The Situationist

Archive for May 23rd, 2013

The Financial Situation of Think Tanks

Posted by The Situationist Staff on May 23, 2013

think-tank-map from FAS Research

For The Nation, Ken Silverstein has a revealing article, titled “The Secret Donors Behind the Center for American Progress and Other Think Tanks.”  Paying special attention to the Center for American Progress, the article shows how ideas, policies, and people gain credibility, legitimacy, and influence through unseen corporate investments in think tanks. Here are a couple of excerpts:

Nowadays, many Washington think tanks effectively serve as unregistered lobbyists for corporate donors, and companies strategically contribute to them just as they hire a PR or lobby shop or make campaign donations. And unlike lobbyists and elected officials, think tanks are not subject to financial disclosure requirements, so they reveal their donors only if they choose to. That makes it impossible for the public and lawmakers to know if a think tank is putting out an impartial study or one that’s been shaped by a donor’s political agenda. “If you’re a lobbyist, whatever you say is heavily discounted,” says Kathleen Clark, a law professor at Washington University and an expert on political ethics. “If a think tank is saying it, it obviously sounds a lot better. Maybe think tanks aren’t aware of how useful that makes them to private interests. On the other hand, maybe it’s part of their revenue model.”

* * *

[M]any [think tanks] lure big donors with a package of benefits, including personalized policy briefings, the right to directly underwrite and shape research projects, and general support for the donor’s political needs.

Most think tanks are nonprofit organizations, so a donor can even get a nice tax break for contributing. But it’s their reputation for impartiality and their web of contacts that makes them especially useful as policy advocates. “Think tanks can always draw a big audience to your event, including government folks,” a Washington lobbyist who has worked with several told me. “And people generally don’t think they would twist anything, or wonder about where they get their money.”

While think tanks portray themselves as altruistic scholarly institutions, they emphasize their political influence when courting donors. “If you have a particular area of policy interest, you can support a specific research effort under way,” the Brookings Institution says in one pitch for cash. Those interested in 
”a deeper engagement”—read: ready to fork over especially large sums of money—get personal briefings from resident experts and can work directly with senior Brookings officials to draw up a research agenda that will “maximize impact on policymaking.”

The Center for Strategic and International Studies advertises itself as being “in the unique position to bring together leaders of both the public and private sectors in small, often off-the-record meetings to build consensus around important policy issues.” It allows top-tier donors to directly sponsor reports, events and speaker series.

Read the entire article here.

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