Heavy Hitters, Deep Pockets. But Where Is This Think Tank's Money Coming From?

The Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies is the Tiffany & Co. of think tanks, with a heady roster of boldface names from the security world such as Henry KissingerFrank Carlucci, Richard Armitage and Brent Scowcroft. As befits its stature, CSIS is well-funded. For fiscal year 2012, CSIS had an operating revenue of $33.2 million. Here's how the sources break down: 27 percent corporate, 27 percent foundation, 21 percent government, 11 percent individuals, 4 percent endowment, 10 percent "other."

Those figures are in the annual report. What’s not in the annual report—or on their website, or in their tax forms, or anywhere for public consumption—is who the funders are who are filling the deep pockets of CSIS.

“Thanks for your query. As a matter of policy we don't provide such information,” said an email from the iPhone of H. Andrew Schwartz, senior V.P. for external relations.

CSIS is not required to list its donors on its tax forms. The 990s for 501(c)3s will tell you CSIS’s revenue and expenditures, and the fact that H. Andrew Schwartz made $162,910 in 2011, but not who gave them the dough. Donors must disclose their grantees, but think tanks, no.

Transparify, an organization devoted to lifting the veil of think tank modesty, recently released a report and rating list called “How Transparent Are Think Tanks.” I asked them about the sector in general and CSIS in particular.

“Many think tanks are embracing financial transparency,” said spokesperson Jennifer Lappin. “Of the 35 U.S. think tanks Transparify rated, around 30 percent were rated as broadly or highly transparent about their funding [a four- or five-star rating] and another 20 percent of rated think tanks said they would be updating their websites to become transparent.”

CSIS received a single star, which would be great if they were a restaurant and Michelin was rating, but is not so good in Transparify's world. “A one-star think tank is categorized by ‘some donors listed, but not exhaustive or systematic’," said Lappin. “CSIS has not responded to Transparify, stating they were updating their websites for greater financial transparency, and so CSIS is not in the ‘updating’ category.

“It would be great to see CSIS update to become a five-star institution for financial transparency. CSIS's motto is that the organization delivers strategic insights and bi-partisan policy solutions. We believe these insights and solutions are more credible to the public, to journalists, and to policy-makers when CSIS comprehensively lists their donors and funding amounts.”

Some analysts believe that CSIS is star-struck-out because they get oodles of money from defense contractors and the U.S. government itself. But any number of foundations also support the organization, and that money is easily traceable. Here's a list of CSIS's biggest foundation supporters over the past few years:

  • Ford Foundation, 2013: $438,316
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2013: $598,800
  • Hewlett Foundation, 2013: $165,000
  • Carnegie Corporation of New York, 2012: $350,100
  • Starr Foundation, 2012: $110,000
  • MacArthur Foundation, 2012: $1,100,000
  • Luce Foundation, 2012: $350,000
  • Marin Community Foundation, 2012: $5,000
  • Hewlett Foundation, 2012: $320,000
  • Oberndorf Foundation, 2012: $25,000
  • Gates Foundation, 2012: $940,635
  • Baton Rouge Area Foundation, 2012: $175,000
  • Folger Fund, 2012: $30,000
  • Silicon Valley Community Foundation, 2012: $100,000
  • Rockefeller Brothers Fund, 2012: $50,000
  • Scholl Foundation, 2012: $250,000
  • Argyros Foundation, 2012: $200,000
  • Gates Foundation, 2011: $7,205,042

Other significant funders include the Coca Cola, Scaife, and Richardson foundations.

In the University of Pennsylvania’s 2013 Global Go To Think Tanks Report, CSIS is ranked the number one think tank in the world for security and international affairs and was also ranked as the 4th best overall think tank in the world.

Some 22 hours after my initial request to H. Andrew Schwartz asking for a donor list, I received from him a final email: “You can also say our policy is under review.”