The road to transparency is not entirely straightforward: the Chatham House experience

27 June 2016
SERIES Think tanks and transparency

[Editor’s note: On Wednesday June 29th, Tranparify publishes its 2016 report with ratings of the financial transparency of 200 think tanks from around the globe. In the run up to the report, On Think Tanks will feature a number of posts on Think Tanks and Transparency . The first is from Keith Burnet, Chatham House’s Director of Communications and Publishing.]

Think tanks can have an important role to play in providing objective analysis in the current political climate of change general instability, the rise of populist movements and a backlash against mainstream politics.

At the same time, they have rightfully been subject to increasing public scrutiny. Indeed, it would be disingenuous and wrong of think tanks to promote their ideas without being open about the sources of the funding that supported their development and dissemination in the first place.

Transparify’s aim of encouraging greater financial transparency in the think tank sector is helping think tanks to put this goal into practice proactively.

In Chatham House’s case, the foundations for greater transparency were already in existence. We adhere to a set of principles for ensuring the continued independence of our research. The institute is required by its 1926 Royal Charter to maintain rigorous impartiality and objectivity across all activities and outputs.

Ensuring the institute adheres to this requirement is a principal responsibility of our Council, made up of individuals drawn from, and elected by, Chatham House members. Since the founding of the institute we have recognised the importance of avoiding any financial obligation that would undermine our independence and which, of course, would instantly damage our credibility. We also consider  the diversity and breadth of our funding base an essential element for protecting Chatham House’s independence.

Learn more about Think Tanks and Transparency:

The process of becoming more transparent has not been particularly easy. The publication of our all of our financial income details was not straightforward and raised new questions for us to grapple with: how best to account for a £150k grant given for a three year project? Do you report the entire sum up front in year one or as £50k each year for three years? What if the project runs over time? What if the grant is extended?

Multiply those questions by the 156 projects Chatham House is currently running in the context of nearly £17m income from over 500 individual sources. What is more, we must compile this information from the fundraising activities of eleven different research teams, our Leadership Academy and income from membership subscriptions, conference and event sponsorship, discretionary donations and publications.

In the end, our method includes an overarching rule that recognises funding as it is spent and accounted for rather than as it is received. The only exception to this is endowment gifts, where it is more transparent to recognise the full value of the gift as one sum at the time it is given.

Following a substantial institutional effort, Chatham House has made several key changes to the way it publishes sources of income:

  • An ‘our funding’ section on our website with a clear income breakdown;
  • full list of our donors based on recognised income to reflect how much of a specific donation was spent in a given financial year; and
  • A funding webpage for each research department (see, for example our Africa Programme) updated on a regular basis to reflect current core and project donors

We recognise that a positive and constructive response to Transparify’s efforts can help think tanks improve public understanding of their otherwise relatively opaque working processes. This is why I am keen that Chatham House shares its processes and methodologies with other institutions. We will continue to improve these methods, as well as think about and be open to new ways to be as transparent as possible.