Founding a Think Tank
The importance of supporting new think tank development
Aren’t there enough think tanks? We do not think so.
Few developing countries have enough policy research institutes to help address the challenges they face. Instead, and because of the small size of the think tank community, they have to rely on policy ideas coming from abroad – often from the think tanks, research centres and consultancies set up in developed countries to lobby and influence international aid agencies (Mendizabal, 2016).
Besides, not all policy issues, regions or population groups are equally serviced by think tanks.
Data from the Open Think Tank Directory shows how some regions have a strong think tank sector, while others have a smaller one.
Table: Number of think tanks per sub-regions
Source: Open Think Tank Directory (data extracted 5 May 2021)
But even in those regions where there is an abundance of think tanks, there is still space (and need!) for new policy research organisations + We will use the terms think tank and policy research organisation interchangeably through the document. See the section Defining think tanks for a discussion on the terms. , as many issues and many people, particularly the most vulnerable, remain understudied. Additionally, most think tanks are based in capital cities and address policy challenges at a national level, meaning there is scope and a need for organisations working at different levels.
Furthermore, many think tanks in low- and middle-income countries, most of which are directly supported by foreign donors, maintain a very traditional and often expensive business model, which is difficult to replicate. It is time for new think tank models to emerge: flexible, smart about the use of digital tools and resources, and quick to learn from the practices of established think tanks
In summary, there is scope and a need for new policy research organisations and this guide aims to accompany those who want to take this road and fill this space.
Box. The role of think tanks in times of crisis
This guide is being published at a time when think tanks across the world are facing acute challenges and changes: the COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way many organisations work and disseminate their findings; experts and researchers are confronted by growing misinformation and polarization; there is growing social and political unrest across the world; and it is becoming harder for think tanks to obtain long-term core funding. Nonetheless, this is not the first time that think tanks have faced epochal transformations and most of them are able to navigate these challenges (Abelson and Rastrick 2021).
During times of crisis and change, think tanks provide innovative ideas, create spaces for plural engagement, and connect those who can contribute to addressing new challenges. In other words, their role during these times is more crucial than ever.
But we should also take a moment to reflect on deeper questions: Is a think tank the best way to achieve this? Do you have any other reasons for setting up a think tank?
In practice, there are many reasons and motivations for wanting to set up a think tank. They range from ideal and high-minded to more practical, mundane and selfish reasons.
You may wish to set up a think tank simply to raise your personal profile and get into politics in the future, and you think that a think tank is a better vehicle than a political publication, a consultancy or academia. You might be a university-based researcher who wants to start a think tank to earn a decent living as a researcher-cum-consultant, or you might want to be seen as an authoritative expert and gain public recognition in your field.
The motivations for wanting to set up a think tank are diverse and reflecting on them will help you clarify if there is something else that you seek +See the section Are you sure you want to set up a think tank in this chapter . Understanding your motivations for setting up a think tank will also help you figure out what kind of think tank you wish to create, what activities it will undertake, who will work in it, and more. Here is a list of helpful questions to ask yourself:
- What problem or problems do you want to address? Is it personal or professional? Does it relate to the political, economic or social context in your community, country or internationally?
- What do you want to achieve?
- Do you think that evidence-informed arguments are absolutely necessary to achieve these objectives?
- Can you achieve it through alternative means? (e.g. academia, advocacy, or with an existing organisation)
- Why is a think tank the best means to achieve it?
You may think that a think tank is better than an academic research department at addressing policy challenges head on. This is true. Think tanks are commonly policy focused whereas the incentives within academia tend to be in the opposite direction. But a regular op-ed in a national broadsheet might have the same impact in the short term and your university may be well placed to help you with that. You may also think that it will be easier to raise funding for your research through a think tank. This is also true. Think tanks tend to be charities and tend to attract the attention of political and development philanthropists. But a well-run consultancy may be able to raise enough overhead from projects to fund its own independent research.
Throughout this guide, we will be addressing these and other questions. Reflecting on them early on will make the whole process easier for you. The guide also addresses more practical and mundane issues, such as different business models or how to assemble your team. Boxes 4 – 9 present a collection of the motivations of several think tank founders:
Box. Changing the system. Orazio Belletini and Grupo Faro – Ecuador
“After working several years in the private sector, I decided to start a new phase of my professional life by working in a development NGO. There I learned to appreciate the contribution that civil society organisations (CSOs) make by generating ideas and creating opportunities for the most vulnerable groups of society. This experience also helped me recognise that the work of CSOs usually focuses on specific groups rather than on changing the system that allows the appearance of problems such as social exclusion and environmental degradation.
I decided then to promote the creation of an organisation that would focus on delivering innovative solutions for social problems. My idea was to create an organisation that promotes citizen participation and encourages public-private collaboration to change the rules of the game; an organisation that, as described by Ashoka (a network of social entrepreneurs I belong to), does not just teach a (wo)man to fish but reinvents the fishing industry. I became convinced that one of the best way to achieve this goal was by influencing public policy.”
Box. Combining the skills of likeminded people. Simonida Kacarska and the European Policy Institute – Macedonia
“In 2011, with several likeminded individuals with whom we shared the experiences of working on the EU accession of Macedonia, we founded a civil society organisation that grew into one of the leading think tanks in the country and in the region.
At the time of its founding, I was completing my PhD and was looking of a way to professionally combine the different skills and competences that I have gained both over my education and previous working experience. For example, I have insight from engaging with political reforms in societies that undergo transformations as a civil servant, researcher, and lecturer. The think tank position was such an opportunity.”
Box. Streamlining good ideas to the public sector. Nicolás Ducote and CIPPEC – Argentina
“I was convinced that in Argentina there were no institutions that were strongly and perseveringly dedicated to taking the best ideas in public policy and pushing them towards the political process. I was very interested in putting together people whom I was approaching, who had an interest in causes such as education or health, and who did not have a vehicle to take their ideas to the world of public policy. And so, together with my associates and friends I decided to create an institution that would support entrepreneurs who wanted to change the Argentinean reality and who worried about what was important: that the things they proposed got done.
For them to be able to accomplish that, they would be free from some administrative tasks in the institution; we told them, ‘come work at CIPPEC and we will help you get funding, we’ll take care of communications, administrative issues, etc.; you just do the best you can to have impact, to put together a good team and to insert your area of knowledge into others, because most problems are interdisciplinary’. That is how we began with the idea that this would serve as a platform for public or social entrepreneurs, to integrate public policies, and to do it with a very strong focus on implementation; not just producing papers, but having an impact on the decision-making process.”
Box. Putting issues on the table. Gilles Yabi and Wathi – Senegal
(On the decision to set up a think tank) “It is actually more about citizen engagement and a certain idea of what is important in one’s life than about my career. I thought there was no reason to wait for retirement age to start something I am excited about and to take risks. I first had the idea when I was a PhD student in France. I wanted to do something useful and original in the region, and a think tank in West Africa can still be original. The concept is new even to many highly educated people here, especially in the Francophone countries. What think tanks exist are largely concentrated in [Anglophone] Ghana and Nigeria.”
(On the motivation for setting up WATHI) “The states and the societies in the region have to change. The systems have to change: political, economic, and educational systems, as well as systems of values. I’m setting up a think tank with a large group of friends and contacts because we need to put some issues on the table, those which we believe are crucial for the future of West Africa in particular. WATHI is not a typical think tank built on in-house experts in specific fields. The goal is to create a participative think tank, one whose objective is not to produce big sophisticated reports but rather to act as a filter for available knowledge that is useful and share it as widely as possible to stimulate debate and reforms.”
Box. Generating research to understand current challenges. Gustav Brauckmeyer and Equilibrium CenDE – Peru
“Equilibrium CenDE was born out of the need to better understand both the Venezuelan migratory phenomenon and the challenge it presents for the region, as well as the challenges that arise in Venezuela in areas such as education, employment, entrepreneurship and civil society development. In general, there was a clear need to generate more research and data to understand these challenges, and that data could drive the debate and the creation of innovative solutions to face them.”
Box. Connecting academia with policy. Seyed Emamiam and GPTT – Iran
Seyed Sadegh Emamiam is the founder and director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT) in Iran. Read the full interview here.
“As a postdoc researcher, I spent more than a year in London to study think tanks there. I was involved with a few think tanks in London and I was very inspired by their work. They were not the same institutionally, they were not necessarily alike, but their functions were very important, and I was inspired by the idea. When I moved to Tehran in 2015, I found a necessity to expand our research institution towards the policy area, because it was a very active part of academia and was somewhat successful, but there was a disconnect between academia and policy. I found that we needed a bridge between academia and policymaking, and that was the main idea behind the GPTT.”
As you can see from the experiences of these founders, the reasons for establishing a think tank may vary in the way they are framed, but in general they all wanted to produce good quality research – with teams of likeminded people worried about society’s challenges – to provide good ideas to policymakers. In other words, they wanted to influence policies.
Why do think tanks aim to influence policy?
Any discussion about think tanks needs to consider the field of evidence-informed policy.+This section has been informed by these articles: Levine, R. ( 2018), The moral case for evidence in policymaking. Mendizabal, E. (2018), What’s new in our understanding of how evidence influences policy? A view from Latin America. Du Toit, A. (2012), Making sense of ‘evidence’: Notes on the discursive politics of research and pro-poor policymaking'. Working Paper 21. PLAAS, UWC: Bellville. The prominence and spread of evidence-based discourse (which we refer to as informed policy) saw a rise in popularity with New Labour in Britain in the late 1990s and has spread to multiple sectors across the developing world, first aided by the policies of the UK Department for International Development (DFID) and later adopted by other prominent public and private international development agencies (Du Toit, 2012).
Informing policymaking with research-based evidence is important and commendable, but its underlying assumptions need to be considered (and dealt with). Du Toit (2012) critiques the evidence-based policy model and argues that it erroneously understands policymaking as a process that should only concern itself with instrumental rationality (what works), positing that policy decisions should be based on impartial, objective and rational assessment of available evidence (the right kind, or best kind) and devoid of any values. It thus assumes that there is a right way and wrong way to do something. But social science, and science more broadly, is not a neutral field. There are values involved in what evidence is produced and how, as well as how findings are communicated and to whom. Evidence-informed policy is a political terrain (Du Toit, 2012).
Academic studies of evidence-based policymaking suggest that policymaking can never be ‘evidence-based’; rather, policy can only be strongly evidence-informed if its advocates act effectively (Cairney 2016).Du Toit (2012) goes on to argue that while research findings are important, ‘we need to look at how policy narratives work with it; how it is used; and how it is alternately marginalised or seized on, ignored or imbued with significance’. This is a key role that think tanks can play: the combination of providing evidence and developing a coherent and adequate analysis of social processes.
The development of public policies is an area that by its nature requires the mobilisation of a variety of knowledge types, and the purpose of promoting this approach is not to reduce the policy process to a scientific problem-solving exercise. Recognition of these realities has led to a language shift towards the use of ‘evidence-informed’ (instead of ‘evidence-based’) when referring to policy making.
Generally, the growing literature agrees that when it comes to influencing policy, scientific evidence:
- Will never be more than one of the inputs to the policy process – alongside ethical, fiscal, political, and other considerations, and therefore it is not the only source of information that a policy analyst needs to consider.
- Does not necessarily need to be derived from experimental methods to be considered a valid input for policymaking.
- Always carries a certain degree of uncertainty, whether on the conclusions of a study or on how to interpret results and adapt them to a different context.
Box. The knowledge translation toolkit
Bridging the know–do gap: A resource for researchers (Bennett, and Jessani, 2011), presents an overview of knowledge translation and how to bridge the ‘know–do’ gap between research, policy, practice and people. It also provides resources to encourage and enable evidence-informed decision-making.
Box. The role of think tanks in developing societies
Gurucharan G, director at the Public Affairs Centre (PAC) in India argues (in an interview) that think tanks have an important role in any society, but this role is enhanced in developing societies. They have to:
- Speak truth to power,
- Give voice to the community to hold the state to account
- Help improve the quality of governance for better development outcomes.
But why do we do this? Why do think tanks and policy research centres embark along this road? Ruth Levine has asked herself the same question and resolved that ‘no field can be sustained and advanced unless it confronts and articulates its moral core’ (Levine, 2018). So, what are some of the moral ideas behind evidence-informed policy making and the missions of think tanks?
- The pursuit of truth: research is ultimately about trying to discover the truth about what is being studied. The truths uncovered might be specific or even small, but they aspire to be truthful (Levine, 2018).
- Distributive justice: think tanks aim for their research and recommendations to ensure the fair allocation of resources (Levine, 2018). There are always trade-offs to be made, and the research that think tanks do helps untangle them. Organisations might have different definitions of what fair distribution is, but they still strive towards their individual visions.
- Visibility and the representation of different voices: as Levine (2018) states ‘if it weren’t for efforts to collect the same type of information from each and every individual – or at least a representative sample of each and every type of individual – what would we know? We would only know about the lives, livelihoods, and opinions of the people who have the greatest access to the public square’. Thus, the research that think tanks carry out, in a way, ensures that many voices are heard in the debate and provides a deeper understanding of the realities of different groups. Examples of these groups range from manufacturers and their employees, who stand to lose from a new trade deal, to subsistence farmers in remote rural areas, who are affected by climate change. By studying groups like these, think tanks can help ensure that the public debate represents their specific needs.
Are you sure you want to establish a think tank?
After reflecting on your motivations and a brief discussion about how to define think tanks: are you still sure that you want to create a new think tank?
There are other things you can do, depending on your objectives. You could create a blog to share your ideas more widely. Maybe launch a consultancy, if you are looking for something lucrative. Alternatively, if you find yourself more interested in political commentary you could focus on writing op-eds. Or maybe you would like to go down an academic path. Or you may want to be more active and mobilise others to act on a specific subject, in that case you could start an interest group and/or become an activist, and could even run for office or apply for a civil service job.
Regardless of the choice you make you can still find inspiration in this guide and on the On Think Tanks website. For example, you can find inspiration on how to communicate better (see the section How will it communicate? in this guide, or our online articles on communications and impact); how to improve the governance and management of policy research organisations (see the section Who will govern it? or our articles on governance); or about research quality and credibility (see the section How will it ensure its credibility? or see these articles). We invite you to explore and use this tool in any way that suits your needs and aims.
What do you want to achieve by setting up a think tank?
Once you are firmly situated within your context and have a firm sense of how it will affect your future organisation, you should ask yourself ‘what would you like your think tank to achieve?’ +We have explored context before starting to look at the organisation’s aims, because the context will frame what it will be able to achieve and how. . To answer this we recommend you reflect on the vision and the mission of your organisation, which are framed by your values.+This section draws from these articles Mendizabal, E. (2013b), Strategic plans: A simple version. Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step.
The vision is your dream, the ideal world, the big picture of what you would like the think tank to achieve. It is not something that will be achieved in the short term. It should be visionary but at the same time realistic. Here are some examples:
‘Our vision is a world in which government, politics, business, civil society and the daily lives of people are free of corruption.’ Transparency International, Germany.
‘We envision a world of democratic freedoms and fair and sustainable development through European integration and international cooperation.’ Istituto Affari Internazionali, Italy.
The mission is the organisation’s purpose; it is what the think tank will do to contribute to the achievement of the vision. A good mission need not be lengthy. On the contrary, a short, powerful and clear mission is preferred. For example:
‘EPI’s mission is, through high-quality research and proposals on European policy, to provide a sound base for debate and solutions, targeting decision-makers and the wider public’ European Policy Institute, Macedonia.
‘Centre for London is the capital’s dedicated think tank. Our mission is to develop new solutions to London’s critical challenges and advocate for a fair and prosperous global city’ Centre for London, UK.
‘Using our knowledge, networks, funding and skills, we work hard to see new opportunities and challenges; spark creative answers from many sources; shape brilliant ideas into practical solutions; and then shift whole systems in a new direction’ Nesta, UK.
‘Our mission is to produce knowledge, propose initiatives, develop practices and support processes to contribute in the construction of a stable and lasting peace in Colombia’ Fundación Ideas para la Paz, Colombia.
‘To be recognized as an innovative institution that is committed to Brazil’s development, the formation of an academic elite, and the generation of public goods in social and related areas, guaranteeing our financial sustainability through the provision of high-quality services and high ethical standards’ Fundação Getúlio Vargas, Brazil.
The values are the guiding principles and the foundation on top of which all actions rest, whether formally identified or not. They are beliefs about what is important, and the way to act. No individual or organisation is without values. Even independence, neutrality, and being led by data are values in themselves:
‘Everyone has them [values]. And every time that a think tank recommends a course of action it is making use of values: evidence does not tell us what to do. It informs and is the basis of our analysis to recommend courses of action’ Mendizabal, 2016 +For more on this read: Mendizabal,E. (2011), The limits of the scientific method and the need to merge science and innovation Learn more.
It is helpful to identify your own values in the early stages. They do not need to be specific to the point of limiting your actions, but should offer a sense of where your organisation might fall in the political spectrum. These may be rather simple (e.g. all for liberalisation) or more complex (e.g. liberal on social issues but more conservative politically and moderate on the economy) (Mendizabal, 2016)
Through our work with think tanks and policy research organisations we have found that organisations tend to publicly frame their values not in terms of where they stand on the political spectrum, but rather by focusing on how they undertake their work. What values will underpin the way you work? Here are some examples to help you understand this:
‘Independence: The independence of our thinking, as much as its rigour and creativity, is what makes it influential. Inclusivity and diversity: We ground our analysis and solutions in an inclusive approach. We bring diverse voices to the table to find common solutions to shared problems. We ensure our research and outputs are widely accessible, so people can develop their own voice in international affairs. Collaboration: Collaboration is a core competence for our staff. It inspires our relationships with associates, partners, supporters and members and helps us develop global networks to find positive, durable solutions to policy challenges’ Chatham House, UK.
‘What we stand for: Independence. Excellence, Relevance and Innovation. Cross-cutting and Long-term Solutions. Multi-constituency and Inclusive. Partnership and Outreach’ European Policy Centre, Belgium.
‘The values that define CIDOB’s work are: The desire to act as a public good through the provision of international knowledge. Excellence, through the rigour, quality and independence of our analysis. Innovation in the approach to studying international relations. Visibility, via new research formats and media presence. The promotion of the good management and economic health of the institution and the proactive search for new projects’ CIBOD, Spain.
You do not need to put your vision, mission, and values in writing – certainly not laminated. But working on them is highly recommended as they will certainly frame the work that you do. Also, having a clear mission will make planning a strategy easier. It will make your organisation more attractive to the likeminded individuals you want to work with, and it will draw attention and support from funders interested in the same issues (Mendizabal, 2016).
Box. What does the ‘About us’ section usually convey?
The ‘About us’ section of a website is an opportunity to showcase your organisation. What gets included, and also what gets left out, signals to readers (be they funders, academics, policymakers, activists, or the general public) who you are, what is important to you, and what they should expect from you.
We have found the best ‘About us’ sections include: who the organisation is (organisational structure, affiliations etc.), what the organisation does (main issues, functions), how it does it (key expertise) and why. The style is also important, and keeping it simple, descriptive and to the point tends to work best across all cultures. Here are some examples of content from various ‘About us’ pages:
The Brookings Institution describes who they are (experts, leaders, history and agenda), what they do (annual report, selected essays, and fellowship programme), and what they stand for (policies on integrity, diversity and inclusion and public health funded research)
The Center for Global Development highlights their mission and values, their impact and influence, leadership, board, directors, working groups data disclosure, funding and history. They also invite visitors to find out more about working with them and supporting them. They have specific sections for educators and the press, where they highlight resources tailored for them
The Nesta Foundation has an inspiring 100-second video that covers what they aim to do, what they stand for, and how they do it. For those who want more details they also explain how they work, what they want to achieve (phrased as questions on the topics that they are covering), their innovation methods, services, and their international work, and introduce their team.
The German Council on Foreign Relations describes their aims and the themes they work on, invites the reader to join the organisation as a member and introduces a journal that they publish as well as their library. There are also links to their board, statute, history and code of conduct.
What issues will the think tank focus on?
In parallel to reflecting on and defining your vision, mission and guiding values, you should work on defining the issues that your think tank will focus on.+This section draws from these articles: Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step. Learn more+Gutbrod, H. (2013a), Advice to think tank startup: Do not do it alone Learn more
Depending on your interests and motivations, you might want to cover a broad range of public policy issues so you can address change at different levels, but we would recommend focusing on a few specific issues. Gutbrod (2013a) suggests concentrating on your own core expertise ‘either in one or two issue areas (say, health or education), cross-cutting (accountability, or budget process) or by applying a method (say, citizen report cards or surveys)’. A good place to start is by focusing on aspects that you or your team already have expertise in. It will save you time (no need to invest it in improving your knowledge or abilities in a topic you are not familiar with) and enable you to hit the ground running.
Yet, to decide the specifics you should think beyond your personal research interests and pay attention to the context and existing, or future, policy questions +More on this issue on the section How will it carry out research? and in the article Mendizabal, E. (2013), Research questions are not the same as policy questions Learn more, as well as to the problems you are addressing (Mendizabal, 2016).
‘Why not, too, find policy areas that are under-studied? For instance, middle class concerns. Think tanks in developing countries, funded by foreign aid donors and agencies, tend to focus on what is often termed “pro-poor issues” and shy away from more mainstream and middle-class concerns (e.g. they focus on primary education but not on tertiary education). However, as countries and their middle classes grow, their concerns need to be addressed, too. A single-issue think tank is also a good alternative. It may help you find “natural” funders and audiences’. (Mendizabal, 2016)
Another way to go about choosing the scope of your work is to consider what are the most relevant national and international policy agendas. These may be linked to international policy discussions such as Agenda 2030 and the SDGs, or they may involve specific national circumstances, such as the future of work or urban development. By linking your work to existing agendas, you will be able to take advantage of the research already done in them.
Another way to select policy issues to work on is to understand the likelihood of your research being used by policymakers. Datta (2018) summarises research conducted by ODI’s RAPID programme showing that four factors are key in shaping the likelihood that evidence will be taken up +Based on Datta, A. (2018), Three ways to select policy issues to work on. Learn more:
- The level of technical expertise required to participate in policy debates. In different sectors, the need for specialised expertise may grow (e.g. climate change) in response to its growing complexity, so the demand for knowledge and experts from policymakers also increases.
- The relative influence of economic interests in shaping policy dialogues. In certain policy areas (such as trade or social security) economic actors are arguably more prominent than in others, so it is important to acknowledge the influence of economic interests in shaping research production and uptake.
- The level of contestation in the sector. If the area is highly contested, it will be much more difficult for research to be applied to policymaking than if there is a strong consensus about the need for policy change.
- The extent to which policy discourses are internationalised. On many issues, local actors start to enjoy greater success in influencing policy once they being working with international players rather than only domestically.
What will the think tank want to influence?
This is strictly a what question as we are not referring to which specific audiences you will be focusing on (for that see section: Who will engage with it?). To answer this broader question, think more specifically about what policy debates you will be contributing to.+This section draws from: Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step. Learn more At what level would you be aiming your efforts? Are you looking to have international or local influence? For example, you could be based in Serbia but aim to inform EU policy in Brussels, or be based in Lima, Peru and focus on the Sustainable Development Goals at the local level. Or you could start working at the municipal level and then shift to city level or national politics. Small doesn’t mean less interesting or important (Mendizabal, 2016).
There are many levels of influence and impact. For example, depending on the functions your think tank pursues, you may:
- Influence the definition and formulation of a key problem.
- Impact the public agenda, frame policy discussion and help define what issues should be prioritised.
- Help define the questions that fellow researchers should attempt to answer.
- Work on producing evidence to help answer these research questions.
- Make policy or programme recommendations based on evidence (either yours or produced by others) and help policymakers navigate the different options presented.
- Develop programmes or projects based on these recommendations and evidence – and, if possible, test them through small pilots.
- Develop the capacity of policymakers and other relevant policy actors to use and understand research.
- Improve how governments and ministries make decisions – which has an indirect, but equally important, impact.
- Work with the public, the media and other stakeholders to inform the debate on a particular topic, which includes changing beliefs around a specific issue.
Who will support it?
A good question to ask yourself is ‘who can support your think tank?’ This not the same as asking who will fund it. Rather, who will be able to support the organisation with access to their networks, guidance, knowledge, and even office space?
Think about what you need to get started and who can you turn to for support. Board members and their networks are a good source for this. For example, in the case of On Think Tanks we are supported by Soapbox, Universidad del Pacífico, the University of Bath, our fellows and board members, to name just a few. Soapbox has provided us with invaluable guidance (and work) on the development of our website. The University of Bath has supported us with space for our annual conference and Universidad del Pacífico supports us with space and access to their research network. Our fellows are ambassadors to On Think Tanks and regularly submit articles. All of this enables us to have a lean operation that looks much bigger than it is.
When to start?
Start now. If you are waiting for everything to be in place you will most probably never start. That being said, you should ensure that you are somewhat able to carry out this work and that you have some of the skills needed. If not, invest some time in working on the knowledge and skills you need. But don’t overdo it. Start the thinking and planning stages and work your way from there. There is no need to do everything at the same time. Choose an entry point and start there. What makes for the best entry point depends on you.
Here are a few easy (and cheap) recommendations to start with. These can be done alongside your main research work and will help the think tank to start gaining recognition before your first research output is ready (Mendizabal, 2016):
- Get started before seeking big funding. There is no need to wait until you have funds to start. With a light and flexible structure, you can start right away.
- Publish while you read. You do not need to wait for the big report to be ready. You can start to publish articles, book reviews or blogs about the books or papers you are reading.
- Publish other people’s ideas, if you agree with them. Using content produced by your board members, associates, and even third parties, is a perfectly valid way of ‘producing content’. Think tanks often miss the opportunity to be present in policy debates because they want to wait until ‘they’ have something to say. Windows of opportunity can open at any time and if a think tank is not ready to say something it will miss it altogether. There is nothing wrong with saying: ‘As so and so said, the best solution is to …’.
- Use research you have done before. New think tanks sometimes say that they have little need for a website because they have little to publish, or that starting with an event is not possible because they do not have any research to present. This is not exactly true. Think tanks are all about their people and it is unlikely that the people making up a new think tank (however young they are) do not have any previous work and ideas, published or not. All of this can and should be used by the new think tank. You do not have to take credit for it (if a paper was written by the director or a researcher while working for another think tank, for example, do not delete the original logo) but can certainly republish it and add it to the list of studies written by the think tank’s staff. An event, too, can be organised to ‘broadcast’ guests’ work via the new think tank’s YouTube channel or website. You are not stealing; you are helping to give ‘old’ researchers a longer shelf life. And this is great.
- It won’t break – don’t be afraid to publish. Before you start you will face an almost existential question: are we ready to publish? In other words, are we ready to say what we think? Unless your outputs are of such a terrible quality that getting to this point has been an indisputable miracle, then our advice is to go for it. Your outputs may not be perfectly diagrammed and they may have typos, but you can always publish new versions (digitally, of course) and by repeating the process you will get better soon.