US think tanks continue to grow: new Transparify analysis

16 August 2018

Think tanks in the United States continue to grow, according to 2016 numbers that now are available. The expenditure of the top 21 think tanks in the United States grew by 6% and revenues by 5% between 2015 and 2016, significantly above inflation. While net assets stayed flat, employee numbers grew slightly, by 3%. The number of staff paid more than $100k increased by 10%, thus showing particularly strong growth.

Within the group of think tanks, there were significant differences. In terms of expenditures, the Wilson Center (60%) grew particularly strongly, as did the Center for New American Security (CNAS, 27%), the American Enterprise Institute (AEI, 22%), the New America Foundation (19%), and the World Resources Institute (WRI, 16%).

The German Marshall Fund (GMFUS) decreased its budget by 11%, and Brookings (-3%) and the Heritage Foundation (-2%) also decreased their expenditure.

The numbers show that think tank funding is choppy. Not too much should be read into a year-on-year change, as funding often comes in lumps, for example through a targeted campaign or a large one-off gift. Yet long-term, the trends are interesting to follow. In 2016, CSIS had a 97% increase in funding, the Wilson Center 72%, CNAS 68%, New America 65%, and the WRI 37%. We are happy to note that New America and the World Resources Institute are 5-star transparent think tanks, too, and that CSIS has 4-star transparency.

In terms of funding decreases, the Center for Budget and Policy Priorities (CBPP) had a 49% decrease, though this primarily is a result of a high yield in 2015, and CBPP is now broadly back to its previous funding levels. The same pattern applies to the AEI, with its 29% decrease, after a particularly successful year. The International Crisis Group however, experienced a substantive cut of -29%, down to $13m, and is at its lowest level of funding in more than ten years.

The numbers continue to illustrate the size of the entire sector. The largest institutions remain the RAND Corporation (by far, with its $327m budget), followed by Brookings ($105m), WRI ($90m), the Urban Institute ($88m) and the Heritage Foundation ($81m). In total, the top 21 institutions have a combined budget of $1.15bn, combined net assets of $2.59bn and they employ more than 7,700 people in the United States. (Anyone who pays taxes in the US is in the counts, so this will include interns and non-research staff, and exclude staff in offices outside the US.)

One remarkable change is the increase in the number of staff paid more than $100.000. This has increased by 10% across the institutions, and together there are more than 1,700 people with that level of salary, reflecting that at least in some institutions, expertise is well remunerated.

These are only some of the headline numbers. The spread sheet has much more detail, averages and medians, maximum and minimum, and is sortable. (Thanks to the Transparify team and to Johann Schmidt for assembling the numbers.) It should thus be of interest to anyone who wants to compare think tank numbers.

The data broadly reflects the state of play for 2015 and 2016, as it is taken from IRS sheets for 2014 and 2015, with financial years ending across the year, for the institutions. One fascinating question is how think tank funding has evolved after the 2016 election. We will keep tracking budget data, and analyze future developments.

The data sheet is here. If you find it useful, we are grateful for a quick note via Email or Twitter.

Interested in think tank research? Try Find Policy, a tool in which you can search multiple think tanks in a single search window, giving you instant quality results: