Jul
01
2013

Who Pays for Think Tanks?

Corporate and foundation money often comes with an agenda

Pete Peterson (cc photo: Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News Service)

Billionaire Pete Peterson has ties to five top think tanks (cc photo: Lingjing Bao/Talk Radio News Service)

Think tanks are important institutions that provide information and analysis to both policy-makers and the public. But when they court donations, it can become unclear whether that analysis is tainted by donor agendas.

Ken Silverstein in the Nation (5/21/13) recently exposed the extent to which positions at the center-left Center for American Progress (CAP) and other think tanks were shaped by the interests of donors. “Staffers were very clearly instructed to check with the think tank’s development team before writing anything that might upset contributors,” Silverstein reported.

The 25 institutions in FAIR’s study of think tank citations have gotten money from corporations, foundations, governments and individual donors. The law does not require public disclosure of who the donors are, though donations above $5,000 are reported to the IRS. Many think tanks thank their donors in their annual reports, while others list donors on their websites. Sometimes the trawling of tax documents is required to figure out who is giving—and what they’re getting in return.

The sobering news about atmospheric carbon dioxide passing 400 parts per million (Guardian, 5/10/13) is another reminder that the global community needs to quickly take serious steps to avert looming ecological catastrophe, but with world leaders relying on research funded by the energy industry, it is unlikely the drastic measures required will be considered.

Almost two-thirds of the think tanks studied (16 out of 25) took money from at least one oil company. Thirteen—more than half—were funded by ExxonMobil, while more than a third, nine, were funded by Chevron; the Koch brothers contributed to seven. Shell gave to four think tanks, and Conoco-Phillips and BP each funded three.

Reflecting the clout that big donations bring, various think tanks have Big Energy sitting on their boards. The Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) has Rex W. Tillerson, chair and CEO of ExxonMobil, on its board of trustees, along with John Hess of Hess Oil. Duke Energy chief Jim Rogers sits on the boards of the Brookings Institution and the Aspen Institute. Aspen also has David Koch of Koch Industries, who’s on the board of the Cato Institute as well. The board of trustees of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) features the “Honorable Richard B. Cheney.”

Lockheed Martin's SR-71 Blackbird

Lockheed Martin's SR-71 Blackbird

War-related issues are also of vital public concern—and the companies that most profit from war are using their wealth to shape the discussion in ways that benefit them. Just under half (12 of 25) of the most-cited think tanks take money from weapons manufacturers; General Electric bankrolls 11 of them, while Boeing and Lockheed Martin each contributed to six. Four got donations from Northrop Grumman, and Raytheon financed three.

Ten of the 25 think tanks received donations from finance corporations. Five have finance executives on their boards; Brookings has three different Goldman Sachs–linked individuals, while Aspen has two. The board of the Institute for International Economics (IIE) has three members linked to Citigroup, and the Carnegie Endowment has one.

Thirteen of the think tanks had connections to the for-profit healthcare industry, either by donation or by board members. Nine received donations from pharmaceutical interests like Pfizer, Merck and the lobbying group PhRMA, while three have accepted money from health insurance companies like MetLife. AEI's board has Wilson Taylor, chair emeritus of Cigna, while Brookings' contains former Cigna chair Ralph Saul. IIE's board holds Karen Katen, former vice chair of Pfizer, and Ronald Williams, retired chair and CEO of Aetna.

Think tanks are also funded by charitable foundations, often channeling the fortunes of wealthy families of individuals, many of which have an ideological agenda that can be seen clearly in their choice of beneficiaries. Foundations tied to Richard Mellon Scaife, the Mellon banking heir who has helped to “fund the creation of the modern conservative movement in America” (Washington Post, 5/2/99), have bank-rolled the Manhattan Institute, AEI, Heritage, Hoover, Cato and CSIS. Scaife sits on the boards of Heritage and the Hoover Institution.

The Koch brothers foundations support Cato (where David Koch is on the board), Heritage, AEI, Manhattan and the Woodrow Wilson Center. The DeVos family, whose fortune derives from Amway, fund through various foundations AEI, Heritage and Cato. The Gilder Foundation funds the Manhattan Institute (where its founder is chair emeritus), Washington Institute for Near East Policy (WINEP), Cato and Heritage. The Bradley Foundation donates to AEI, Heritage, Manhattan, Hoover and Cato.

The Walton Family Foundation, created by the family of billionaires who own Walmart, have given money to conservative groups like AEI, Heritage, Manhattan, Hoover and Cato. They’ve also given money to the centrist Brookings and the center-left CAP, which backs President Obama's Affordable Care Act, a program that may drive up costs for Walmart's small business competitors (Business Insider, 6/30/09).

Wall Street billionaire Pete Peterson, who has relentlessly campaigned against retirement benefits through programs he helped launch like the Concord Coalition and the Fix the Debt campaign (Extra!, 3-4/97, 6/10; CounterSpin, 3/15/13, 11/16/12), is the former chair of the Council on Foreign Relations (and is still on CFR s board) and the founding chair of the IIE. His entities have bankrolled the Atlantic Council, Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and New America Foundation (NAF).

Billionaire financier George Soros is an outlier among wealthy givers, contributing through multiple foundations and corporations to a variety of institutions ranging from center-right to progressive: the Center for Economic and Policy Research, Woodrow Wilson Center, Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, Carnegie, Aspen, Brookings, Cato, CFR, EPI, NAF and CAP.

Think Tank Ties to Media