Who will work for it?
A good team is the flowerbed on which your organisation will grow and flourish.+This section draws from: Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step Learn more New organisations can be pulled in many directions and you could be tempted to enrol a bigger team that you can afford (or manage). Or you might end up with a team whose skills are not what your organisation needs. It is thus very important to set up a team focusing on your aims, business model and budget.
A think tank’s core team should involve a leader, a researcher (who may be the leader), a communicator and an administrator, although much of a new think tank’s administrative work may be carried out by the rest of the team and some of it can even be outsourced.
A good suggestion is to aim to keep initial costs low and build-in flexibility to the organisation. There are several options available to build in staffing flexibility and avoid full employment contracts at the beginning. For instance, working with consultants or associates using short-term contracts, developing partnerships with organisations with research or communications capacity, and so on (Mendizabal, 2016) +For more on different ways to work for researchers see Mendizabal, E. (2017), Funding models: The role of researchers. Learn more.
Another aspect to consider is the availability of researchers in your context, given that in some environments and countries, the offer of trained researchers is either scarce or very expensive (Yeo, 2013). An option to get around this is to hire young talent and train them (see section below for more on this). Another option is to develop policies that incentivise researchers to stay. For example, in order to stop high levels of turnover, Grupo Faro introduced a human resources reform in 2012 that introduced more certainty to staff members’ career paths. This was achieved by changing contractual terms, creating a human resources guide, developing a performance evaluation process and creating team-building opportunities (Echt and Cahyo Edi, 2015). At the Center for Global Development, the key to hiring and retaining staff is to give them plenty of freedom and responsibility so that they can shine and develop their careers (MacDonald and Moss 2014).
Researchers’ skills + Section draws from Mendizabal, E. (2015c), The future of researchers. Learn more
As mentioned before, the type of skills that your staff needs will vary depending on your aims, business models and the type of activities you’re aiming to do.
Despite the variability of skills for different roles, think tank researchers nowadays should all have these three basic skills: research (this is a requisite); management (at least to manage a research project and raise and manage funds); and communication.
Researchers need to have good interpersonal communication skills. They should be able to communicate their arguments to their peers, and adequately engage in debate. They should be able to edit their own texts to suit the audiences that they are trying to reach, know all the communication channels available and plan to use different kinds depending on their audiences. They do not need to know how to operate all of them, but should be proficient enough to know which should be used for what purpose and audience (Mendizabal, 2015c).
In terms of research team structures, Struyk (2012) explains that think tanks choose from one of two extremes: teams or solo stars. The solo star model requires the presence of recognised and influential researchers who work on their own (or supported by research assistants). The team model requires a team of researchers who work together.
How will you hire your team?
Hiring at the early stages can offer opportunities and challenges. You may attract young and driven think tankers who fit perfectly into the organisation’s business model; but you may also find it hard to attract more experienced staff who may not want to commit to a new venture.
To address this, you should make sure you start by developing clear job descriptions for each of the core roles. This will ensure that young think tankers have clear guidelines and that more experienced applicants can relate to what you expect from them.
If you choose to work through a partnership, hosted by a university for instance, then take advantage of their networks to find the right candidates.
While senior leadership positions may go to individuals who are known to you already – through personal and professional networks – it is advisable to hire using objective and transparent processes.
If the business model you are pursuing is not common, then you could use tasks during the interview process to ensure that you hire the right people. You may ask them to write a policy brief, prepare and deliver a presentation, produce a concept note for a new funder, etc. This will give you a better sense of the strengths and skills of the candidates.
If your budget is limited and you want to keep the organisation lean, you can work with research associates. As they are probably employed somewhere else they can bring their credibility and expertise to the organisation, but bear in mind that this makes planning and coordination a bit trickier (Mendizabal, 2016).
Box. Attracting and retaining top researchers in Africa
Cheikh Oumar Ba, executive director of the Initiative of Prospective Agricole et Rurale in Senegal. Read the full interview here.
‘Attracting and retaining top people is a constant challenge. We live in a competitive setting in this globalised world and mobility has to be factored in. For example, we had an excellent economist working with us once but after a year, he left for a job with the World Bank. However, all in all, we’re doing well at staff retention. We pay good salaries, not quite as much as the UN does, but we’re definitely paying good market rates. We also try to provide a positive working environment.
Sometimes donors balk at paying full market rates for local researchers. We recently put in a tender that had an international team of researchers from various countries, worldwide, and the client complained about the price tag of the African researchers on the team and asked us to lower their rates. We refused. You have to remember, we all went to the same universities, we have the same degrees. In the end, the client paid up.’
Another suggestion is to combine senior researchers with young, up and coming research officers and assistants +We say young, because they are usually in their early career phase and willing to work for starting salaries, but people of all ages exist with these characteristics. . Some of the best work in think tanks is often done by young researchers interested in developing their careers (Mendizabal, 2016). Both parties gain a lot from this arrangement. A think tank can access relatively cheap (and good) labour, and in return train and develop the skills of young think tankers. Working as an assistant provides young researchers with an opportunity to specialise in particular fields, strengthen their research skills, become familiar/proficient in new research methods, develop relationships with senior and prominent researchers, become immersed in environments dedicated to producing and communicating research, working in challenging and interesting environments, and engaging and networking with different actors (Boyco 2015a, 2015b).
Think tanks often need to hire consultants to supplement the work they do. This can be to increase the expertise of a team on a topic for a particular project or to work independently on a project. Hiring a consultant can be risky: ‘a poor-quality product creates a major problem for the think tank which then has to work with the consultant on significant corrections or organise a re-do’ (Struyk 2018). Struyk recommends that think tanks follow these steps to ensure that the consultant’s work is efficient:
- Thoroughly prepare a comprehensive terms of reference document.
- Be careful in the selection of the consultant.
- Estimate and negotiate the consultant’s payment.
- Actively monitor and follow up with the consultant about the progress, especially when the task is spread over several months.
- Be rigorous in the quality control of the products received.
Box. CGDs model for staff
Based on Mendizabal, E. (2015), People with competence, freedom, and responsibility are the key to success and MacDonald and Moss (2014), Building a think-and-do tank: A dozen lessons from the first dozen years of the Center for Global Development (CGD).
CGD has an interesting model that works well for organisations built around senior researchers (with their own interests and personal agendas). Their main approach on staff is:
Hire great people and give them plenty of freedom and responsibility.
They argue that think tanks are about the people, and that recruiting the best requires both a compelling mission and a great work environment with competitive compensation.
Organisations have a clear list of characteristics they search for in their staff (besides expertise and knowledge) that include creativity, kindness and even a sense of humour. They aim to attract not only established researchers but early career ones as well. They place their success to attract top individuals in the freedom, and responsibility for their own work, that they offer.
When hiring senior fellows, they look for people with institutional experience in large organisations and who know how the policy process works. Their junior staff members are recent graduates (bachelor’s or master’s degrees) with little to no work experience; their turnover is of two to three years, and this constant influx of fresh minds ensures them energy and novel ideas. And this also has led to the development of CDG alumni, which they cultivate through various means.
Their model also includes non-resident fellows who are tenured faculty at top universities, and visiting fellows that tend to be policymakers who use the centre as a space to learn, reflect and write.
Box. The importance of your team: The experience of CIPPEC
‘The first piece of advice I would give is that they have to work in a team: none of the issues we’ve discussed can be done alone. CIPPEC’s virtue is that when we decided to found it, we went out and looked for ten or twelve people who were willing to work with us on that enterprise. That team has to be complementary: an individual who wants to begin a think tank project has to ask themselves about how to find human resources to fill the needs that every think tank has. How to get people who want to communicate, that want to raise funds, that want to study issues and propose a public policy agenda.
It’s also important to have people who worry about the institutional dimension: investing time in thinking about processes to make decisions, developing an institutional memory, being transparent, etc. In the first year, as soon as the first two cents came in, we thought about accountability, which spoke of a vocation for certain processes, and not just a search for results. Thirdly, worrying that people who begin with the institution stay enough time: there are learning curves, the best performance of any of us in the disciplines that we work in doesn’t come in the first or second year, but usually it’s about five to ten year cycles, and if you have high rotation in important positions, the organisation suffers. CIPPEC managed to keep its area directors long enough to carry out orderly transitions.’