On New America President/CEO Anne-Marie Slaughter's thinking about think tank funding:
According to a recording of the meeting, she [Anne-Marie Slaughter] said that while she recognized that the standard in journalism was never to show sources what you were writing, New America’s “norm can’t be that. We’re an organization that develops relationships with funders. And you know, these are not just black boxes; they’re people. Google is a person, the Ford Foundation—these are people. . . . And particularly when they give you money, which is really a nice thing . . . basic courtesy I think requires—if you know something really bad, you say, ‘Here’s a heads-up.’ ”
On New America's past and present:
Founded at the height of the Nasdaq boom, New America was meant to be an antidote to other Washington think tanks—a young, nimble provocateur that would dispense with convention and birth fresh ideas. Nearly two decades later, the organization, which now employs more than 250 people, is casting about for relevance in a hyper-partisan era, according to interviews with more than three dozen current and former staffers, many of whom wanted anonymity for fear of retribution in the tight-knit DC policymaking community. In a way, it’s a symbol of an entire Washington industry—policymaking—that’s under pressure to fund itself without making ideological or ethical sacrifices. If the Open Markets episode became a public-relations debacle, it also alienated a swath of the organization and exposed how much New America has outgrown its earliest ambitions.
On a shift in New America funding:
After 2009, however, the think tank began landing US government contracts, including millions of dollars’ worth of work from the State Department and the US Agency for International Development to help develop covert wireless networks for dissidents in Iran, Syria, Libya, and Cuba. Given that the organization had long prided itself on not being another Beltway bandit feeding off federal agencies, this shift disturbed some who worried that it signaled mission drift. “I think government dollars automatically change the character of an institution,” says the Atlantic’s Steve Clemons, one of New America’s first employees. “I was opposed completely, entirely, 9,000 percent. It dumbs down institutions, whether people want to believe it does or not.”
On funding tension at the think tank:
Fix the Debt was an enormous publicity generator for New America and was among its biggest moneymakers. The majority of its funders, though, were Republicans, including Wall Street tycoon Pete Peterson. And that caused liberals in the organization to blanch at its association with the right. Board member Bernard Schwartz, a major liberal donor who backed both the economic-growth program and nearly all of the fellows program, became so uncomfortable that he cut ties with the think tank. Eventually, Fix the Debt and its parent program parted ways with New America, too.
On New America's new office:
One of Slaughter’s first orders of business was moving New America from its modest downtown headquarters to a building a block from the White House. The space had all the amenities of a DC power player: a wrap-around roof deck with views of the Mall, trendy teal accents, and sleek design. The upgrade of 20,000 square feet raised some eyebrows internally, but Slaughter stressed that the extra space was essential. “It embodies who we are and where we want to go and inspires us to get there,” she declared.
On criticizing donors:
Five months into Slaughter’s tenure, a New America policy analyst published a blog post criticizing a partnership between Comcast and an online-education website. Despite objections from New America program directors, according to an e-mail, Slaughter allowed a senior VP at Comcast to write a defensive and self-congratulatory response in the think tank’s weekly newsletter. Employees would get another portrait the next year when a New America fellow named Steve LeVine was reporting an exposé on Sakti3, a battery company. Its CEO called Slaughter to broach the idea of funding New America but also voiced concerns about LeVine’s reporting. Afterward, Slaughter went to LeVine’s editor to relay the CEO’s objections. As word of the conversation spread, staff felt that a line had been crossed. Slaughter apologized to LeVine for interfering with the story.
On Slaughter's political alliances:
Slaughter’s political alliances also became news, in silly as well as serious ways. In 2015, four months after Donald Trump decided to run for President, Slaughter and a colleague met Ivanka Trump at an event in DC. After chatting, Trump asked the women for their shoe sizes so she could send each a pair of boots from her fashion line. They obliged, and when the boots showed up in the mail, Slaughter and her colleague took them home. A year later, just before the election, WikiLeaks released e-mails revealing that Slaughter had been collaborating informally with Hillary Clinton’s campaign. The e-mail traffic showed Slaughter trying to persuade New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman that the uproar around Clinton’s private e-mail use was overblown and that “everyone” Slaughter knew at State also used private e-mail. As it was, stories were circulating that their boss was gunning for a post in a Clinton White House and grooming their think tank for Hillary’s presidency. Since Slaughter took over, more than a dozen former Obama administration appointees have joined the ranks. A couple, including Cecilia Muñoz, Obama’s top domestic-policy adviser, are among New America’s VPs.
On New America's annual retreats:
Phil Longman, who worked at New America for 18 years until last summer when he departed with Lynn, says you could see the organization watering down its unorthodox brand through its annual retreats. They used to be “freeform” gatherings attended by staff and board members, “punctuated by highly competitive rounds of touch football and also a fair amount of drinking,” he says. “But starting about ten years ago, these fellows retreats gave way to highly formal, scripted sessions in which fellows, if they were allowed to talk at all, were asked to put on dog-and-pony shows for would-be donors. The most original and iconoclastic thinkers were generally left off the program because, well, their ideas were ‘unfundable.’ Eventually, if you weren’t ‘fundable,’ you were gone.”
On New America's financial woes:
In particular, some worried about the organization’s financial footing. For one thing, New America had beefed up its administrative teams, adding staff in fundraising and other areas and expanding the organization’s central bureaucracy, a turnaround from its lean beginnings. The number of staffers earning more than $100,000 in reportable compensation jumped from 29 in 2014 to 49 by 2016, according to tax filings. Slaughter earned $535,000 in 2015, her salary increasing 27 percent a year later to $677,000. (The president of the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, a think tank with comparable revenues, took home $242,000 in 2016.) There was also the cost of the upscale new DC headquarters. According to financial audits, New America reported rent expenses of $1.3 million in 2014, the last full year it was in its old building, while rent expenses for the new space amounted to $3.3 million in 2016. Program directors were being asked to hand over more money toward fixed costs. “The culture has really shifted in major ways over the last five years, from a place where the center supports the programs to one where the programs support the center,” says Sascha Meinrath, a former New America vice president who led its tech-policy program from 2008 to 2014. According to internal budget documents, as the organization laid out its 2017 budget, it was seeing red. Revenues had been jumping, from $14 million in 2008 to $38 million by 2016, according to its public tax filings. But so had expenses. Going into 2017, New America was privately forecasting that expenses would badly exceed revenue, leading to a projected drop of $11 million in net assets. Not helping matters was that the organization has no endowment.
On a think tank book launch:
Slaughter also pointed to a forthcoming book by one of its then fellows, Franklin Foer. World Without Mind: The Existential Threat of Big Tech argues that Silicon Valley poses a threat to civil society. The invocation took Foer by surprise. A few months earlier, as he’d been preparing for the book’s release, he’d sensed the think tank was backing away from it. First, he says, the organization informed him that his New York book event would no longer be primarily hosted by New America and that the viewpoints represented on the panel would need to be “balanced.” Foer had attended many other New America book events and knew “balance” was not a typical requirement for what are mainly celebratory events for fellows. Still, he agreed to the conditions. “But after the fact,” he says, “I learned that the development officer, Meredith [Hanley], had a meeting where she freaked out about the prospect of my book causing blowback for New America from Google and was putting pressure on the fellows program to try to somehow dampen their association with it.”On hiring a management consultant:
That month, the think tank’s board hired a management consultant named Jon Huggett to interview nearly 40 people affiliated with the organization. He found that most employees he spoke to felt confident about the organization’s intellectual independence and that Lynn’s departure wasn’t seen as due to funder pressure. “Barry behaved rationally, for himself,” said one. In the end, Slaughter retained the backing of the board—one of its co-chairs at the time suggested in a letter to staff that Lynn had used New America as a scapegoat to advance his own interests.
On the future of New America:
Some still feel anxious about the think tank’s finances and future. The organization has had four CFOs in the past five years, and there was an abrupt leadership shake-up on the board last November. While New America has had continued success raising restricted funds for program-specific initiatives, like most nonprofits it has a harder time raising unrestricted dollars. In 2016, an internal committee was tasked with reviewing the organization’s finances, out of recognition, they said, that winning more program grants does not necessarily leave enough money to cover the organization’s fixed costs. Their recommendations to the board included growing more policy programs as well as increasing New America’s corporate-donor pipeline by 30 to 40 prospects annually. (In 2017, 8 percent of funding came from big business.) While the committee noted that the organization was staying afloat thus far by increasing board support and netting big gifts, this was “not a long-term strategy.”
Here is a previous Think Tank Watch post documenting all the happenings and reaction related to New America's Google incident.