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August 08, 2016

Documents Show Big Think Tanks Courting Corporate Donors

This post has been updated with a response from the Brookings Institution.

Prominent think tanks like the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies are increasingly promoting the agendas of corporate donors as they aggressively ramp up fundraising, according to The New York Times.

The article mines internal documents and correspondence to detail nonprofit research institutions’ fundraising pitches and cooperation with banks, property developers, defense contractors, and other companies with stakes in projects or products under government consideration. In several instances, the institutes — whose work carries weight in policy debates, in large part because it is viewed as independent — produced reports supporting donors’ goals and branding efforts, the Times writes.

The article also notes the growth of groups like Brookings, which has doubled its budget to $100 million in the past decade, and the American Enterprise Institute, which is building a new, $80 million headquarters in Washington. Critics such as Senator Elizabeth Warren say corporate ties have pushed the policy groups close to outright lobbying. Think-tank executives say they team up with donors that have similar goals but continue to conduct independent research and draw their own conclusions.

In an online statement, Brookings disputed the article's findings, which it said were based on passages "cherry-picked" from voluminous, often draft documents. Brookings said it works with various outside entities, including elected officials and philanthropies as well as corporations, in policy areas such as urban economic development but that it independently selects issues to study and maintains a "clear, hard" line between researchers and lobbyists.

Read a Chronicle of Philanthropy opinion piece about safeguarding nonprofit independence from donors.