Using this guide
The reasons for creating this companion guide
This companion guide systematises and compiles information and resources that will help policy entrepreneurs to think-plan-start and adapt their nascent think tanks. It draws from resources from On Think Tanks, books, and articles from other sources, and includes case studies and examples tried and tested by our partners to illustrate each point.
Its aim is to offer readers guidance and examples to develop their organisations along the models that best fit their circumstances and objectives. It does not prescribe what should be done; rather it helps policy entrepreneurs reflect on different key think tank issues and offers suggestions and guidance on how to address each of these.
Using this companion guide
This guide is not a recipe to set up a think tank – there is no such thing. Think tanks are all different and all respond to their contexts. This guide is framed around a series of questions that think tank founders should be asking themselves before and during the process of setting up a think tank. Each question is presented with several possible answers and illustrated with examples (+)For those looking for support on specific issues we have also developed a thematic content list. See menu at the top right corner. .
If you are thinking of setting up a think tank, or have just established one, the key questions you need to ask yourself are: Why? What? Who? How? and When? Each question forms a section within this guide.
Each section explores further sub-questions to help you deal with the many decisions you will need to make and the different aspects you need to consider.
- Why focuses on understanding what a think tank is and reflects on your motivation and purpose.
- What explores practical issues about the context in which think tanks operate, their functions, aims, and different business models.
- Who delves into the people and organisations that your think tank will be involved with, from the board and staff to the funders.
- How examines day-to-day management of think tanks in terms of how activities will be carried out, communicated and monitored.
- When probes you to think about when to start and when it is time for founders to let go.
You can approach the guide from any section depending on your needs. When progressing through it, you will note that the sections all interrelate and are interconnected in different ways. This is what you should be looking to achieve in your real life think tank. A think tank is like a complex, living organism with interconnected parts and processes. It is an organism that changes with time, and ultimately needs to adapt or perish.
Each section includes an introduction noting why it is important to reflect on that particular question, gives practical examples based on the experiences of existing think tanks and think tank founders, and provides a checklist summarising the key points. We have also included a checklist at the end of the guide that can help guide your endeavour, as well as further resources to keep delving into the issues where you need further help.
Box. Learning from others
If you are reading this guide, you already understand the importance of learning from others. But in any case, one of the first things you should do is to get as much information as you can about think tanks – from think tanks themselves.
Time spent on this might seem like a luxury at this point, but it is better to think of it as an investment for the future (read the advice from Hans Gutbrod on this).
Using this guide is a great first step and we have provided as many case studies as possible to help you learn from other think tanks. Boxes are used throughout the guide to give voice to think tank founders who recount their own experiences and can help you learn from their practices, motivations or challenges. But we still recommend that you approach think tanks yourself, study their websites, and explore what they do and how they do it.
A great resource you can use to find other think tanks is the Open Think Tank Directory (a collaborative project promoted by On Think Tanks to collect and capture a rich set of information about think tanks from all around the world). It offers a view into think tanks developed across the world by providing a searchable database with information on several indicators, such as topics, geographies of focus, business models, founding date and the gender of leaders and staff.
We also suggest attending conferences, webinars and courses. And although we might be biased, the OTT School offers a great selection.
Box. Thinking ahead, thinking again, and thinking across
Neo Boon Siong argues that as contexts change or become volatile, organisations need to be able to rejuvenate and renew their policies and practices, to develop fresh perceptions and to undertake adaptations. To do this, they need to have three dynamic organisational capabilities, which have been identified based on a study of Singapore’s experience. These capabilities are:
Thinking ahead: the ability to identify future developments that might affect the institution’s mission and effectiveness. While it is impossible to be fully prepared for the future, thinking ahead helps the organisation’s leaders develop options for a range of plausible futures as well as creating a culture in which questions about the future are continually asked to find ways to put the organisation in a good position for what lies ahead.
Thinking again: the ability to reconsider and reinvent current policies and processes when circumstances change. It is necessary to use data, measurements and other feedback to understand the causes of any results (successes and failures), and to question what can be done differently to obtain better or different outcomes.
Thinking across: the ability to cross boundaries and learn from the experiences of others. Others’ ideas and processes offer lessons that can be adapted to a different context or organisation. It is not just about imitating the best practices of others. Rather, it is about understanding why others adopted certain approaches to similar issues, and how their circumstances affected their policies and programmes.
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.
Unravelling the definition of think tanks
An excellent place to start is by clarifying what a think tank is (although we avoid a rigid definition) and what it isn’t.
What’s in the name? (+)This section has been informed by the article Mendizabal, E. (2014a) What is a think tank? Defining the boundaries of the label. Learn more (+)This section is not intended as an in-depth review or critique of the term think tank. At the end of the guide you will find a list of further resources which we recommend to delve deeper in this debate.
Think tanks go by many names: think tank, research centre, public policy research institute, idea factory, investigation centre, laboratory of ideas, policy research institute, and more. In other languages, the list is even longer: centro de pensamiento, groupe de réflexion, Denkfabrik, serbatoi di pensiero to name but a few.
The concept of ‘think tank’ applies to different types of organisations with different characteristics depending on their origins and their particular development pathways. Think tanks set up in the United States in the first half of the twentieth century tend to be different from those set up in the latter part of the century. Their business models and organisational structures also differ greatly.
Organisations that call themselves think tanks include: for-profit consultancies, university-based research centres, international and national NGOs, United Nations bodies, public policy bodies, foundations, advocacy organisations, membership-based associations, grassroots organisations, one-off expert fora, and many others.
The definition changes with time and location and it usually incorporates aspects of the organisation’s context. Yet, all organisations labelled think tanks share the same objective of influencing policy and/or practice based on research.
Despite its plurality, it’s important to acknowledge that the term think tank was coined in the United States with an Anglo-American model in mind. And that model permeates and influences think tanks in different locations in various ways. Let’s start by reflecting on the mainstream definition of think tanks.
Defining think tanks (+)This section is not intended as an in-depth review or critique of the term think tank. For that we recommend the following resources: - Abelson, Donald E. (2009), Do think tanks matter? Assessing the impact of public policy institutes. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press. - McGann, James and Johnson, Erik (2005), Comparative think tanks, politics and public policy. Cheltenham: Edward Elgar. - Rich, Andrew (2004), Think tanks, public policies and politics of expertise. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. - Stone & Denham (2004), Think tank traditions: Policy analysis across nations. Manchester University Press. (+)This section has been informed by these articles: Mendizabal, E. (2010a), On the definition of think tanks: Towards a more useful discussion. Learn more (+)Mendizabal, E. (2010b), On the business model and how this affects what think tanks do. Learn more (+)Mendizabal, E. (2011a), Different ways to define and describe think tanks. Learn more
Think tanks are commonly defined as organisations that conduct research and seek to use it to influence policies (Hauck, 2017). Donald E. Abelson and Ever A. Lindquist (2000), focusing on North American think tanks, explain that ‘think tanks are nonprofit, nonpartisan organizations engaged in the study of public policy’ (p. 38). Stone (2001) defines them as ‘relatively autonomous organizations engaged in the research and analysis of contemporary issues independently of government, political parties, and pressure groups. This latter definition is widely used by think tank scholars and characterises think tanks as a clearly identified type of organisation, separate from universities, governments, or any other group. But the reality is fuzzier and think tanks that do actually fit the stereotype, such as the Brookings Institution and Chatham House, are less common.
Tom Medvetz, in the paper Think Tanks as an emergent field (2008), argues that Stone’s definition is limited because it (+)Click here for an interview with Medvetz. Learn more (+)Or read this article to explore this critique further Mendizabal, E. (2010a), On the definition of think tanks: Towards a more useful discussion. Learn more:
- Privileges the US and UK traditions, where think tanks assert their independence more than in other regions.
- Ignores that the first organisations to be recognised as think tanks, in the Anglo-American context, were not independent but the offspring of universities, political parties, interest groups, etc.
- Excludes many organisations that function as think tanks.
- Does not understand the importance of the concept and label in itself. Using the label (or not) is a political choice made by organisations embedded in a specific political context.
Think tank functions
Besides how they are defined, it is perhaps more useful to explore the roles and functions that think tanks tend to play. Think tanks have many roles and functions that vary based on the organisation’s context, mission and aims, organisational structures, business models, and even the resources they have access to. Their main functions include (+)These functions have been informed by papers from Belletini, 2007, Mendizabal & Sample, 2009, Gusternson, 2009, Tanner, 2002, Mendizabal (2010a, 2010b, 2011a) :
- Generating ideas.
- Providing legitimacy to policies, ideas and practices (whether it is ex-ante or ex-post).
- Creating, maintaining and opening up spaces for debate and deliberation – even as a sounding board for policymakers and opinion leaders. In some contexts, they provide a safe house for intellectuals and their ideas.
- Providing a financing channel for political parties and other policy interest groups.
- Attempting to influence the policy process.
- Providing cadres of experts and policymakers for political parties, governments, interest groups and leaders.
- Monitoring and auditing political actors, public policy or behaviour.
- Offering public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks due to the difficulty of assessing its impact).
- Employing boundary workers that can move in and out of different spaces (government, academia, advocacy etc.) and fostering exchange between sectors.
- Capacity building – designing courses open to interested audiences outside the think tank, creating fellowships and exchanging opportunities with both young and more experienced think-tankers.
- Participating in networks of organisations through which interaction is facilitated. For instance, the initiative Think20 Engagement Group brings together research institutes and think tanks from major countries to exchange ideas on pertinent topics.
Think tanks may choose to deliver one or more of these functions at different times in their existence. At times of political polarisation, it might make more sense to attempt to create new spaces for plural engagement. During political campaigns, think tanks can help develop ideas for political parties. During national or global crises, think tanks may be called upon to reflect on the causes of the problem to help focus future efforts.
Medvetz (2008) hypothesised and sketched the positions of think tanks in the social space to assert that they are boundary organisations. They strive to assert their independence from other actors while also maintaining links with them. This representation reinforces the observation that think tanks’ functions are not static and are often exercised in relation to the functions adopted by others.
Figure: Think tanks in social space
Source: Medvetz (2008)
In summary, a strict and constraining definition of think tanks is of little help. Instead, think tanks are best characterised by a broad definition that emphasises the many forms, ties, ideologies, functions and roles that organisations can hold and play, and still be considered a think tank. They should also be understood based on the context in which they operate: a think tank in China need not be the same as a think tank in Bolivia (Mendizabal, 2011b, 2013a) – and we should not expect them to.
Think tanks are a diverse group of organisations that have as their (main) objective to inform (directly or indirectly), political actors with the ultimate intention of bringing about policy change and achieving explicit policy outcomes. While think tanks inform their choice of objectives, strategies and arguments with research-based evidence, they are not independent from the influence of values. They may perform different functions: from aiming to set or shift the public agenda, and monitoring how specific policies are carried out, to building the capacity of other policy actors.