An article by George Monbiot, titled ‘Secretive thinktanks are crushing our democracy’, was recently brought to our attention by Nick Tucker. The article, published in The Guardian in September 2011, highlights the difficulties of uncovering funding sources for private research institutions engaging in public debate and producing research to influence public policy. Monbiot argues that transparency about funding is central to developing trust and exposing possible conflicts of interest. We agree.

To this end we thought we would provide a little more information about the Institute’s history and our funding sources below and in our 2012 Annual Report. This aligns with our Project One Integrated Report which champions the uptake of Integrated Reporting.

The Institute originated in the early 2000’s from a conversation between founder and Chief Executive, Wendy McGuinness, and her husband, Mark McGuinness. As an accountant specialising in risk management Wendy prepared the 1988 report Implementation of Accrual Accounting for Government Departments to provide Treasury with an action plan for the implementation of accrual accounting in government departments. In 1991 New Zealand became one of the first governments in the world to prepare consolidated financial statements on the accrual basis.

Beside her role as an accountant, Wendy was the Chair of the New Zealand Institute of Chartered Accountants National Sustainable Development Reporting Committee and had been a member of the Taskforce on Sustainable Development Reporting. Her interest in risk management prompted her to search for an independent organisation that was exploring New Zealand’s long-term future. However, while Wendy was primarily interested in research, most futures-type organisations were more interested in discussion and trends. Wendy’s persistent concerns about the lack of independent research organisations developing strategies to shape policy, prompted Mark to ask ‘why don’t you create one?’

Wendy’s initial thinking was to create a place where people could donate and contribute to research and outputs. She studied alternative models of nonprofit public policy think-tanks based in the United Kingdom and United States, such as Demos and Brookings. Wendy’s decision in 2004 to create a privately funded, nonprofit think-tank – the Sustainable Future Institute – was ultimately based on her evaluation of the most effective and robust model for developing research and policy recommendations.

Eight years on, the concept of ‘sustainability’ continues to be well recognized internationally as covering social, economic, cultural and environmental issues, but in New Zealand it tends to imply a primarily environmental focus.  As a result, the name – the Sustainable Future Institute – was changed to ensure we could re-position the Institute as a broad based think-tank. Further, it was changed to – ‘The McGuinness Institute’ – to denote where the primary-funding was coming from. In making this change, we were following the example of the Brookings Institute (based in Washington), where the initial funding came from Robert Somers Brookings (1850-1932).  It is now one of the best known and respected think-tanks in the world.

Rather than being seen as an organisation primarily focused on progressing environmental issues, the recent name change better reflects the breadth of the Institute’s work; exploring New Zealand’s long-term future through integrated evidence-based research on social, economic and environmental issues.

Wendy and Mark McGuinness (Mark is Managing Director of Willis Bond & Co) recognised that, particularly in these economic times, they would need to fund the institute in the short term and have recalibrated their finances to commit to a budget of $300,000 per annum. This is a big investment in both the research team and this country; one that they hope will pay dividends, both in new insights and policy in terms of the country’s future and as a repository for past policies and ideas. The Institute has been building a private library open to the public, called the James Duncan Reference library, named after the former Chair of the Commission for the Future. Please feel free to contact the Institute if you have any further questions or queries.

Rory Sarten
Head of Research