Dieter Zinnbauer, Advisor, The Good Lobby

We all know that dog bites man is not newsworthy, but that man bites dog is.

A similar situation might apply to the funding of think tanks and citizen groups (wow, what a grand, confusing analogy as intro!).

Conventional story: investigative reporting unmasks that supposedly independent think tanks are in the pockets of industry or supposedly grass-roots citizen advocates are astroturf creations secretly bankrolled by business. So far so scandalous. But, sadly, nothing really new or even particularly newsworthy. A quick lightning bolt of exposure, at best some short-lived outrage, at worst a depressive shoulder-shrug.

But now it gets interesting as the contemporary landscape of funding policy ideas and evidence has turned much more complicated (if it ever was purely compartmentalized in the first place…)

We are increasingly seeing think tanks and academia that actively mix and mash funding from private actors and public interest foundations (e.g. or citizen groups that proudly acknowledge their corporate backers (see Hood, 2023)1 Wood, Tim. 2023. ‘Learning From Our Mistakes: Corporate Front Groups and the Limits of Revelation in Climate Politics’. Social Media + Society 9(2): 20563051231177910. doi:10.1177/20563051231177910..

This seems inevitable for research, ideation and citizen advocacy that all operate in a force field of intense competition for funding and a practical impact imperative that (in my view rightly) encourages collaborations with business and other stakeholders.

So how to navigate this messy, but inevitable landscape while all along protecting against corporate capture and blatant instrumentalization and thereby beginning to restore the public trust that evidence matters and a good faith, fair, equitable policy dialogue is possible?

This question just begs for a (of course fully independent!!) research, policy and innovation initiative to come up with sensible ideas and practical ways forward.

To get us started here a dash of three highly subjective ideas for discussion.

In essence, we need to work towards a: step-change in transparency that

1.talks money and terms of reference

Simply listing funders or fundees without giving a sense of their relative importance and actual content of the partnership is rather meaningless. It opens the door to foundation-washing, i.e. groups that are effectively controlled by industry highlight a small sliver of foundation-funding as a veneer of independence. Only a clear picture of actual levels of financial support, the shares of overall budget that this makes up and the actual project or initiative that it covers does the job – and is in line with settled expectations of how responsible lobbying and partnerships with the private sector are meant to be disclosed. The level and terms of engagement are what matter not some pdf-ed listicles. portable and travels across political engagement chains

Quite often any disclosures of sponsorships are confined to the sub-subsection of an actor’s website. But this important fine-print fails to travel with the products or down-stream partnerships that they support arrangements underwrite. Some direct outputs might still come with a disclaimer attached, but two steps out, in the testimony delivered or the paper co-authored the prestigious university name, think tank logo or citizen group street-cred brand stands proud without any information on what made these things possible. Downstream outputs inherit upstream dependencies, in software, in contracts – in idea and research sponsorship they should do the same. triangulate-able and the job of all involved

Focussing expectations for such disclosure (or mandatory obligations) on either funders or the funded (or some intermediaries such as social media platform and their ad repositories) is not sufficient. No one should be able to excuse incomplete disclosure with contractual obligations of confidentiality or privacy worries vis-à-vis their counterparts as is often the case. Everyone – corporates, foundations and at the receiving end academic, think tank land and citizen groups needs to step up. Everyone needs to disclose relations and sponsorship on their end and commit to not preventing their counterparts from doing the same. Only this concerted push makes effective disclosure a reality – and the type of triangulation possible to spot gaps and inconsistencies that need correcting.

Where to? Coping with shades of (in)dependence – and finally a focus on arguments

Stealth funding once exposed always destroys trust and fuels cynicism. Open funding and partnership terms of engagement are the condition for a legitimate seat at the table. External funding be it by industry or foundations does not discredit arguments but should invite scrutiny and careful handling proportionate to the degree of (in)dependence that ought to be easy to ascertain. Once up and running and working properly such meaningful, portable and triangulated transparency would allow us to come back and focus on the power of evidence and arguments and their fair visibility rather than getting stuck in the sad pedestrian, yet necessary housekeeping of exposing who is funding, representing and actually saying what. Yes, industry groups and the research they sponsor might have good evidence and arguments too. And the same goes for groups funded by progressive foundations or even foreign donors. It would be so nice, if we could really focus on dissecting arguments and weighing them up against each other, rather than depleting scarce thinking and attention power on the tedious yet essential stealth-funder-disclosure-and-discredit routine that inevitably leaves large gaps, lots of cynicism and little attention to the substance.

  • 1
    Wood, Tim. 2023. ‘Learning From Our Mistakes: Corporate Front Groups and the Limits of Revelation in Climate Politics’. Social Media + Society 9(2): 20563051231177910. doi:10.1177/20563051231177910.