- Securing funding: establishing a sustainable funding base is a perennial challenge for think tank leaders and one of the main issues that keeps them up at night.
Establishing and maintaining the credibility and relevance of the organisation: think tanks need to be perceived as credible sources of information if they want to participate in the policy process. They should be attractive to funders and engage with reputable networks. Therefore, think tank leaders need to ensure that their products and services meet the rigour and quality necessary to be credible and that their strategic vision allows the organisation to stay relevant.
- Recruiting and retaining staff: think tank leaders face this challenge in two ways. One is when there are not enough qualified researchers in a particular country and the other is when there are competent researchers but not enough funds to attract and keep them.
- Building the field: in some countries, think tanks are relatively new or not necessarily known by policymakers, the media and other stakeholders, so directors and founders have had to create a demand for their ideas and services. Being a pioneer means having to build a legitimate space in the policymaking arena and showing why the services offered by a think tank are useful.
Box. Challenges faced when funding a think tank: CPPR in India
D. Dhanuraj is the founder and chairman of the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) in India. Read the full interview here.
‘These were some of the challenges I faced:
- Setting up systems and processes relevant for think tanks
- Updating and keeping interest in topics of the institutions
- Training researchers and preparing them for bigger assignments
- Wearing the hat of a social entrepreneur and also of an academic
- Becoming involved in educational work while continuing networking activities satisfactorily
Think tanks in India are still fairly new. The culture is evolving. Unlike their counterparts in the western world, think tanks in India have limited patronage. This raises challenges on the sustainability front. The governments should be open to the role of the think tanks and acknowledge them, since the government is the ultimate beneficiary. The economic growth of the country may help think tanks in the long-run as more funds and philanthropists may start supporting the work done by these organisations. Freedom of expression is another essential factor that needs to be guaranteed for think tanks to be able to meet their objectives.’
Box. Challenges of a regional think tank: Task Justice Network Africa
Alvin Mosioma is the executive director and co-founder of Tax Justice Network Africa, which is a pan-African organisation. Read the full interview here.
‘As a leader, running an organisation that operates across different regions means that you are thinly spread. Working in all these different areas requires intense concentration. Fundraising and developing strategic partnership are huge work. In all these different tasks you end up finding yourself thinly spread. For instance, the role implies many engagements, such as speaking engagements, meetings people expect you to attend, calls you need to have, etc. That is a challenge I am a ‘Jack of all trades’. I am doing organisation management, I am doing strategy, I am doing board-related issues, I am working with funders, thinking about the next steps of our strategies. I have to engage in all these different tasks as head of the organisation because I am the face of the organisation and that means I am thinly spread.
As an organisation, I think that the biggest challenge we face is that we are a regional organisation working at different levels, but also, we are membership driven. So, there are tough choices you have to make about how involved you are in country-level activities, in regional or global processes which put a lot of pressure on the organisation, in terms of where we should be allocating our resources.
As a regional network you want to be able to address the different constituencies and that can be resource-intense, but then, you are struggling as a small organisation to harness all those resources.
As an institution, we started with the unique position of being the only regional civil society network that is working on tax, but because of this the expectation for us to respond to all tax issues across the continent is bigger than the size of our organisation and the resources we have. Another related challenge is language, because we operate in the continent and we are multilingual – anglophone, francophone, lusophone, etc.’
How will it be managed?
Without appropriate management, think tanks are unlikely to be able to deliver sustainable funding strategies, high quality research, and effective communications. Management involves various practical aspects of the organisation’s functioning: project management, budgeting, staffing, line management, and workspace, among others.
Budgeting +Read more about budgeting in Jones (2017), How to create a smart project budget for think tanks Learn more+and in Cardoso (2015), Managing budgets in a think tank. Learn more+You can also watch the webinar Smart project budgeting for think tanks. Learn more
Budgeting is more than an administrative task. Effective budgeting can make a huge difference to a think tank’s financial health, and sound financial management will allow the organisation to achieve its goals. Therefore, you need someone in your team with budgeting and financial skills. However, it is important that other members of the organisation who do not have training or experience in admin, can also understand or engage with it when needed.
A project’s life cycle could help to manage the project budget at department level in a think tank, following stages such as designing and submitting a research proposal, project initiation, project implementation, management and monitoring, and closure. Do not underestimate the importance of budgeting when preparing the following:
- Proposals for funders: it is important that the budget reflects the real costs of the project, including a share of the costs that are not directly attributable to specific research projects, such as staff costs, office rent, electricity, and others. You can add them as an overhead, under separate budget lines, or do both. You also need to separate out what is income and what are the expenses.
- Project budgets: transfer the proposal budget to a project budget template approved by the finance department. Keep the budget up to date and maintain an invoicing tracker.
- Budget monitoring: both the finance department and other project departments need to keep their own records of income and expenditure to provide an additional layer of quality control. Every financial movement should be recorded (plus supporting documentation). Also, a quarterly budget review process needs to be established to update all project finances.
- Project closure: projects that have finished in the current financial year need to be closed (balanced between incomes and expenditures, invoices sent to donors, expenditures completed, and fee information updated and finalised), but those that continue into the next financial year need to be reconciled (incomes, expenses and fee allocations updated). (Cardoso, 2015).
Financial management entails strategic planning, organising, and managing the generation and use of funds in an organisations. And it is a key factor in ensuring the overall think tank sustainability. You should aim to find the right mix of actions and income sources for your organisation, bearing the following in mind ( Stojanovic, 2022):
- The activities fit your mission
- Ensure a combination of sources and types of funding (not putting all your eggs in one basket)
- The choices made allow the organisation to do its core work
‘A think tank’s reserves exist to cover expenditure in times of unforeseen crisis, either to deal with a shortfall in revenue, or to fund unexpected demands for additional work… they are crucial to both resilience and relevance. And, for this reason, the reserves policy is not an arcane topic to be left to the accountants on the finance committee, but rather a key management tool’, Maxwell (2021) Read more about reserves in this article.
Although technically not a ‘how’ question, deciding on where to locate your operations is a management decision. If you have a comfortable budget, setting up an office will mostly entail choosing the best options that fit your budget. But as the COVID-19 pandemic showed, an organisation can very well function virtually. So if your funding and budget are small, investing in office space might not be worth it. There are many options available; you could seek to be hosted by an organisation that supports you and lets you work from their offices. Or you could work virtually and meet in rented spaces or even cafes. A virtual set-up works very well, especially if you opt for working with a network of researchers or in partnerships.
Going digital to save office costs, either until you have more funds or as a chosen strategy, is a great choice. Investing in a small office could equal the cost of a research assistant in many cities. And a research assistant is more important than an office. Also, it is possible to run an organisation remotely. There are several project management tools available. Dropbox or Google Drive can be your intranet; Slack is a great a team communications tool; Google suite solves your email needs (+)These are just a couple of suggestions based on our experience with these platforms. ; and teams can meet in coffee places and rent space for bigger meetings or events. Once you have secured more funding you can start looking for office space, but in the meantime going digital is a great option.
Line management +For more on staff see Who will work for it? (redirecciona a esta sección del guide)
Line management arrangements and processes are crucial to guarantee the effective functioning of teams and think tanks. They refer to the chain of command and relations of hierarchy within a think tank and a team. Even in circumstances in which researchers act rather independently from each other or from the organisation, or in horizontal business models, a minimum degree of leadership and line management are necessary.
Line management should focus on the most effective allocation of human resources to deliver the organisation’s mission, on supporting those resources, and on enhancing their capabilities. Good practice and literature on the subject suggest some of the following considerations in developing appropriate line management arrangements to lead and support teams and projects:
- No manager should line manage more than five people.
- Line management roles should be adequately resourced with enough time allocated to managers to work with and support their teams.
- Line management choices should not be driven by seniority imperatives but by the most effective use of talent to deliver project, programme and organisational objectives. Often senior and experienced researchers can play important roles as members of a team, and not necessarily as their leaders.
- Line management tools such as staff performance assessments should be used, primarily, to support staff development and overall team performance rather than for accountability purposes.
- Depending on the composition of teams, line management arrangements could include multiple management hierarchies. For example, a young researcher could be line managed by the leaders of more than one project (in a solo star model) and, similarly, a communications officer could be line managed by a research programme leader and the head of communications.