The 2021 Ranking Of Free-Market Think Tanks Measured By Social Media Impact

Por Alejandro Chafuen: Publicado el 30/3/21 en:

In the past two decades all sectors of society have been increasing their social media presence. Think tanks and pro-free-market organizations are no exception, and during this Covid-19 year they had to rely on social media as never before. How did they do? Here I present an analysis of think tanks and organizations that promote public policies largely favorable to a free economy. For comparison, I also show the social media following and networks of prominent think tanks that do not define themselves as being particularly pro-free-market. Three of them, CSIS, Brookings, and Chatham House, have extensive networks on LinkedIn, much larger than their more pro-free market competitors. In most other platforms Heritage Foundation is ahead of them and their free-market peers.    

Few groups were successful in achieving sizeable growth in website traffic in the past year, but most were able to advance in social media following. Some, however, managed to increase their web traffic as well – these include PragerU, the Hoover Institution, Young America’s Foundation, and the Acton Institute, whose website hits all increased by over 50%. For these numbers I use data from SimilarWeb, which correlate very well with the internal reports that I receive from over 50 think tanks, but SimilarWeb keeps increasing the threshold for sites to qualify for their measurements. Only the larger think tanks have enough traffic to appear in its analysis.

The largest area of growth was in the use of online meeting platforms such as Zoom, Microsoft MSFT -1.4% Teams, and Google GOOG 0.0% Meet. Few think tanks are compiling and sharing their information about their activity in these platforms, but I expect that soon we will have better data to analyze how think tanks managed their transition away from in-person programs. As several think tanks post their Zoom meetings on YouTube to help attract subscribers and views, part of the growth in these platforms is captured in this analysis.

Table 1 shows how leading pro-free-market organizations performed during the last twelve months on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, SimilarWeb, LinkedIn, and Instagram. The measurements were taken from March 20-24, 2021.

Social media impact of 6 leading US, and twelve foreign based free-market think tanks

Social media of some of the leading free-market think tanks in the United States and around the … [+]ALEJANDRO CHAFUEN

The Heritage Foundation continues its impressive social media efforts, capturing first place among US free-market groups on all platforms except YouTube, where it came second. The Foundation for Economic Education, one of the oldest think tanks (founded in 1946), and one that caters to to a younger audience, is ahead of Heritage in YouTube subscribers and in the category of most views for a YouTube video of more than 2 minutes. The Mises Institute came first in this area. A more accurate measure of success on YouTube would be the total number of minutes watched during the last 12 months. Some think tanks measure total views. Campus Reform, a program of the Leadership Institute, claims to have achieved 34 million views in one year. Some of their videos are very short and balancing their impact versus a much longer educational video is not an exact science. As a proxy, I used the number of YouTube subscribers and the most-watched videos of two minutes’ duration or more.

Heritage also captured first place in the social media areas of the Global Go To Think Tank Index Report, which presents a ranking based on votes from peers, competitors, and players in the public policy arena. Its social media traffic numbers justify that well-earned place.

I again included Judicial Watch among advocacy and grassroots organizations. They have over half a million donors. Their work is more focused on rule of law issues and its efforts have an impact on those who work for the defense of the free economy.

I also track groups that are part of the media and those that focus on educational videos (see Table 2). PragerU continues to lead and grow on most platforms in this area. BrasilParalelo, a Brazilian platform that I would describe as a pro-free-society Netflix NFLX -0.1% or History channel, has also achieved impressive reach. It has over 1.6 million YouTube subscribers, almost ten percent of whom are paying clients. Some of their programs, such as their three-part “End of Nations” series, are also streamed in English, and others, like “A Queda Argentina,” will be appearing in Spanish. Their success has made them the target of cancel culture. BrasilParalelo founder Lucas Ferrugem tells me: “We are a frequent target for lies, slander, and canceling efforts by partisan and ideological groups. But since these are political hatchet jobs – often illegal at that – they end up having no real effect on the wider public, with no real negative impact on us, and in the end just help strengthen our efforts against the Brazilian establishment.”

A table showing social media presence of some of the leading pro free-society organizatons
Social media presence of some of the leading foundations, organizations, and advocacy and pro … [+] ALEJANDRO CHAFUEN

Several Latin American think tanks achieved an impressive social media presence. Instituto Millenium and Instituto Mises, both in Brazil, appear in top positions in several categories. Two groups, the Chilean Fundación para el Progreso (FPP) and  the Argentinian Fundación Libertad y Progreso continue to compete for leadership on YouTube.

Below are the free-market think tanks scoring first or second in the United States and from around the world (data compiled during the fourth week of March, 2021):

·  Most Facebook likes (U.S.): #1 Heritage (2.068 million) #2 Acton Institute (769 K); (Non-U.S.): #1 Instituto Millenium, Brazil (406K), #2 Instituto Mises, Brazil (281 K)

·  Most Twitter followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage Foundation (628K) #2 Cato Institute (364K); (Non-U.S): #1 CEDICE, Venezuela (116K) #2 México Evalúa, Mexico (106.8K)

·  Most monthly visitors to the website (SimilarWeb), U.S.: #1 Heritage (2.110 million) #2 FEE (1.350 million); (Non-U.S.): #1 Instituto Mises, Brazil (473K) #2 Fraser Institute, Canada (243K). Alexa, the web analytics company owned by Amazon AMZN -0.7%, shows the Foundation for Economic Education (FEE) ahead of Heritage among US groups, and among foreign groups Fraser Institute overtaking Mises Brazil in first place.

·  Most subscribers to YouTube (U.S.): #1 FEE (241K) #2 Heritage (203K); (Non-U.S.): #1 Fundación para el Progreso, Chile (140K) #2 Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (114K)

·  Most views of YouTube video (longer than 2 min) uploaded in past twelve months (U.S.): #1 Mises USA (855K) #2 Heritage (520K); (Non-U.S.): #1 Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (481K) #2 Fundación Para el Progreso, Chile (234K)

·  Most LinkedIn Followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage (32K) #2 Cato (30K); (Non-U.S.); #1 Instituto Millenium, Brazil (26K) #2 Fraser Institute, Canada (10.5K)

·  Instagram followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage (123K) #2 Cato Institute (36K); (Non-U.S.): #1 Instituto Mises, Brazil (101K) #2 Instituto Millenium, Brazil (48K)

Prager U’s continued focus on attractive short videos is paying huge dividends. While their closest competitors are not growing, PragerU continues to expand its following on Facebook and Twitter. They rank first in all categories except web traffic, as most are attracted to their videos through Google or YouTube searches rather than going through their website. Except for LinkedIn, PragerU scores better than think tanks in all categories. In the website category, National Review and Reason, both anchored in their magazines, lead in traffic.

Leaders in pro-free-market videos, magazines, and news outlets include:

·  Most Facebook likes: #1 PragerU (3.851 million) #2 CNSNews (2.304 million)

·  Most Twitter followers: #1 PragerU (537K) #2 National Review (327K)

·  Most monthly visitors to website (SimilarWeb): #1 National Review (6.480 million) #2 Reason (3.530 million)

·  Most subscribers to YouTube Channel: #1 PragerU (2.880 million) #2 BrasilParalelo (1.650 million)

·  Most views of YouTube video uploaded during the past twelve months, 2 minutes or longer: #1 PragerU (9.4 million) #2 Daily Signal (2.5 million)

·  Most Instagram followers: #1 PragerU (1.6 million) #2 BrasilParalelo (805K)

Turning Point leader among youth groups

Turning Point USA, created to identify, educate, train, and organize students to promote freedom, has more Twitter followers than all US free-market think tanks except Heritage. It is also second to Heritage in Facebook likes, but not by much. Founder and CEO Charlie Kirk has moved most of his Twitter-type activity to Parler, where he already has 841,000 followers. He has 1.7 million followers on Twitter, and being only 27 years old he can legitimately continue to lead his youth group for several years to come.

Turning Point’s number of Facebook likes almost as many as those of Young America’s Foundation  YAF and Young Americans for Liberty, which rank second and third in likes, combined. YAF leads in YouTube subscribers. There are other organizations with less focus on social media that also cater to young leaders. Students for Liberty reaches out to libertarians. Leadership Institute (LI) focuses on future conservative leaders, but approximately one-third of those who pass through their programs are self-described libertarians. LI’s Campus Reform project ranks first in web traffic and had the video with the most views. Finally, one of the oldest youth groups, the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) aims to be the “Oxford University” for the young, focusing on intellectual formation but relying less on social media. With new CEO John Burtka, who is only 31, ISI will be investing more in its social media strategy.

Turning Point continued to grow also on LinkedIn and now leads on that platform as well. On Instagram, Turning Point is so dominant that, with 1.4 million followers, they have three times more than all their friendly competition combined.

Among grassroots and activist groups Judicial Watch is the social media leader. I began tracking their social media last year and it continues to grow on all platforms. Judicial Watch has 1.6 million followers on Twitter, 790K followers on Instagram, 6.4 million likes on Facebook, and 899K subscribers on YouTube. It is followed by FreedomWorks and Americans for Prosperity.

The Hoover Institution (at Stanford University) and Mercatus Center (at George Mason University) have the largest social media presence among university-based free-market groups. There are hundreds of such centers in the United States. Most are like islands in their universities, and is not easy to track their social media impact. If I missed one with greater reach than Hoover or Mercatus, I welcome the information.

When I rank social media traffic by country population size and by Internet users, Latin American groups in my sample outperform their U.S. and Canadian counterparts on most platforms.

Podcasts Gaining in Popularity

As I still do not have access to independent or inside information about how most think tanks are incorporating podcasts into their social media strategy, I will share the information from the social media leader, the Heritage Foundation. The highlights were selected by Rob Bluey, their Vice President of Communications and Executive Editor of The Daily Signal Heritage’s online publication. Hopefully, other organizations will be more open with their data in the future. Here the highlights,  

·  10 different Heritage podcast channels together received more than 3.5 million listens in 2020.

·  The most successful podcast channel was “The Daily Signal Podcast,” which accounted for 2.27 million total listens.

·  The most popular episode (17,100 listens) in «The Daily Signal Podcast» was His Sister Was Sex-Trafficked for 6 Years. Here’s How He’s Devoted His Life to Fighting It.

·  Most listens were from the U.S.; the second-highest country was Canada at 57,000, then the U.K. at 26,500.

·  The most “viewed” podcast—several think tanks post podcasts as videos—was a “Heritage Explains” episode that had 26,600 views on Facebook.

·  «The Daily Signal Podcast» peaked at No. 31 on the iTunes Daily News Podcast Chart.

·  According to the all-time daily news podcast rankings, “The Daily Signal Podcast” is No. 42. That’s higher than some established media brands.

Social Media Influencers

In previous analyses I have mentioned Brazilian political philosopher Olavo de Carvalho, who has approximately 3 million followers on all the platforms combined. He outpaces all Brazilian and Latin American think tanks. This time I will mention three individuals from the Spanish-speaking world who focus on economics and public policy and who have a sizeable and loyal social media following: Juan Ramón Rallo @juanrallo (287K Twitter followers), Daniel Lacalle @dlacalle (255K), and Roberto Cachanosky @rcachansoski (243K). The first two are from Spain and Cachanosky is from Argentina. They collaborate with think tanks, but they are a power in themselves. In the English-speaking world, the faithful owner of an account @thomasSowell named after economist Thomas Sowell, which only quotes from his works, is followed by 683K admirers.

My apologies if I missed a better-scoring free-market organization or individual. This is a growing field, both in platforms and players, so not easy to cover all. I hope that the information provided here helps those who work in or support these organizations that promote a free economy, an essential component of all free societies.

Alejandro A. Chafuén es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), es miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Fue profesor de ESEADE. Síguelo en @Chafuen 

The 2018 Ranking Of Free-Market Think Tanks Measured By Social Media Impact

Por Alejandro Chafuen: Publicado el 2/4/18 en:


As in other years, I again analyzed the presence of think tank and other organizations that promote a free economy on such popular social-media platforms as Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, LinkedIn and Instagram. The Heritage Foundation continues to be ranked first among free-market groups with Facebook and Twitter followers, and also in Web traffic. Heritage ranks ahead of Brookings in all social-media platforms with the exception of LinkedIn, which is used more for networking than for education or dissemination. The American Enterprise Institute leads in YouTube subscribers, while the Foundation for Economic Education had the video with most minutes viewed during the last year.   

When we go beyond think tanks and include the efforts of intellectual entrepreneurs and other organizations, PragerU is the undisputed leader.

Among foreign groups several South American think tanks ranked extraordinarily well. The Instituto Mises, in Brazil, appeared in first or second position in five of the categories listed below, and Fundación Libertad y Progreso (Argentina) appears four times. A newer think tank which I expect will grow in all categories is Fundación para el Progreso, in Chile, which is scoring very well on YouTube and growing in other platforms.

Below are the free-market think tanks scoring first or second in the United States and from around the world (data compiled during the first week of March 2018):

  • Most Facebook likes (U.S.): #1Heritage Foundation (2,089K) #2 Acton Institute (797K); (Non U.S.): #1 Instituto Mises, Brazil (276K), #2ILISP (Brazil)
  • Most Twitter followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage Foundation (630K) #2 Cato (337K); (Non U.S): #1CEDICE, Venezuela (96K) #2 CEP Chile (59K)
  • Most monthly visitors to Web site (SimilarWeb), U.S.: #1 Heritage Foundation (2,920K) 2# Mises Institute (1,570K); (Non U.S.): #1 Instituto Mises, Brazil (837K) #2 ILISP (Brazil). Alexa, the Web analytics company owned by Amazon, also shows these groups as winners.
  • Most subscribers to YouTube Channel (U.S.): #1 American Enterprise Institute (147K) #2 Mises Institute (64K) ; (Non U.S.): #1 Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (26K) #2 Instituto Mises, Brazil (23K).
  • Most views of YouTube video uploaded in 2017 (U.S.): #1 Foundation for Economic Education (289K) #2 American Enterprise Institute (163K); (Non U.S.): #1 Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (120K) #2 Fundación Para el Progreso, Chile (48K)
  • Most minutes viewed on a YouTube video (last 12 months) (U.S): #1 Foundation for Economic Education (5,880K), #2 Heritage Foundation (2,702K); (Non U.S.) #1 Fundación para el Progreso (2,490K) # 2 Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (562K)
  • Most LinkedIn Followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage Foundation (13K) # 2 American Enterprise Institute (10K) ; (Non U.S.); #1 Fraser Institute, (Canada) (4,6K) #2 Instituto Mises (3.3K) Brazil
  • Instagram followers (U.S.): #1 Heritage Foundation (22,9K) #2 Mises Institute (16.3K); (Non U.S.): #1 Instituto Mises, Brazil (14.4K) #2CEDICE, Venezuela (3.8K)
  • Klout (U.S.): #1 Cato (90) #2 Mises Institute (86); (Non U.S.), #1 Adam Smith Institute (U.K.) (80) #2Fundación Libertad y Progreso, Argentina (79)


Alejandro Chafuen

Table produced by Alejandro Chafuen. Combined scored of social media compiled by Tarun Vats and based on the formula = Facebook Likes + 4.333 times Twitter Followers+ 1.479 times YouTube subscribers (divided by 10,000)

Keys to the success of PragerU

Much of the amazing success of PragerU has to do with the leadership of the multitalented Dennis Prager. Think tanks have struggled with identifying products that distinguish their efforts from those of other groups. But many rose to prominence with one, or just a few key products. Heritage Foundation, for example, has its famous Backgrounders, which are short position papers that analyze the major policy questions being discussed in the legislature and offer well-grounded recommendations in an easy to understand language. Heritage has published 3,297 Backgrounders on different issues., With more than 500,000 donors, Heritage currently offers a full line of educational and advocacy products. It even has its own social media publication, the Daily Signal. Heritage’s growth in the early years owes much to its Backgrounders.

PragerU, so far, is even more focused. It has only one type of product: well-produced videos five-minutes in length boasting an intelligent use of infographics. As the ranking below shows, they are beating much older and established organizations. I forecast that one day, like Heritage, PragerU will diversify their product line.

One of  PragerU’s most popular videos:


The leaders in United States free-market media, magazines, and news outlets include:

  • Most Facebook likes: #1 PragerU (2,801K) #2CNSNews (2,243K)
  • Most Twitter followers: #1National Review (283K) #2 Reason (215K)
  • Most monthly visitors to website (SimilarWeb): #1National Review (11,540K) #2 Reason (4,660K)
  • Most subscribers to YouTube Channel: #1 Prager U (1,288K) #2 Reason (298K)
  • Most views of YouTube video (uploaded in 2017):  #1PragerU (5,085K) #2 Reason (1,100K)
  • Most minutes viewed on a single You Tube video (last 12 months): #1 Prager U (9,576K) #2 Reason (6,582K)
  • Klout: Magazines, #1 National Review (93), #2Reason (90). Forbes, for reference, scores a 99, almost the top. Advocacy: #1 FreedomWorks (82) #2 Americans for Prosperity (75)
  • Instagram#1 PragerU (148K) #2 National Review (28K)

I did not include CRTV, the online TV channel launched by the Conservative Review, as its content gets closer to that of purely media companies like Fox or Forbes. Even then CRTV still lags behind PragerU. In similar fashion, for foreign groups, I did not include media companies such as Libertad Digital, the Spanish online publication strongly aligned with free society views, which gets over 15 million page views per month (with over five-minute duration).

I still used YouTube to measure outcomes of educational and advocacy videos. It is not only the most popular video platform, but it also allows third parties to analyze the data with more accuracy than Facebook. Just three seconds spent on a Facebook video, a glance, counts as a view. YouTube requires 30 seconds. In late January this year, in an official statement, Facebook acknowledged that it was attracting “passive consumption of content” and that it “made changes to show fewer viral videos to make sure people’s time is well spent” and that it “made changes that reduced time spent on Facebook by roughly 50 million hours every day.” Its stated goal is to create more meaningful connections, and that “community and business will be stronger over the long term.»

Nevertheless, more and more think tanks and organizations that promote a free economy are starting to use “Facebook Live,” and then uploading the videos also on YouTube. Relevant for think tanks that try to reach a young audience, a recent survey by Wibbitz showed that Facebook was the favorite platform to watch short videos for millennials and “Generation X.” For all generations who use the Internet, YouTube was still ahead.

PragerU, the undisputed leader in short educational videos with over 340 million views on YouTube, gets more than double those views on Facebook. So impressive is PragerU’s leadership, organizations such as Heritage, which lead in combined metrics, frequently post PragerU videos in their own Facebook video stream. The traffic that Heritage attracts with those PragerU videos, each with millions of views, dwarf the traffic of a typical Heritage conference video post, usually 10,000 views to 30,000 views range. The Foundation for Economic Education has also posted PragerU videos. PragerU, on the other hand, almost always posts its own videos on both YouTube and Facebook platforms. The only exception to this was the very good short video done by FreethePeople, debunking the hero status of Ernesto “Che” Guevara, the ruthless Argentine-born communist revolutionary.

Among student organizations, Turning Point USA continues with its impressive growth. It ranks first in Twitter followers as well as in Facebook likes and will likely reach a million likes at the end of this year. It is also far ahead in Instagram. Young America’s Foundation leads in YouTube and Web traffic and Students for Liberty is first in LinkedIn. TurningPoint is the fastest growing student group on YouTube.

Among grassroots and activist groups FreedomWorks continues to be ahead of Americans for Prosperity in Twitter and Facebook, while the latter leads in YouTube, Instagram and Linkdln.

University- and college-based centers continue to lag against their think tank competitors. Hoover Institute (at Stanford University) and Mercatus Center (at George Mason University) are the leaders. In this subsector, Hoover leads Mercatus in all social media outcomes except on its use of LinkedIn, but I expect Hoover to soon take leadership also on this platform.

Arthur Brooks, Gresham’s Law and Social Media for Sale

The current discussions about the manipulation of social media for political purposes and the commercial interests of social-media giants has raised important questions about its impact and deserves much further analysis. In his surprising announcement that he was going to retire in 16 months, Arthur C. Brooks, the talented leader of the American Enterprise Institute, lamented that social media was creating a type of Gresham’s law, where well-promoted, bad ideas were crowding out good research. Nevertheless, early in the year, in a piece in the Harvard Business Review, Brooks mentioned subscribers to events and original video programming on AEI’s YouTube channel as a valid metric. Although running far behind PragerU, AEI, with close to 150,000 subscribers, ranks first among think tanks. “Gresham’s law” that bad money drives out good money only applies when there is some kind of force involved (a fixed rate between gold and silver money or, in currencies, between worn out bills and new bills). Brookings, the top-ranked think tank, and Heritage Foundation, rank very well as research and policy-focused think tanks, and also in social media.

Last year I began to focus on the difficult analysis of organic versus sponsored or paid reach. As in other years I consulted with Emma Alvarez at the Corporate Marketing & Communications department of IESE, one the leading business schools in the world. In her analysis of social media trends she finds out that “advertising investment is key. Big jumps in traffic are rarely achieved with organic growth alone.” This makes it difficult for those of us who try to compile rankings as the payment data “is only accessible to the administrators or through the reports of their own agencies, which are not publicly shared. What we do have are the global numbers, we see that investment in social networks continues to increase, especially on Facebook where last year there was a 48 percent increase in advertising revenue. Furthermore, the frequent changes in the algorithm makes the strategy for organic growth more and more complicated, which has led to allocating more investment in advertising to generate results.”

Many of the questions raised in this piece require further study. With Tarun Vats, an Associate Director of the Atlas Network, we again compared the social media impact of think tanks using a new measurement that combines Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The winners in each category were Heritage (U.S.), CEDICE (Non-U.S.), FreedomWorks (Advocacy), the Hoover Institute (University-based), TurningPoint USA (Student advocacy) and PragerU (mostly media groups). Congratulations to all and my hope that others will continue to help refine and better understand this segment of the media which is so relevant in today’s world and which free-market organizations can’t neglect.


Alejandro A. Chafuen es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), fue miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Es Managing Director del Acton Institute, International. Fue profesor de ESEADE.

Transparency And Independence: Think Tanks Rather Than Lobbying Tanks

Por Alejandro Chafuen: Publicado el 2/5/16 en:


Last week, the leaders of most of the most relevant think tanks in North America attended a meeting to discuss the major challenges they face today. The 3rd Annual North America Think Tank Summit was held under Chatham House rules so I will focus on the substance of the discussions and the published material rather than mention who said what. Eighty-five participants from 60 organizations took part in candid presentations and exchanges. The meeting was convened by The Think Tanks and Civil Society Program at the University of Pennsylvania and co-hosted by three prominent think tanks: the Hudson Institute, Brookings, and the Carnegie Endowment. The combined income of the U.S. non-profit organizations present at the summit amounts to over $1.2 billion (based on data from 2014), so this was a very relevant group.

This year, the topic of the meeting was “Assuring the Quality, Independence, and Integrity of Think Tanks.” It is healthy that think tanks in North America, especially those based in the United States, show concern for their reputation. Within the think tank sector, U.S. think tanks are the envy of the world; no country can boast such a wide variety of well-funded organizations. Think tanks are diverse not only in philosophy, as are more ideological think tanks like the Center for American Progress, Cato Institute or the Heritage Foundation, but also in focus, from the Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation (security and strategy) to the Acton Institute (religion and public policy).

Think Tank Leaders gather for the Third North American Summit at the Brookings Institution.

Think Tank Leaders gather for the Third North American Summit at the Brookings Institution.

Yet despite their deep pockets and hard earned global recognition as major policy players, U.S. think tanks are not always well regarded by the public. Dr. James McGann, who headed the conference, included in the conference materials a series of quotes to exemplify the media coverage that has shaped negative perceptions of U.S. think tanks. He cited the following widely read articles from respected publications such as the New York Times and the New Republic: “Fellows at think tanks accepting funding from lobbyists to publish findings without disclosing the funding source,” published in the New York Times; “Conflicts of interest in think tank scholars that are registered lobbyists” from the New Republic; and “Conflicts of interest in think tank funding from foreign governments and corporations” also in the Times. One expert who has been studying think tanks’ public perception noted that 95% of key media coverage and existing scholarly literature on U.S. think tanks presents these organizations negatively. Several leaders took offense at the comment, trumpeting their own accomplishments and listing counter-arguments to this assertion.

Negative perceptions of think tanks often rise from conflicting visions of the role and purpose of these types of organizations. Think tanks sometimes pursue opposite policy goals, that is to say, what one regards as an accomplishment, the other regards as a destructive result. Promoted by “progressives” and despised by conservatives, Obamacare is a case in point. The same with immigration. Often there is a perception that rather than basing their policy prescriptions on independent research, think tanks do the opposite: they start with a conclusion commissioned by donors and supporters, and then produce research to accommodate that predetermined narrative. This perception exists even among expert scholars and intellectuals: Nobel Laureates Paul Krugman and Vernon Smith famously differ on their views on the think tank sector. “Progressives” tend to applaud Krugman’s interventionist views while pro free economy groups (such as the Independent Institute, Manhattan Institute, Mercatus, and Cato, all of which participated at the summit) generally fall in line with Vernon Smith’s ideas.

When prompted to address the effects of this special election year on their work, most speakers acknowledged that as the major think tanks in the United States, they tend to be publically regarded as part of the elite, which has earned them distrust from conservative and socialist bases alike. Most of these meetings took place at Brookings and the Carnegie Endowment, located side-by-side in Washington D.C.’s Embassy Row. Indeed, gathering in such near palatial surroundings, inside a room full of people with graduate degrees from top schools makes it hard to refute the claim that think tank leaders are part of the elite. I heard only one speaker acknowledge that researchers should pay attention to the frustration from voters. Another speaker stressed the difference between philosophy and ideology as guides for the work of think tanks. Many ideologies are too rigid; from immigration to trade, it is all or nothing. And when relevant segments of the population believe that think tanks respond to concerns and challenges in a dogmatic fashion, they begin to discount them as merely another type of lobbyist, a stone’s throw away from those on the Hill.

Discussions then turned to how think tanks should respond to a changing political environment. Some reflected on the danger of being reactive to politics, but most argued that advocacy and educational efforts based on solid research are much needed mantles for think tanks to take on. Within the United States tax code, non-profit organizations that get involved in politics fall under section 501 (c) (4), which dictates that up to 50 percent of these organizations’ activities can be political in nature. Think tanks like Heritage have created their own section, Heritage Action. The Center for American Progress also has one. Representatives from this center and from Heritage mentioned that the foundation’s research arm has eight times more income than their political and advocacy arm. Rather than shying away from admitting involvement, several of the groups present were proud of their role in helping enact legislation. Among the cases presented were: Brookings and the drafting of the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s; the Heritage Foundation and its Mandate for Leadership reform manual during the Reagan Administration; and the Center for American Progress and its role in passing Obamacare.

Think tanks from Mexico and Canada had different concerns. The representatives from the Mexican organizations focused on other issues: Their think tanks are much smaller, mostly as the result of a weak philanthropic culture. The Canadians described their country’s more stringent provisions, which prevent think tanks from entering into political debates.

There was no consensus on how much additional transparency is needed. The most recent study to cause alarm was the 2015 think tank transparency report. Produced by, this report detailed the levels of financial disclosure of over 160 think tanks located in 47 countries worldwide. Pro free-market think tanks with outstanding reputations scored very low in that ranking. One of those, CEDICE Libertad, is in Venezuela, a country where the government detains political opponents. In countries with weak rule of law, the only think tanks that can be transparent are those who are allied with their corrupt governments. In the United States, the recent cases that bring the politicization of the Internal Revenue Service (IRS) to surface are cause of additional alarm. While all non-profits in the United States have to disclose their main donors to the IRS, no such obligation exists for state filings or for public disclosure. Several states, however, including New York and California, are requesting the same information that is submitted to the federal government. Due to fears that information will be leaked for political objectives, several think tanks are challenging this request. As I mentioned in an earlier column, when rule of law is politicized, transparency is a complicated topic.

A think tank leader from Canada, which scores very high on rule of law rankings, confided that as their publications and research usually cast doubt on government policies, they would lose a major portion of their income if they were forced to disclose the names of all their donors to the public. Corporations in particular are afraid to be associated with those who do not toe the official line. In the United States, only a small percentage of think tanks’ income derives from corporations (10% in average) while abroad, corporate donations account for usually a third or more of a think tank’s income.

U.S. Think Tank experts discuss how to position their work in the current political environment. (L to R): Winnie Stachelberg, Center for American Progress, Lee Edwards, Heritage Foundation, Tom Carver, Carnegie Endowment, David Boaz, Cato Institute, and William Galston, Brookings

U.S. Think Tank experts discuss how to position their work in the current political environment. (L to R): Winnie Stachelberg, Center for American Progress, Lee Edwards, Heritage Foundation, Tom Carver, Carnegie Endowment, David Boaz, Cato Institute, and William Galston, Brookings

The larger, Washington-based think tanks disputed the notion that the source of donations (that is to say, whether they are corporate, government, or from individuals and foundations) correlate with independence. Most noted that more and more, foundations have their own agendas and use think tanks as research arms. On the other hand, when think tanks become major institutions of civil society, corporations begin to donate to become part of the “club”—not necessarily because they agree with the organization’s policy positions. Think tanks that are seen as beneficial to their civil societies begin to attract donors in the same way as museums, hospitals, and universities. Representatives from the smaller think tanks present at the meeting, which were not many, chimed in on the problems that can come with accepting corporate or government donations.

Several new challenges faced by think tanks were mentioned during the meeting. One is the threat by city governments to disregard the non-profit status of think tanks in their tax collection efforts; Acton Institute recently won its case versus the city of Grand Rapids. Another challenge is the effort by several Attorney Generals to seek detailed donor information from the Competitive Enterprise Institute, which has produced major research on issues like global warming and climate change.

These challenges are not limited to the United States. Foreign governments are also using “transparency” as an excuse, in order to stifle divergent views. Only a couple of days after the end of the think tank summit, the Chinese government passed a lawrequiring full disclosure of foreign non-profit activities. It is clear that the Chinese government is more interested in control than transparency. Yes, transparency and independence are desirable—but when government authorities begin using selective and arbitrary requirements to define transparency and independence, then think tank leaders are right to be concerned. There may not yet be a consensus on how to achieve transparency, integrity, and independence, but increased competition and accountability to stakeholders—within an environment of governments and judicial systems that live by the principle of equality before the law—would be a start.


Alejandro A. Chafuén es Dr. En Economía por el International College de California. Licenciado en Economía, (UCA), es miembro del comité de consejeros para The Center for Vision & Values, fideicomisario del Grove City College, y presidente de la Atlas Economic Research Foundation. Se ha desempeñado como fideicomisario del Fraser Institute desde 1991. Fue profesor de ESEADE.