11. Wealthy Donors and Corporations Set Think Tanks’ Agendas

by Project Censored
Published: Updated:

Think tanks provide information and analysis to policy makers and the public, making them increasingly influential institutions in our political process. However, many think tanks—including the Brookings Institution, Heritage Foundation, American Enterprise Institute, Cato Institute, and the RAND Corporation, among others—receive significant financial backing from extremely wealthy corporations and/or individuals. Because the law does not require public disclosure of donors’ identities, these relationships raise the issue of whether think tanks’ analyses and recommendations are “tainted by donor agendas,” according to a July 2013 report by FAIR (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting).

For example, the Center for American Progress instructs its analysts to consult the organization’s development staff (who maintain the closest contacts with donors and potential donors) before publishing findings that might upset its contributors.

In its study of the nation’s top twenty-five think tanks, FAIR finds that all have received money from corporations, foundations, government, or major individual donors. In many cases, these donors not only get a tax deduction for their contributions, they also can influence the think tank’s formulation of policy.

FAIR found that almost two-thirds of the top twenty-five think tanks have taken money from oil companies, with thirteen funded by ExxonMobil, nine by Chevron, and four by Shell. Representatives of Big Energy also serve as members of many think tanks’ boards. Similarly, half of the top twenty-five think tanks receive money from weapon manufacturers. And, overall, all the think tanks in the FAIR study appear to be influenced by the corporations, foundations, and billionaires who fund them and who seek government policies that favor their own private interests.

In a separate study, Robert J. Brulle, an environmental sociologist at Drexel University, exposed “the organizational underpinnings and funding behind the powerful climate change countermovement.” According to Brulle’s study, conservative foundations (including the Searle Freedom Trust, the John William Pope Foundation, the Howard Charitable Foundation, and the Sarah Scaife Foundation) have bankrolled climate change denial. However, since 2008, major foundations, including the Koch-affiliated foundations and the ExxonMobil Foundation, have pulled back from publicly visible funding; instead, funding has been channeled through untraceable sources, including organizations such as the DonorsTrust foundation. According to Brulle’s data, approximately 75 percent of the income of climate change–denying organizations now comes from “unidentifiable sources.” Brulle explained:

Like a play on Broadway, the countermovement has stars in the spotlight—often prominent contrarian scientists or conservative politicians—but behind the stars is an organizational structure of directors, script writers and producers, in the form of conservative foundations. If you want to understand what’s driving this movement, you have to look at what’s going on behind the scenes. . . . The real issue here is one of democracy. . . . Without a free flow of accurate information, democratic politics and government accountability become impossible. . . . Powerful funders are supporting the campaign to deny scientific findings about global warming and raise public doubts about the roots and remedies of this massive global threat. At the very least, American voters deserve to know who is behind these efforts.


Rick Carp, “Who Pays for Think Tanks? Corporate and Foundation Money Often Comes with an Agenda,” Extra! (Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting), July 1, 2013, http://fair.org/home/who-pays-for-think-tanks.

“Not Just Koch Brothers: New Study Reveals Funders behind Climate Change Denial Effort,” Science Daily, December 20, 2013, http://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2013/12/131220154511.htm.

Robert J. Brulle, “Institutionalizing Delay: Foundation Funding and the Creation of US Climate Change Counter-Movement Organizations,” Climatic Change 122, no. 4 (February 2014): 681–94, http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-013-1018-7.

Student Researchers: Devin Elliott and Mitchell Monack (Sonoma State University)

Faculty Evaluators: Joseph Anderson (Monterey Peninsula College), James J. Dean (Sonoma State University), and Stanley Falkow (Stanford University)