Three proposed reforms to accelerate think tank transparency

7 March 2024

Despite years of work from campaigners, think tanks still have far more work to do to increase transparency.  

For more than a decade, a debate has been growing around how transparent we should expect organisations to be about their funding sources. It’s become clear that there are still some organisations that need to do better. 

Some think tanks have embraced these calls for greater income transparency and have embedded it into their organisations. Other think tanks, however, still do not release information about who funds them and who has influence over their work.  

To understand what work still needs to be done on transparency we, at Centre, released our own report: Following the Money, which was commissioned by Garvin Brown. This aimed to understand how transparent the sector is, what the public thinks and what measures the UK government can take to improve transparency. 

There are also numerous other organisations that are studying think tank transparency and are calling for reform. One such effort includes Who Funds You? This was started in 2012 by Open Democracy and lists think tanks based on their income transparency and influence. Another group is Transparify, which carried out its first ranking in 2014 and gives rankings to think tanks around the world. 

In this blog, I outline why improving think tank transparency is essential, findings from the Following the Money study looking at over 100 think tanks and similar organisations to establish the levels of transparency today, and present three proposed reforms to accelerate progress. 

The case for change 

The reasons for improving transparency have become clear over the last decade. The negative aspects of the UK’s current system – such as undisclosed donations, which have become known as ‘dark money’ – damage public trust in our political system as voters can’t see the financial influence that organisations or wealthy individuals have on our politics.  

There have been campaigns to expose specific issues with think tank funding. One issue related to dark money that has been highlighted recently was the discovery that influential think tanks in the UK had received US$1m in donations from the US. Much of this information was not released by the organisations themselves.  

The recent exchange between George Monbiot and Reem Ibrahim of the Institute of Economic Affairs also addressed the issue of whether think tanks with representatives on television should release information about their funders. 

This lack of transparency also has an impact on wider public debates on policy issues, where the questions concerning who has influence become even more complex. The overall impact is a more sceptical public, who have little trust in think tanks and their funding transparency. 

The positive impacts of greater transparency on the think tank sector have been seen in recent years. For example, the Fabians now list many of their individual donors and the Nuffield Trust clearly shows how money moves around their organisation. 

Following the Money: our findings 

During our Following the Money project, we looked at over 100 think tanks and similar organisations to establish the levels of transparency today.  

Financial transparency 

In our results on financial transparency, 35% received a D rating, which means we were unable to find any income sources or the amounts donated to them; 32% only listed some of their income sources; and just 33% of think tanks revealed all of their funders who donated over £7,500. 

Political leaning 

We also gave each organisation a political label, depending on whether we saw it as independent or on a certain part of the political spectrum.  

These figures revealed that, overall, right-wing organisations are less transparent than left-wing organisations. 


Our polling data also showed that the public have also become aware that think tanks can lack transparency.  

With Deltapoll and our polling partner, Millbank, we asked 1,036 adults about think tank transparency.  

A total of 59% of respondents thought that think tanks weren’t transparent. The majority of those who were polled thought this, regardless of their age, region, social class, political leaning, employment status, sex, voting intention and their Brexit referendum vote. 

Deeper issues 

We also looked at the deeper issues for think tank transparency, one being donations from the US.  

Generally, donations from the US aren’t an issue, especially for corporations that are based abroad but have branches in the UK. 

However, we did look at donations from the US to three think tanks with low transparency scores: the Adam Smith Institute, the Institute for Economic Affairs and Policy Exchange.  

Together, these think tanks received donations of US$8,686,446. Some of these think tanks also received money from companies that have been linked to climate change scepticism, such as Exxon Mobil. 

Another area that we focused on was the use of charitable status by think tanks. At the moment these think tanks are allowed to hold charitable status while also having political viewpoints.  

A solution that is frequently suggested is to remove charitable status from organisations if their work is deemed too political. However, this would be challenging as charities often set up a separate company to carry out their political activities. 

Following the Money: our proposals for reform

While it’s clear reform is necessary, the challenge is how we can accelerate progress in this area. In our report, we made the following main proposals: 

1. The creation of a new funding transparency body, which would support organisations to increase transparency. This would reward transparent think tanks with a transparency badge and make it easier for organisations to disclose information. 

2. New Information Commissioner’s Office (ICO) guidance on donation transparency to clarify how organisations can become more transparent.  

3. Reforms to lobbying, which would ensure that the interactions between civil servants and/or politicians and think tanks are public information. 

We set out how we can better define political activities using a purpose test, which offers a more general way to see which organisations are political and may be of use to future efforts for reform in this area. 

The aim of all these reforms would be to reward think tanks for transparency, and to encourage this by making it easier for organisations to be transparent. 

These measures would also increase trust in think tanks more generally and would show that the UK government is committed to reform. 


Register your organisation on the Open Think Tank Directory. OTT set up the Directory in 2016 to respond to the lack of publicly available information on think tanks and other policy research centres worldwide. Today, it features public information on more than 3,700 organisations from around the world. The directory supports sector transparency. It enables think tanks and those in the evidence-informed policy world to find and connect with one another. Think tanks can identify potential partners and funders can identify potential grantees. It is also a useful resource for those who study think tanks. The database is public and downloadable.