People’s Policy Project Wants to Change the Think Tank World, $5 at a Time

Matt Bruenig takes new approach to policy research through small, monthly donations

(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
(Chris Hale/CQ Roll Call)
Posted August 9, 2017 at 5:00am

The People’s Policy Project is the only think tank funded by tiny monthly donations.

“I thought I could get $1,000 a month,” Matt Bruenig said about his initial plans for the organization, also known as 3P.

He posted an appeal on May 1 on Patreon, a platform known for letting people support podcasters, musicians, and artists with small monthly donations. He wrote that he would use the money to form a think tank to “publish ideas and analysis that assist in the development of an economic system that serves the many, not the few.”

It quickly attracted thousands of dollars, reaching $7,678 per month at the time of this writing, with 1,434 patrons, for an average monthly donation of $5.23. Bruenig initially hoped to just make enough to pay himself to write for the site, but now has plans to pay others on a freelance basis to work on papers and explanatory videos as well.

If funding continues to grow, Bruenig said he might hire people full-time to produce content or do legislative and media work.

The 3P model, Bruenig said, includes having the site function as a sort of hybrid between a news and a traditional think tank website. Bruenig plans to write regular posts that are tied to the daily news cycle to keep people interested, and “long papers that take two to three months to produce, in depth on policy issues.” That way, “interest can be maintained, while allowing us to do deeper, more useful work,” he said.

The paper currently in the works is planned to be the first in a series on different aspects of single-payer health care. It will look at how it can deal with the issue of long-term care, when individuals such as the elderly or disabled need nursing care indefinitely.

“If you read single-payer papers and proposals, if it’s included at all, it’s kind of overlooked, or not covered in great depth,” Bruenig said. “We’ll get the ball rolling on single-payer with a digestible small piece about something that’s often neglected.” He hopes to release the paper in September or October.

Bruenig is a lawyer who has built up an online following writing about welfare systems, inequality, and poverty. He previously wrote for the blog of the left-leaning think tank Demos, and also keeps a blog under his own name.

He received his first payout from Patreon on June 1, and launched the 3P website on Monday, intending for it to fill what he sees as a major gap in the policy space.

“The existing think tank world is politically constrained,” Bruenig said. “There’s this milieu of center-left think tanks, running all the way to the far right, but there’s nothing to the left of that. So we have ideas like single-payer [health care], which is supported by the vast majority of Democratic voters, that have no policy support whatsoever among these institutions.”

He blames that state of affairs on the ideology of think tank leaders, but “especially the donors.” That’s part of the motivation behind the crowdfunding model.

Bruenig said he would be happy if 3P is able to “prod” large center-left think tanks to use their superior resources to further research and to advocate the kind of policies 3P is taking on.

While Bruenig said he might be open to other funding sources in the future, for now 3P will depend on small donations.

“At some point, if that reaches a wall, I might have to think about other sources,” he said, “but I’d be very careful about who we take money from.” 

“Some sources aren’t as problematic as others,” he said. “Labor unions provide quite a lot of money to causes like this. That might be a next step if we get to that place, if we feel like if we got extra money, we could add a lot more value.”