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The International Journal
of Not-for-Profit Law

Volume 11, Issue 3, May 2009

A publication of the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law

Table of Contents

Letter from the Editor

Special Section: Europe

Cross-Border Issues in the Regulation of Charities Experiences from the UK and Ireland
Oonagh B. Breen, Patrick Ford, and Gareth G. Morgan

Think Tanks in Central and Eastern Europe
in Urgent Need of a Code of Ethics

Goran Buldioski

Trading—A Survivor’s Guide:
Guidance Notes on Charity Trading in the U.K.

Pesh Framjee


Charity in Azerbaijan: Prospects for Developing Legislation and Practice
Mahammad Guluzade and Natalia Bourjaily


Beyond the Rhetoric: Foundation Strategy
By Kevin Bolduc, Ellie Buteau, Greg Laughlin, Ron Ragin, and Judith A. Ross
Reviewed by Michael Bisesi

- - - - - - - - - -

Download this issue (PDF) | Editorial Board

Think Tanks in Central and Eastern Europe
in Urgent Need of a Code of Ethics

Goran Buldioski1

The think tanks of Central and Eastern Europe, while influencing their governments to improve transparency, legitimacy and integrity, have neglected to develop their own codes of ethics and conduct. Following analysis of existing codes in the nonprofit sector, public service and the profession of policy advisors, this article concludes with a proposal for a code of ethics for think thanks, arguing that the issue must be addressed immediately.


Policy making in democratic countries and aspiring democracies should be grounded in evidence-based research. As producers of such research, think tanks and research organizations can have significant influence in shaping policy. The think tanks distributed unevenly throughout Central and Eastern Europe (CEE)2 have brought greater scrutiny to the policy-making processes in the region. While they have been instrumental in many reforms and changed how policy is perceived, these organizations have done little to improve their own accountability. A recent report reveals that many large international research organizations engaged in global development3 have poor or nonexistent codes of ethics (Witty 2008), meaning think tanks in CEE are not an exception but part of a broader trend.

The issue of accountability of independent policy research centers4 is complex, especially in CEE. Still, because of the urgency of the issue, this article intends not only to open debate but also to push the regions’ centers to act. As an initial step in devising a complete accountability process, the article starts with a brief contextual overview of the regions’ think tanks, providing a rationale for drafting codes of ethics. This is followed by a short analysis of ethical challenges for individual policy advisers. Assuming that think tanks are more than mere networks of individual policy analysts and advisers, the article juxtaposes the ethical questions for policy advisers with selected overviews of codes of ethics for public servants and self-regulation codes for NGOs in the region. The article concludes with a discussion of elements that future codes of ethics for think tanks in the region will have to contain.

1. Think Tanks in CEE – a brief overview

The UNDP defines think tanks as “organizations engaged on a regular basis in research and advocacy on any matter related to public policy. They are the bridge between knowledge and power in modern democracies” (UNDP 2003: 6). The term “think tank” defies exact definition, as the organizations in different parts of the world that appear under the term vary considerably in size, legal form, policy domain, organizational structure, standards of inquiry, and political significance. “The phrase ‘think tank’ has become ubiquitous—overworked and underspecified—in the political lexicon. As think tanks proliferated around the world, traditional definitions have been stretched beyond their original meaning and US-inspired taxonomies have lost their relevance” (Stone 2007: 260).

In CEE, the development of credible policy research and advice has required the resurrection or creation of political debate based on facts and real policy alternatives. As this process has unfolded, the emerging think tank scene has offered much-needed neutrality in a highly partisan political atmosphere. With local demand for evidence-based policy research low, the principal audience for much policy advice has been the myriad international organizations and donors focused on the region. Relying on their support, think tanks in many CEE countries are enjoying significant involvement in the development of public service, democratization, and nation building. Their many successes notwithstanding, however, the market for policy ideas in the entire region remains small and fragmented, making it all the more challenging to battle policy makers’ immaturity and lack of political will (Buldioski 2007). In such a situation, local think tanks must continuously struggle for legitimacy and credibility. Because of this, many exist in hybrid forms combining research and advocacy with capacity-building functions.

2. Why think tanks in CEE need a code of ethics

The issue of ethical principles and codes of conduct for think tanks and policy advisers alike has been discussed in the world’s academic circles for some time. A lack of concerted and practical effort was demonstrated in developed markets for policy ideas already in the early 1980s. Scholars like Amy Douglas lamented that “the only form of ethical analysis routinely used by analysts is utilitarianism in the form of cost-benefit analysis.” While pointing out that many believe “the political process resolves value differences in a democratic society,” she concluded that as a form of ethical thinking this can be limited and even misleading (Douglas 1984).

It is not the aim of this brief article to provide an exhaustive list of reasons that think tanks need a code of ethics, but a few should be noted:

-A code of ethics is a way to develop professionalism in organization and identity, thereby:

-Many think tanks in CEE are ideologically grounded in liberal democracy and market economics (Pippidi 2003). With such an ideological platform, organizations tend to appear stronger in advocacy5 than in fact-based research distorting the image of the sector.

-Think tanks need to distinguish themselves from consulting firms and individual policy experts. While concerned with the narrow classical definition of ethical problems pertaining to conflict of interest or whistle-blowing, think tanks face a much larger spectrum of ethical issues.

-Think tanks do not depend on a single client for their policy advice. Rather, a complex web of international donors, international organizations, and domestic governmental agencies underwrite their research and advocacy. Because this means the principal-agent relation cannot be easily established, accountability lines are blurred.

-A code of ethics should guide an organization’s members as they navigate through competing values (Grobman 2007). “Some policy issues are so explicitly moral in nature such as abortion or euthanasia that policy analysis resembles ideological choice rather than problem solving” (Douglas 1984).

-A code is a statement to external stakeholders of the way a think tank “will conduct itself in regard to basic moral principles like honesty and fairness” (Pritchard 1998: 530).

3. Think tanks at the crossroads of ethics

As a second step in this analysis, it is essential to define “ethical values” and take stock of the current trends pertaining to discussions on ethics. Building on the moral philosophy developed by thinkers such as Immanuel Kant and John Stuart Mill, David Schultz defines ethical values as “a broader set of values, norms, and guiding principles that influence the way institutions operate and guide the behavior of individuals who work or operate within them” (Schultz 2004). In a compelling analysis, he makes several important points:

The ethical values that guide the public, private, and nonprofit sectors have traditionally been seen as distinct from one another as well as from the values that guide personal relationships. However, recent trends in the economy and employment are blurring these distinctions…. In a new postmodern world of work, it is marked by a blurring of public and private lives as well as an increasingly fine line separating the three economic sectors. As a result, the ethical rules that apply to different facets of life and work are being challenged, necessitating a rethinking of the moral boundaries and rules governing professional behavior…. As more public/private, public/nonprofit, or private/nonprofit relationships emerge, the lines that used to separate the authority and expectations of each of the three sectors are becoming more difficult to maintain (Schultz 2004: 279, 290, 293).

Table 1 indicates the different notions of ethics emerging in four levels of human social organization:

Ethnical Language Across Sectors

Private life Private sector Nonprofit sector Public sector
love/friendship interest altruism duty
trust contracts volunterrism law
family/friends supply/demand mission-driven legitimacy
generous/kind CEOs stakeholders accountability
fathers/mothers boards of directors governing boards citizens/voters
children shareholders fiduciary duties legislatures
temperance fiduciary duties fundraising elected officials
wisdom thrift   elections
courage industriousness   democracy
needs/gifts entrepreneurial   taxation/revenue
  sales/commissions   enhancement/user

Source: Schultz (2004: 287).

Given that think tanks operate in the triangle of the public, private, and nonprofit sectors and their research and advice influence many individual lives, a think tank’s code of ethics should consider all four aspects.

4. Codes of ethics for think tanks in CEE – a framework for analysis

What kind of code of ethics would help the region’s think tanks resolve ethical dilemmas? Up to this point, think tanks in CEE have shunned ethical debates almost entirely.6 While the discussion here is mainly theoretical, the resolution of this issue has various practical ramifications.

Writing a code of ethics starts with looking at “the perennial debate—what it is about and what it is supposed to achieve” (van Wart 2003). Most of the literature on the subject recognizes three different levels and the code that reflects each of them: a) ideals—codes of ethics; b) norms—codes of conduct; and c) action—codes for rules and regulations.7 Given its brevity, this article will only provide content analysis and address the structure of the first two levels.

One way to approach this study would be to analyze the codes of ethics in think tanks operating in the United States, where these organizations form a viable industry (Weaver 1989, McGann and Johnson 2005). However, considering that think tanks in CEE lag behind their US peers in development and policy influence, this article takes a different approach. As previously argued, think tanks are positioned between the spheres of NGOs, public service, and individual policy advisers. The first two fields have been the subject of regional comparative studies and benefit from the existence of codes of conduct (or “accountability charters,” as some NGOs call them).8 While there are no similar regional studies on the ethics of the region’s individual policy advisers, their positions could be easily compared with those of their peers working in other contexts. Comparison of all three, complemented by a list of accountability standards for international research organizations, will lead to enumeration of essential elements of a code of conduct for think tanks in CEE.

4.1 The ethics of policy analysts

Unfortunately, think tanks and individual policy analysts are not working for a philosopher king or queen who evaluates their suggested policy alternatives with the kingdom’s overall welfare in mind. In that ideal situation, a policy advisor would not have to balance analytical integrity, responsibility to the client, and adherence to his or her conception of a good society (Weimer and Vining 2005: 39).

David Weimer presents three extreme positions that individual policy advisers can assume while performing their analysis, that of 1) an objective technician, 2) their client’s advocate, or 3) an advocate of a particular issue. The table below outlines the choices faced by individual policy analysts:

Table 2: Three views on the appropriate role of the policy analyst

Fundamental Values

Analytical Integrity

Responsibility to Clients

Adherence to One’s Conception of Good

Objective technician

Let analysis speak for itself. Primary focus should be on predicting consequences of alternative policies.

Clients are a necessary evil, but their political fortunes should be secondary considerations. Maintain distance from clients; select institutional clients whenever possible.

Relevant values should be identified, but decisions between them should be left to clients. In the long run objective advice promotes a good society.

Client’s Advocate

Analysis rarely produces definitive conclusions. Take advantage of ambiguity to advance client’s positions.

Clients provide analysts with legitimacy. Loyalty should be given in return for access to privileged information and political power.

Select clients with compatible value systems; use long-term relationships to change clients’ conceptions of a good society.

Issue Advocate

Analysts rarely produce definitive conclusions. Emphasize ambiguity and excluded values when analysis does not support advocacy.

Clients provide an opportunity for advocacy. Select them opportunistically; change clients to further personal policy agenda.

Analysis should be used to move toward one’s conception of a good society.

Source: Weimer and Vining (2005: 42)

While each of these extreme roles can be ethically acceptable in specific circumstances, the problem lies in determining how much of each value can be sacrificed when conflicts arise. Some value conflicts, dreadful to analysts, include demands that results be “cooked” or misrepresented. In these situations, Guy Benveniste contends the following:

One step that could reduce the risk of loss of legitimacy for policy experts is to develop a code of ethics; which would include such issues as defining the responsibility of the expert, identifying unacceptable conflicts of interest, determining the expert's obligations regarding secrecy and disclosure, and developing standards for the process of decision-making in emergencies (Benveniste 1984: 561).

He also expects that a code must recognize the possibility of inappropriate pressure on the policy expert. Furthermore, the code should define the expert's obligation in such circumstances and set out the means for disclosing such pressure (Beneviste 1984: 569).

An expert working alone is one thing, but think thanks are more complex, with many analysts gathered together to form an organizational brand. Think tanks acquire social power of their own, distinct from the power of their employers and bigger than its individual analysts. A code of ethics that merely regulates the values and behavior of individual analysts would fail to address the aspect of organizational responsibility.

4.2 Codes of ethics for public service in the transitional democracies of CEE

Forced to redefine their role in society as a whole (Saarnit 2005), public servants in CEE have engaged in broader reforms including introduction of codes of ethics and codes of conduct. The administrations—not cognizant of all problems—started by analyzing the core values of developed democracies. A few of the emerging democracies in CEE adopted a version of the ASPA Code of Ethics (ASPA 2005); others started with the comparative study produced by the OECD (OECD 2000); while EU accession candidates consulted the administrative laws of the European Union. A recent study analyzed the practices of 15 CEE countries. Their codes of ethics were developed and adopted either as primary or secondary legislation during efforts “aiming at professionalization of public service (regulating and controlling the conduct of public servants) and establishing formal accountability to public demands (seeking to apply societal values, constitutional principles, and higher ethical standards in everyday activity)” (Palidauskaite 2005).

While the structures and scope of codes vary depending on their legal status, all new codes emphasized

personal, professional, legal, and public interest values. The newly identified values for public servant professional activity are: legality, serving the public, loyalty to the constitutional government, impartiality, competence, professionalism, honesty, integrity, disinterestedness, political neutrality, transparency, and openness (Palidauskaite 2005: 46).

The table below provides a comparative overview of the most frequent core public service values underlying the respective code of ethics.

Table 3: Comparison of Codes of Ethics between CEE Countries, the US and OECD members


Code of Ethics

CEE countries (summary)

American Society for Public Administration

Ethics Measures in OECD countries

serving the public
loyalty to constitutional
political neutrality transparency

Serve the public interest.
Respect the Constitution and
 the law.
Demonstrate personal
Promote ethical organization. Strive for professional


While many policy centers have been researching and advising on administrative reforms, they have not been keen to develop their own codes of ethics and conduct. Defenders of think tanks might highlight the distinction in levels of accountability between these nongovernmental organizations and elected or appointed government officials. While it is clear that the latter should be the subject of greater scrutiny, think tanks should not take their own ethical reputations for granted. Most of the values listed above are similar to those underlying ethical research and advocacy. Moreover, think tanks have been largely supported by international donors and organizations. Given the specificity of their position, there is a greater need for a clearly communicated set of values towards the government and the citizenry (the ultimate beneficiary of any policy change). As will become apparent in the next section, think tank standards in this area also lag behind the rest of the nongovernmental sector in the entire region.

4.3 NGO codes of ethics in CEE

In stark contrast to the public or private sectors, which intend to serve the public good or maximize profit, nonprofit entities are driven by a specific mission. “The nature of the nonprofit sector, which is neither based on market principles nor constrained by constitutional principles, makes it a unique economic sector” (Schultz 2004). By the end of the last decade, the region’s nongovernmental organizations were on the vanguard of developing a range of joint codes of ethics, conduct and accountability in Europe. (Bullain and Marshall 2004).

In effort to consolidate hard-won gains, a number of umbrella groups and national networks resorted to drafting statements on ethical practices. Ranging from simple lists of “oughts” to detailed prescriptions for conduct, governance structures and fund-raising, most of these codes were a mixed bag of ethical values, codes of conduct and accountability standards encompassing their members, donors, and target groups. These codes were mostly voluntary—few included criteria for compliance. What criteria there were, although nominally required for membership in some networks, were almost never enforced (EU and ECNL, forthcoming).

Estonian, Slovak, and Hungarian NGOs advanced the furthest in these developments. The areas they emphasized are presented in the table below:

Table 4: Comparison of Slovak, Hungarian and Romanian NGO Codes.


NGO Codes

Slovakia (Donor’s forum)



public policy
(three levels of compliance:

  • legal compliance
  • good practices for accountability
  • practices of excellence for accountability)

conflict of interest
planning and evaluation

civic courage and care for social justice
sustainability and prudence in using funds and resources
responsibility and accountability
openness and transparency
independence and avoiding conflicts of interest
honouring commitments and recognition of authorship of ideas

Source: European Commission (2009)

Following the regional trend, NGOs in other CEE countries have developed their own common codes over the past several years. The European Center for Not-for-Profit Law produced a manual to assist them specifically in the area of governance (Wyatt 2002). The insightful and useful manual emphasized the practical and formal aspects of accountability. It standardized a model that included the NGO’s mission, accountability, transparency, use of resources, board leadership, management practices, and avoidance of conflicts of interest. As such, the manual is of great use of think tanks when setting their governance structure as NGOs. On the other hand, the manual fails to pay due attention to the ethical responsibility of policy research and its impact on the various stakeholders, aspects that carry particular weight in the work of think tanks.

4.4 Accountability principles for research organizations

In 2008, the One World Trust, an independent think tank monitoring accountability at the global level, released an unprecedented report looking at the accountability standards of international research organizations engaged in global development (Whitty 2008). Though not directly pertaining to the CEE region and emphasizing an umbrella concept of accountability,9 this report puts forward a novel concept worth considering. It stipulates three normative reasons for accountability: formal accountability, accountability on claims made, and accountability for the impact. While formal accountability is a classic concept usually embedded in contracts with donors or clients, the other two build on more recent discussions relating to organizations involved in research and international development. By calling for accountability both on claims made on behalf of a particular group and on results of policy changes that an organization pushes for, the report makes a strong case that “a research organization should be accountable to more than simply those with whom it has a formal relationship” (Whitty 2008: 20).

The report describes four principles of accountability: participation, transparency, evaluation, and feedback mechanisms. Regrettably, this valuable model is limited to analysis of policy processes, their improvement, and stakeholder analysis. Little or no attention is given to other core ethical aspects such as the political neutrality and technological integrity of the research organization.  

5. A code of ethics for CEE think tanks

Montgomery van Wart (2003) outlines the main substantive challenges in constructing a code of ethics: a) the blurring of the system of ideals, norms, and actions is inevitable; b) stating a principle is not the same as its enforcement; and c) multiple abstract principles may apply to a single case. Looking at the diverse models presented in this article, it is obvious that there is no panacea for code of ethics applicable to all regions' think tanks. All of the previous models take into consideration contextual or organizational specificities. Each think tank should consider its specific policy environment and define its own priorities. However, the present analysis helps us to identify some core ethical values that should be linked to the essential elements of all codes of ethics and conduct for think tanks.

Table 5: Elements of codes of ethics and conduct for think tanks in CEE

Ethical value

Element in the code of ethics


grounds for independence: political, financial, expertise


link to expertise or to a particular target group

integrity, political bias or neutrality

declared ideology, links to interest groups or advocacy coalitions

impartiality, fair use of research methods, competence

Definition of research methodology

transparency, competence

definition of public policy process, specialization if applicable

honesty, accountability (to multiple stakeholders)

standards of accountability to clients, donors, government, and population

serving the public

definition of policy products as public goods

Code of conduct

Element in the code of conduct

professionalism and mission

professionalism and dedication to the mission of the think tank


policy on conflict of interest

transparency, disclosure of information

procedure on disclosure of information within the organization and to the public

Conclusion: CEE think tanks have no time to spare

Home to admirable policy analysts, think tanks in CEE have excelled in many research areas and assisted the transition processes and reforms in their countries. This article argues that they have unjustifiably neglected the development of their own codes of ethics and conduct. Straddling the line between the public, nonprofit, and private sector, these centers could choose from the abundant models that other sectors have already developed. Using existing platforms for NGOs in their countries might be a logical step in adopting a code of ethics from within the nonprofit sector. Alternatively, think tanks could dedicate themselves to ethical values defined by their public administration or governmental sectors. Whatever its source, the list of ethical values should include integrity, legitimacy, commitment to impartiality and competence, accountability to all affected stakeholders of their research and advocacy.  

Think tanks do not act alone in the policy environment. Neither are they obliged to be neutral or free of ideology. Many in the region are staunch advocates of certain doctrines and concepts about the development of their own societies. The only position a think tank should avoid is becoming the advocate of a certain client, because that loss of independence undermines the impact of a think tank’s research. It is essential for think tanks to be explicit and transparent about the ethical values underlying their research work and advocacy. At present, think tanks enjoy a reputation as neutral transmitters of scientific ideas and policy analysis. This independence is their key feature well positioning think tanks to promote good communication between state and society. Likewise, the media is also keen on using think tank experts who they expect are serving the public interest.
The lack of a “framework of values” and rules for conduct for think tanks—among the most resolute proponents of government transparency and accountability in CEE—could soon have negative consequences. In spheres of policy where governments are hostile to such organizations, think tanks have to guard against attacks on independent policy research. Defining a proper code of ethics and code of conduct is a way to do that. Think tanks in CEE can only benefit from proposals in this article by being resolute in formulating these essential and overdue codes.


1 Goran Buldioski is director of the Open Society Institute’s Think Tank Fund. He is based on Budapest. The opinions expressed herein are solely those of the author and do not represent the official standpoint of the Think Tank fund and Open Society Institute.

2 This term refers to the states that acceded to the EU after 2004 along with the countries of the West Balkans, Ukraine, and Moldova. Given the lack of democratic space for participatory policy making in the Russian Federation, Belarus, and the South Caucasus, these countries are not part of this analysis.

3 These organizations are not all think tanks and none are headquartered in the United States, where think tanks are most developed.

4 The terms think tanks and independent policy research institutes will be used interchangeably in this paper, eschewing the more nuanced definitions found in other scholarship (Weaver 1989, Stone and Denham 2004, McGann and Johnson 2005).

5 This is indeed typical of some very strong centers but they are not representative of the entire sector.

6 Of the 36 members of the Policy Association for Open Society (PASOS), the biggest umbrella organization in the region (more info at http://www.pasos.org), the Center for Social and Economic Research in Poland was the only center with an explicit set of vales and an “integrity policy” posted on its web site. None of the 20 grantees of OSI’s Think Tank Fund (which does not participate in PASOS) has a code of ethics (list available at http://www.soros.org/initiatives/thinktank/focus_areas/grantee_folder_initiative_view)

7 For a detailed review of such literature see Grobman (2007)

8 Palidauskaite (2005) provides a comparative analysis of the codes of ethics of 15 CEE countries, while the European Center for Non-Profit Law (Bullain and Marshall 2004) provides an overview of the nonprofit sector.

9 “Accountability is the processes through which an organization makes a commitment to respond to and balance the needs of stakeholders in its decision-making processes and activities, and delivers against this commitment” (Whitty 2008: 8).


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