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Big ideas and big money mingle in Aspen

By Laurie Bennett

June 28, 2013 at 7:11am

The Aspen Ideas Festival, convened in the Colorado Rockies each summer for the last nine years, has grown into a domestic Davos.

Jointly organized by the Aspen Institute and the Atlantic, the conference draws some of the best and the brightest.

This year’s speakers include former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, Goldman Sachs CEO Lloyd Blankfein, former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson and Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan.

Yet the sellout gathering is not just about ideas or even power. It’s also about money and exposure.

Andrea Mitchell, a speaker, broadcast her MSNBC show Thursday from Aspen. Who wouldn’t? The lineup of possible guests is tremendous. Yo Yo Ma, a festival speaker, performed.

The giving potential clustered in Aspen is also significant.

We count six billionaires on this year’s speaker list:

  • Investor Nicolas Berggruen
  • KB Home founder Eli Broad
  • America Online founder Steve Case
  • James G. Coulter, co-founder of the TPG Capital private equity firm
  • POM Wonderful co-founder Lynda R. Resnick, who is also a trustee
  • Carlyle Group co-founder David M. Rubenstein

Three more billionaires sit on the institute board: venture capitalist John Doerr, cosmetics tycoon Leonard Lauder and industrialist David Koch.

The Muckety map above shows billionaire connections to the institute, directly or through foundation giving. The network includes Penny Pritzker, who was sworn in Tuesday as the new secretary of Commerce.

Financial support and international prominence are crucial as the think tank world becomes ever more crowded and competitive.

The Aspen Institute has assets of some $160 million, according to its 2011 tax returns. It relies, in addition to program revenue, on contributions and grants, which totalled $50 million in 2011.

Despite its prominence, it does not appear on the University of Pennsylvania’s annual ranking of the world’s top think tanks (pdf).

Much higher ranked are the Brookings Institution (No. 1 worldwide), the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (3), the Center for Strategic and International Studies (5) and the Council on Foreign Relations (6).

Of the top think tanks in the U.S., UPenn’s Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program ranked the Aspen Institute 41st.

Here’s Jean Case, wife of Steve Case:

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