the Brookings Institution was the third highest receipt of foreign money” from foreign sources, including somewhere between $2 and $14 million from Qatar.

The top foreign donors to the think tanks analyzed were Norway ($27.6 million), the United Kingdom ($27.1 million) and the United Arab Emirates ($15.1 million). The UAE is particularly interesting, since it is the top non-democratic donor in the study. The “vast majority” of the UAE’s donations went to “the Aspen Institute, the Atlantic Council, and the Brookings Institution, all of which received at least $4 million from the UAE.”

To make foreign donations to think tanks more transparent, FITI recommends the IRS make publicly available think tanks’ Form 990 Schedule B’s, in which they are already required to disclose all donors who give more than $5,000. This information “can then be used by a number of others—including the media and Congress—to understand any potential conflicts of interest in the information they’re receiving from think tanks.”

Read the full report here.

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Center for International Policy