Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke sits during a session at the Brookings Institution January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC. 
Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben Bernanke sits during a session at the Brookings Institution January 16, 2014 in Washington, DC.  - 
Listen To The Story

Think tanks have become more and more prominent in Washington.   They’re attracting big money -- and big names.  There's speculation that Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke could end up at a think tank.  

According to tax filings, the top five richest think tanks in the US have more than $1.5 billion in assets.  That’s about the GDP of Liberia.

“Let’s face it.  There’s a lot of money at stake here,” says Peter Metzger, vice chairman of CT Partners in Washington and a a think tank headhunter. 

Metzger says even if you’re not a famous Washington wonk like Ben Bernanke, think tanks pay very well.

“Some in the neighborhood of three-quarters of a million to a million dollars or more depending upon their experience and what they can bring to the effort," he says.

But what do the big names do for a think tank?  Why are they so prized? 

The best known wonks are big moneymakers. They might make an appearance at a fundraiser.  If they make a speech, the think tank can charge admission.  

James McGann, who runs the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, says sometimes just having a really big name on a think tank’s letterhead is enough to get donations  flowing. 

He says, “Those that have a strong brand, which is connected to the rigor of their research, are key.”

Think tank donors include foundations, interest groups, and, increasingly, corporations -- which see the influence of think tanks as a way to pierce Washington gridlock.  Some think tanks have even set up separate arms that can lobby Congress, according to Jack Pitney, who teaches political science at Claremont McKenna College. 

“A lot of the organizations are really conglomerates of different kinds of groups depending on what kind of contributions they’re trying to draw," he says.

But Pitney says, for all the money involved, think tanks aren’t trying to make a profit. They're more interested in the real currency of Washington: power and influence.  

“I think the best compliment I can give is not to say how much your programs have taught me (a ton), but how much Marketplace has motivated me to go out and teach myself.” – Michael in Arlington, VA

As a nonprofit news organization, what matters to us is the same thing that matters to you: being a source for trustworthy, independent news that makes people smarter about business and the economy. So if Marketplace has helped you understand the economy better, make more informed financial decisions or just encouraged you to think differently, we’re asking you to give a little something back.

Become a Marketplace Investor today – in whatever amount is right for you – and keep public service journalism strong. We’re grateful for your support.