What is “Pay for Play?”

No think tank wants to be known as a “pay for play” organization, but the concept is rather like “pornography.”  People think they know “pay for play” when they see it, but its necessary and sufficient conditions remain obscure.  That’s too bad, because think tanks have a lively interest in determining exactly what “pay for play” ought to mean.  You can’t make policies about something unless you can define it.

Perhaps it is easier to say what “pay for play” is not.  The aspersion can’t simply refer to an earmarked donation from a benefactor with a passionate ideological conviction.  Think tanks like the Heritage Foundation, the Center for American Progress, and the Cato Institute attract support from individuals who want to advance a particular conception of a just society, and such donors often have a favorite issue.  I used to work on education policy at Cato.  I never fundraised, but I sensed that my work was easy to support because libertarian philanthropists tend to care deeply about school reform.  Research support is not ethically suspect just because a supporter, unsurprisingly, considers the research important.

Nor is a contract between a think tank and a funder “pay for play” just because the think tank specifically agrees to answer that funder’s research question.  Such deals are usually called “contract research.”  The Urban Institute and the Rand Corporation do a lot of contract research for both public and private clients, and they receive nary a sideways glance for it.

Lack of timely disclosure is a common element of financial relationships that give rise to the occasional think tank scandal.  But all by itself, lack of disclosure seems insufficient to make a funding relationship an example of “pay for play.”  Most obviously, very small donations don’t seem to require disclosure.  The Heritage Foundation reports that it has “hundreds of thousands” of individual members, making it “the most broadly supported think tank in America.”  Heritage’s 2011 annual report lists hundreds, but certainly not hundreds of thousands, of supporters.  It doesn’t seem like a problem that the think tank does not disclose the identity of every small contributor.

Whether think tanks ought to disclose very large contributions is a more debatable question.  But even very large contributions can’t be characterized as “pay for play” if they are truly unconditional.  A posthumous gift of $1 million, conveyed anonymously by an executor to a lucky think tank, would probably be as welcome as the discovery of a buried treasure underneath the auditorium.

The term “pay for play” suggests that some sort of quid pro quo is involved—that the supporter is getting something out of the relationship besides the warm feeling of a good deed done.  The question is: what exactly is that something else?

What characteristics must a funding relationship have in order to count as “pay for play” in the think tank world?  Make your suggestions in the comments.

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