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 will its business model be?
One of the first things you need to do is decide on the business model your think tank will follow.+This section draws from: Ralphs, G. (2016a),Think tank business models: The business of academia and politics. Learn more This decision should be based on what you want to achieve and how you want to work, but also on the context you are starting the think tank in and on the resources you have at your disposal.
A business model is ‘the way in which an organisation goes about achieving its goals… it defines the manner by which the think tank delivers value to stakeholders, entices funders to pay for value, and converts those payments to research with the potential to influence policy…. It thus reflects management’s hypothesis about what stakeholders want, how they want it, and how a think tank can use its resources to best meet those needs, get paid for doing so, and achieve its mission. In sum, a think tank business model describes the interface of a policy research institute’s rationale and underpinning economic logic’ (Ralphs, 2016a).
When developing a business model you need to make three choices: policy, asset and governance.
- Policy choices are about the internal policies that an organisation establishes for its operations. These range from decisions about flying economy, not using printers, and holding virtual vs. in person meetings, to policies such as establishing funding limits from single sources and how to recruit and retain staff.
- Assets are the tangible resources that an organisation invests in.
- Governance is how the organisation will discuss and make strategic and day-today decisions (Casadesus-Masanell and Ricart, 2011).
Explore these choices further by considering the following elements +Based on the following sources: Mendizabal, 2010 Learn more:
Source: Adapted from Cahyo and Echt (2015)
When reflecting on your business model, one idea is to create a story about how the organisation will accomplish its mission.
Good business models can take many forms, but they share some key characteristics:
- They are aligned and respond to the organisation’s goals.
- They are self-reinforcing, meaning that there is internal consistency. All choices and decisions should complement each other and work towards the same goal.
- They are robust. They continue to work overtime fending off risks and taking advantage of opportunities (Casadesus-Masanell and Ricart, 2011)
Remember that your business model can change if it no longer works for your organisation. See the case of Espacio Público down below.
Box. Changing business models: The case of Espacio Público in Chile
Deciding on a business model is an important decision, one that will define how the organisation will organise and carry out its work. Business models respond to the objectives and goals of an organisation, its context and resources. Because of that, most business models are unique, and must be continually evaluated and evolving. But it is not a decision that is set in stone. If at any point the business model is not working you can make the decision to change it.
For example, Espacio Público, a think tank in Santiago de Chile, began operating in 2013 with two large core funders who provided 100% of their budget. The agreement with one of the funders was for three years and with the other funder the agreement was that they would reduce their funds every year. This encouraged Espacio Público to search for more project-based funding. By 2017 they had 20% core funding, 70% project based funding and 10% local funding.
Comparison of think tank business models
Research conducted by Leandro Echt and Ashari Cahyo Edi (2015) analyses the business models of six think tanks (three in Latin America and three in Indonesia) by focusing on the elements presented above. The study reveals that think tanks have different understandings of what ‘business model’ means. Some point to funding structure while others focus on the think tank’s mode of work or value proposition.
Similarities among the think tanks studied:
- Most think tanks diversify their core business activities, rather than concentrating on a single activity. These activities are usually research, capacity building and policy advice.
- Most think tanks make efforts to diversify their funding sources.
- Most organisations understand their different audiences and have communications tools to target them.
Differences among the think tanks studied:
- In terms of governance, some think tanks have heavy governance arrangements (with many internal and external bodies with specific functions) while the approach is much lighter in other organisations.
- Regarding the value proposition, for some organisations research excellence is their main product, while for others it is their ability to engage with grassroots communities.
Not everyone has the right skills to develop the business model, so it may make sense engaging a professional team to support you at this stage. Having a well-drafted business model and business plan is key to gaining the confidence of future partners and funders.
Who will govern it? (And how?)
The governance of a think tank refers to its organisational arrangement and how decision-making processes take place.+This section draws from: Mendizabal, E. (2014b), Better sooner than later: Addressing think tanks’ governance and management challenges to take full advantage of new funding and support opportunities. Learn more+Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step. Learn more+Moncada, A. & Mendizabal, E. ( 2013), Think tank boards: Composition and practices. Learn more It involves the rules and norms of the interactions within the organisation that affect how different parts are brought together. These rules affect the nature and style of an organisation’s management.
This is a who, and partly a how question, as you would need to decide who will govern the organisation and how big decisions are going to be made. Will the think tank be governed by a board, an assembly of members, or directly by the executive director? The answer to these questions will be related to your business model and the type of organisation that you decide to create.
Specific think tank models call for different governance structures. For instance, organisations affiliated to universities should follow the rules of their hosts; network-based organisations need to ensure that their members are represented; and political party think tanks tend to be influenced by the party that created them.
Coming up with your own governance model will depend on several factors, but most importantly:
- National laws about the type of organisation you will be legally creating.
- Your business model.
- Your relationship with other organisations.
Despite some diversity, all governance arrangements should consider the following (Mendizabal, 2016):
- A board or governing body responsible for overarching decisions and the long-term vision (independent from management).
- Executive direction: a competent manager at the centre of the organisation.
- Senior managers/decision makers with oversight over three main aspects of the think tank’s work: research, communications and management.
- Institutional structures that bring people, teams and roles together.
If you want to have a lean and flexible organisation that can act quickly, you shouldn’t make the governance too top heavy: avoid having several boards (e.g. management, advisory, legal etc.) as this will make governance cumbersome and expensive (Moncada & Mendizabal, 2013).
Box. Good governance as one of the basis of good management
Good governance underpins good management and good management is fundamental for the think tank to deliver its mission. We tend to think that to be a successful think tank you need lots of good researchers, but that’s only part of the story: you need good governance and good management.
Good governance and management affect the think tank’s capacity to:
- Engage with funders and take advantage of their support
- Manage funds effectively
- Ensure their independence from interest groups
- Learn from their successes and mistakes
- Attract the best talent at all levels of the organisation
- Address internal and external shocks
So without appropriate governance arrangements and management competencies, think tanks are unlikely to deliver sustainable funding strategies, high quality research and effective communications.
A strong and independent board of directors is a key aspect of a successful think tank. The main function of a board is to ensure that the organisation stays on the right track to deliver its mission and has the necessary resources to carry out its work. It is important to outline the functions that a board might have from the start, to ensure that you are making the most of it (Moncada & Mendizabal, 2013).
Some of the key functions of boards include:
- Supporting fundraising.
- Accessing networks.
- Overseeing strategy.
- Helping in the hiring of senior management.
- Encouraging innovation.
- Monitoring compliance with the mission, vision, values, bylaws, and policies of the organisation.
- Ensuring the technical and financial sustainability of the organisation.
- Reviewing and approving the strategic plan, the operating plan, and annual budget.
- Appointing and evaluating the executive director.
Think tank boards come in many forms, but they can be broadly categorised into the following (Moncada & Mendizabal, 2013):
- Corporate board: This is the most common type of board and is entrusted with two main tasks: defining and maintaining the think tank’s original goals and values, and determining and ensuring its finances. This type of board of directors usually has the responsibility of appointing an executive director, who in turn has the responsibility of appointing and overseeing the staff and all the think tank’s day-to-day activities. The Overseas Development Institute in the UK and Grupo FARO in Ecuador have corporate boards.
- Membership board: An assembly of individuals associated with the think tank (usually researchers and founding members). The assembly often elects an executive council (or a management team) and executive director from among their ranks. The Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Peru has a membership board.
- Secondary boards: Additional boards may be set up to support different aspects of the organisation. For example, advisory boards to offer thematic expertise, international boards to support a think tank’s efforts to raise their credibility at the global level, funders’ boards to offer funders a space to influence the direction of the organisation, programme or project specific boards to inform and support flagship initiatives, and so on.
Who should be on your board?
A good board is made up of members with invested interests in the polity and the issues that the think tank will focus on, but who also possess a mix of skills that the think tank director will make good use of: access to the right networks, contact with the public and private sector, communication and media skills, strong research and research management skills, human resources experience, financial planning and fundraising expertise, legal expertise, and so on.
The exact balance will depend on the think tanks’ goals and needs. But you should remember that VIPs may not be the best board members – especially not as you work to create and launch an organisation. Your board members must be committed to the project and be able to offer their time to support you (Moncada & Mendizabal, 2013).
Box. An organisation’s governance should evolve with it: Grupo Faro
Case based on Belletini, O. (2014), Strengthening Grupo FARO’s Board of Directors.
The founders of Grupo Faro created an advisory council when it was first established in 2004. The members of the council were reputable scholars from different countries who, by being part of it, transferred their personal legitimacy to the nascent organisation. The council’s main role was to suggest the topics and objectives that the organisation should pursue; they provided access to their networks and even came to meetings with potential donors. However, as the organisation grew in size and complexity, more professional support was needed.
So, in 2012 they reformed their statute and established a board of directors with the legally recognised competence to govern the organisation. This board had members from diverse professional, political, religious, and cultural backgrounds and added value in a more structured way to different aspects of the organisation.
There are different options available in terms of institutional structures.+This section draws from Yeo, S. and Echt, L. (2018b), Setting up a think tank: Lessons from Timor-Leste (Part 2: alternative institutional structures). Learn more You should choose the structure that best suits your objectives and resources – including the people who will work there and the expectations of your funders.
For example, a typical academic think tank, one that is born out of a university department or founded by academics in search of a less bureaucratic vehicle to undertake practical research, will be less keen on a corporate style management board than a group of consultants or social entrepreneurs looking for greater rigour in their policy advice.
Box. Deciding on an institutional structure for a think tank in Timor Leste
Adapted from Yeo, S., Echt, L. (2018b), Setting up a think tank: Lessons from Timor-Leste (Part 2: alternative institutional structures)
In 2017, the Asia Foundation asked On Think Tanks to assess the prospects for establishing a public policy institute in Timor-Leste. Based on an analysis of the context Stephen Yeo and Leandro Echt (2018a) reached the conclusion that creating a large organisation with full-time staff would not be the best approach. This was mainly because qualified researchers were scarce in Timor Leste, and the few that did exist were sought after by the government (which offered better salaries). Also, a large organisation would be difficult to fund. Their suggested option was a lightweight organisation, with a small core team that relied on a pool of financial resources that could be used to commission policy analysis as needed.
Given the context, and especially the small demand for knowledge, this lightweight institution could be sufficient for Timor-Leste and could provide all the research and analysis that the country needs (and can use). And later on the organisation could evolve and grow with the demand for research and analysis.
Echt and Yeo recommended setting up an institute ‘at the network end of the continuum, with a director, a small secretariat of administrative staff and a pool of funds to commission research by Timorese or international researchers.’ The success of the network model, in this case, depended on whether the director or senior management had experience in commissioning policy research (e.g. the skills to frame a policy research project and set its terms of reference), as well as contacts in the academic and policy community to recruit from (an active and strong advisory group could also assist in this).
The recommendation also clarified, that although the institute should begin as a network, it should not necessarily remain one, relying solely on external international expertise. The institute should work to develop local capacity and promote the use and need for evidence to inform public policies in the country.