An increase of federal power drives up the number of special interest groups because of a distrust of government that author James McGann says is very unique to the American political system. McGann, who has authored books on think tanks and runs the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania that advises think tanks from across the world, said the United States has a history of relying on outside experts as opposed to government commissions and bureaucracy to provide research.
Though the reasons they may have formed in the ‘60s are similar, McGann said think tanks are not the same as special interest groups.
According to McGann, special interest groups serve a private interest, often corporate, but not exclusively so. He said think tanks usually differ on their mission, funding and governance. Think tanks have a primary mission of charitable public giving, are publicly supported through tax deductible-dollars and are governed by volunteer boards, not paid boards.
The traditional reason for the formation of think tanks was philanthropy. That definition changed, he said, when those who grew up with the activism of the ‘60s became leaders.