(Shutterstock)
(Shutterstock)

“Follow the money,” said Deep Throat in All the President’s Men, the Hollywood version of the Washington Post’s coverage of the Watergate scandal.

That could also be motto of Transparify, a monitoring agency that rates the financial transparency of major think tanks around the world — including the Centre for International Governance Innovation (CIGI). In fact, Transparify uses the phrase in explaining its work. “We think that assessing whether the public can ‘follow the money’ provides the best entry point for gradually improving the wider accountability of the sector.”

In its 2015 report, Transparify gives CIGI the top rating for financial transparency for a second year in a row. CIGI is one of only 31 organizations globally, and the only think tank in Canada, to achieve the maximum possible rating of 5 stars and “highly transparent” with respect to public disclosure of funding sources.

Why does this matter? Well, for one thing, funding of think tanks blew into the public eye last year, amid media investigations of whether donors were distorting the work of certain organizations.

As the New York Times reported in September 2014, foreign governments or state-financed entities had handed millions of dollars to certain US think tanks – and those think tanks went on to advocate for US policies reflecting those donors’ desires. The Times stated that “while the think tanks argue that the relationships do not compromise the integrity of their research, foreign officials say the contributions are pivotal in furthering their policy priorities.”

Think tanks cited in the Times report, such as the Brookings Institution, strongly objected to the allegations.

Amid the controversy, Transparify this past year assessed 169 think tanks in 47 countries around the world for public financial reporting, rating “the extent to which think tanks publicly disclose through their websites where their funding comes from.”

In this respect, CIGI not only reports a financial summary in its Annual Report, it also releases its detailed financial statements (PDF) with all the notes – and in addition creates a separate, detailed report on sources of funding (PDF). All of this is posted online. It shows that CIGI — which is independent and non-partisan — gets its funding from multiple sources, including the federal Government of Canada, provincial Government of Ontario and private donors including founder Jim Balsillie. CIGI lists it all down to the penny.

That’s exactly what Transparify likes to see. As its report states: “Transparify’s intention was and remains to promote the credibility of the sector as a whole. We are delighted that so many more think tanks have joined this collective effort by opening their books during 2014.”

At CIGI, like other think tanks that score well for transparency, we just consider it part of walking the talk. “CIGI’s standing in the 2015 Transparify ratings reflects our organization’s dedication to transparency and openness in our operations – hallmarks of good governance, and core values that guide our research and work in global governance,” said CIGI President Rohinton Medhora. “We are proud to receive this important distinction in financial transparency among think tanks worldwide.”

The Transparify report is not the only global rating of think tanks. Another rating that receives a lot of attention from think tanks and media, once a year, is the Global Go-To Think Tanks Index produced by the Think Tanks & Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, under the supervision of program director James McGann. It is a popularity vote by thousands of observers, though it’s not transparent how the ballots mathematically result in an index (they pass through the hands of “expert panels” before yielding a final ranking). In any case, in the McGann ratings, CIGI ranks 7th in Canada and Mexico and 43rd worldwide – putting CIGI in the top 1%, one could say, of more than 6,000 think tanks worldwide.

But popularity and financial transparency aren’t necessarily bedfellows, so don’t look for a correlation between the two sets of scores. Think tanks that glow in the McGann rankings might pale in the Transparify ratings. To give just a few examples: the widely esteemed Chatham House in the United Kingdom and the illustrious Council on Foreign Relations in the US both sail at or near the top in the McGann index (1st and 8th worldwide), but get only a middling 3 out of 5 score from Transparify. In Canada, the ideologically conservative Fraser Institute flies high at 1st in the McGann list for Mexico and Canada, but lands with a thud in Transparify with only 1 out of 5 (“highly opaque”).

Surprisingly, among those getting a “highly opaque” score in 2015 is Open Society Foundations, which supports Transparify entirely through its Think Tank Fund. However, a footnote in the report states that Open Society Foundations made clear to Transparify that it doesn’t consider itself a think tank – and presumably, therefore, shouldn’t be in the ratings. Perhaps Transparify just wants to demonstrate that its work is fearlessly independent of its own sole source of funding.

Transparify’s ratings generate plenty of media coverage, which it then posts on its own site — including lashings from The Financial Times that “British think-tanks are less transparent about their sources of funding than their European counterparts.” Meanwhile, Canadian media, by and large, ignored the specific findings of the 2015 report.

For more information on Transparify and the 2015 report, visit transparify.org.

The opinions expressed in this article/multimedia are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of CIGI or its Board of Directors.