While think tanks are usually 501(c)(3) nonprofits, advocacy groups operate as 501(c)(4) organizations.
Few think tanks register as lobbying groups. But in recent years, some think tanks have affiliated with advocacy groups, typically described as “sister organizations.”
We checked tax returns and other data for the top 50 U.S. think tanks, as identified in the recent study by the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania.
We found four think tanks linked to advocacy groups:
- Heritage Foundation: Heritage Action for America
- Center for American Progress: Center for American Progress Action Fund
- Competitive Enterprise Institute: Freedom Action
- Open Society Foundations: Open Society Policy Center
The rise of these sister organizations is an indication of the increasing politicization of think tanks, which were once regarded as independent idea labs.
(We should also note that there is no legal definition for a think tank. Groups are free to describe themselves as such while doing advocacy work.)
As former Treasury Department economist Bruce Bartlett warned in a 2010 column: “At least in Washington, think tanks are becoming so political that they are more like lobbyists than academic institutions.”
But the trend doesn’t apply to all research institutes.
Old-school think tanks such as The Brookings Institution and the Council on Foreign Relations don’t have these affiliations. Think tanks that have launched spin-off groups, while claiming to be nonpartisan, have clear political bents.In essence, Heritage is the most well-known Republican think tank with a lobbying arm, and CAP is the most well-known Democratic think tank with a lobbying arm. Heritage is older, more well-known, and better funded than CAP. Within the US government, Heritage has the most clout among conservative Members of Congress. CAP, while smaller, has enormous influence within the Executive Branch of government, as dozens of CAP-affiliates have gone into the Obama Administration or have advised the Administration.
Fun fact: Based on Google Maps, CAP is a 7-minute walk to the White House and a 39-minute walk to the US Capitol Building. Heritage is an 11-minute walk to the US Capitol Building and a 34-minute walk to the White House.
Here is an article written in 2010 by Ed Feulner (President & Co-Founder of the Heritage Foundation) and Michael Needham (CEO of Heritage Action for America) titled "New Fangs for the Conservative 'Beast'" which discusses the Heritage Foundation's new advocacy organization Heritage Action for America.