Strategy and positioning

    What is the context?

    Think tanks are a product of, and intertwined with, their context.+Based on: Brown, E. (2015), Introduction to the series on think tanks and context. Learn more+Ordoñez, A. and Echt, L. (2016), Module 2: Designing a policy relevant research agenda. From the online course: ‘Doing policy relevant research’. On Think Tanks. +Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: step by step. Learn more+Garcé, A., D’Avenia, L., López, C. and Villegas, B. (2018), Political knowledge regimes and policy change in Chile and Uruguay. On Think Tanks Working Paper 3. Learn more+Tolmie, C. (2015), Context matters: So what? Learn more An organisation’s research choices, functions and even its impact are a response to its context. The context will frame and influence the research agenda, the communication strategies, and even the ways of engaging with the think tank’s key audiences. Think, for example, how the global context of the COVID-19 pandemic changed almost every mode of engagement and shifted the priorities of both governments and funders.+For more on the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on think tanks see Mendizabal (2020) COVID-19’s effect on think tanks in 10 headlines Learn more+explore this collection of articles. Learn more

    • Context will affect an organisation at every level, in all its functions and characteristics. It is therefore fundamental to assess it early on so you can:
    • Identify if your ideas (about the challenges or opportunities you want to address) are relevant.
    • Assess your real capacity to have influence.
    • Position your efforts in the context of relevant current trends (evidence needs, policy gaps, donor priorities, etc.).
    • Map out ‘the competition’ and assess who you might be able to partner with and who is likely to challenge your project.
    • Analyse local, national and international spaces for action.
    • Understand what roles a new think tank could possibly play.
    • Decide what type of think tank you should create and how it should operate.

    For example, in Bangladesh and Vietnam, political competition affects how think tanks relate to political parties, just as deciding whether to affiliate to a party or remain independent affects their effectiveness. (Brown, 2015). In Vietnam, think tanks cannot be completely independent from the government; they need a sponsor to help them achieve their objectives. This is similar to the situation in China, where think tanks are deeply intertwined with the government and the Party and cannot function in absolute independence. In the United States, on the other hand, think tanks need to engage with philanthropists and the private sector to secure funding because financial separation from the government is considered essential.

    Basically, all think tanks are embedded in a context that frames their work. No matter the sort of organisation that you aim to create, you will be acting and functioning within a system, and therefore you need to be realistic. You will not be able to change the whole system, but you may be able to shape parts of it.

    Thus, when analysing your context, you should also consider the future. Take the time to think about what future you imagine for your think tank: what landscape do you imagine five years down the line? This will help you reflect up front on what could go wrong. You should start considering the different risks you may face and how you could address them.

    There are also the policymaking and knowledge regimes that need to be accounted for. Knowledge regimes are ‘the organizational and institutional machinery that generates data, research, policy recommendations and other ideas that influence public debate and policy-making’ (Campbell and Pedersen 2014). To determine the local knowledge regime, you need to understand the policymaking regime (how policies are developed), the economy, the politics, and the social and cultural characteristics of a country – as these all influence the market of ideas and how research is produced and used. To understand how knowledge is produced, and used in politics and policymaking, all of these variables (and their importance in a context) need to be accounted for. But how does the policymaking regime affect think tanks? Think about how, for example, Germany has a strong tradition of using research to inform policymaking, and its citizens and policymakers value the role of knowledge in policymaking. On the contrary, in Uruguay, politics trump technical reasoning; while in Chile, knowledge plays a vital role and creates bonds between political parties and interest groups (Garcé et al., 2018). +For more on policy and knowledge regimes read: Campbell, John L. and Ove Pedersen (2014), The National Origins of Policy Ideas: Knowledge Regimes in the United States, France, Germany, and Denmark. Princeton: Press Princeton University Press. Garcé, A., D’Avenia, L., López, C. and Villegas, B. (2018), Political knowledge regimes and policy change in Chile and Uruguay. On Think Tanks Working Paper 3. Learn more

    Box. The importance of local contexts

    Dr Asep Suryadhadi, executive director of SMERU (Indonesia) discusses the importance of understanding the context when establishing a new think tank. Read the full interview here.

    ‘One thing that I have learnt is that context matters a lot. SMERU was established when Indonesia was in a transition from an authoritarian governance, where the government can get away with any policy they make, to a democratic governance, where every government policy is openly questioned and debated. This means now that the government needs evidence as the basis of any policy they make. On the other hand, there were not many of organizations capable of supplying evidence for policy. With this background of increasing demand and lack of supply of evidence, SMERU was able to capitalize the situation and develop itself into an established policy research institution in the country.

    So it is very important to understand your context. We cannot just copy successful think tanks in other countries as a model because it may not work in our country. This is not to say that we should not learn from other organizations as certainly there are useful lessons that other organizations can provide. However, by understanding our context, we will be able to set reasonable objectives that we want to achieve as well as determine how we can operate effectively and efficiently.’

    Box. Changing context

    Chukwuka Onyekwena, executive director of the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa – CSEA (Nigeria). Listen the full interview here.

    ‘In general, the internal policies that I met in the past years was one where the demand for evidence was quite weak. Over the years, the demand was increasing gradually within the policy space. Think tanks have tried to really push to stimulate the demand for evidence. We thought that Think Tank initiatives which provided flexible funding allowed Think Tanks to emerge within Nigeria (…) As the availability of flexible fundings have been declining, now Think Tanks are struggling. The ability to stimulates evidence is now being unlimited. But that is also changing recently due to COVID. COVID is a shock. People from the policy space needed knowledge to explain what is going on, the impact, what strategy should we use to solve this challenge that is quite rare. Knowledge produced by Think Tanks became increasingly involved in providing adequate advice or recommendation on what to do. So COVID-19 arrived and increased the demand for knowledge and Think Tank has benefitted for that (…) Shocks tend to change the way we do things. For example, financial crisis was a big shock and a lot of accounting principles changed. COVID will change how policy actors view things, how they look at the future and how they prepare for such shocks. Think Tanks have the opportunity to be at the forefront of these kind of conversations. So, it will really trigger higher demand for evidence.’

    But how do you make sense of your context? What factors should you consider? In their publication Linking think tank performance, decisions, and context, Results for Development (2014) devised a framework for thinking about context as it relates to think tanks and their decisions. The framework describes different levels and factors that explain how think tanks make decisions based on their context. Ordoñez and Echt (2016a) have provided a summary of the framework, shown here in Figure 1, to help organisations reflect on their environments. The framework differentiates between exogenous, endogenous or mixed factors, based on the level of control that an organisation can exert.

    • Exogenous factors: are ‘factors that are determined by forces outside of the think tank’s sphere of influence and that impact the think tank’s ability to achieve its goals’ (Brown et al, 2014). For example, the number and strength of political parties, an authoritarian government, and turnover in key government positions, among many others, are all exogenous contextual factors that will affect what a think tank can do (Brown, 2015).
    • Endogenous factors: are internal to the think tank and therefore under the control of the organisation, even though they are still influenced by the context. For example, hiring top-level staff is something that is largely under the control of the think tank but is influenced by the context: availability of adequately trained and experienced individuals, labour laws, the location of the think tank (capital or smaller city), and so on.
    • Mixed factors: include circumstances in which context is partly a function of a think tank’s strategic choice and partly a function of variables outside of its influence. But think tanks do not just passively accept their context: they are a product of their context, but they also seek to change it. They create strategies to respond to it; they use their communication, research, and policy engagement tools to address their contextual factors and react to them (Tolmie, 2015).
    Figure: Context levels

    Source: Developed by Ordoñez and Echt (2016b) based on factors proposed by Results for Development (2014) and adapted by the authors of this guide.

    Analysing your context: Key questions to reflect on +Based on: Mendizabal, E. (2015b), How does the context affect think tanks? A few hypotheses and research questions. Ordoñez, A., Echt, L. (2016), Module 2: Designing a policy relevant research agenda. From the online course: ‘Doing policy relevant research’ On Think Tanks. Learn more

    It is important to reflect on these contextual factors while thinking about the organisation you aim to create. Remember to focus on the aspects that help explain the situation that the think tank will be born into, and the aspects it will try to address. To do this effectively you will need to be selective of the dimensions that you include in your analysis (Ordoñez and Echt, 2016a) and reflect on what the answers imply for the work that you intend to do, including how you will conduct research and communicate your findings.

    Here are some questions that can help you analyse your context (building on Ordoñez and Echt, 2016a; Results for Development, 2014; and Mendizabal, 2015)+The headings do not exactly follow the 2014 Results for Development framework. We have adapted them and highlighted some factors to help reflect on the context your think tank will be born into. :

    Political context

    • What are the characteristics of the political system in which you are involved? How does the political system react to independent thinking? How do actors react to the type of work you aim to produce?
    • What are the main changes occurring in the political, social or economic systems? Are there any major developments or trends taking place? (e.g. democratisation, regionalisation, changes in economic policies, migrations, etc.)
    • Are there any relevant policy or political milestones expected in the short or middle term? Are elections coming up? Is there a 5- or 10-year development plan in place? Is a new constitution or trade agreement being drafted?
    • What actors would you need to engage with? Who is most relevant at the local, national and/or international level?

    Evidence needs and access to information

    • What is the state of the information on the topic you are choosing? What kind of information is available? Would we be able to carry out the necessary research to address any knowledge gaps?
    • What contacts are available to you to access data or assess evidence needs?
    • What are the interests, worries and capacities of public agencies regarding the use of research in policymaking? What are the needs of government institutions in terms of research? What are their capacities to generate, demand and use research? How can you start a discussion with them?


    • What are the priorities, strategies and objectives of funders? Who supports the issues you are interested in? Who can you approach?
    • What are the international trends in academia or policy? How will you relate to them to make your work more fundable?
    • Are there any national, regional and global sources of public and private funding that you may be able to benefit from? What conditions are attached to them?

    Intellectual climate

    • What is the intellectual climate like? How is science valued? Is it considered valuable for policymaking? How do intellectual debates take place? Is it the same for all policy issues, or do some have bigger and more active intellectual communities?
    • What will your relationship with other intellectually relevant actors (such as academics, journalists, opinion leaders, experts in your field and others) be like? Will there be competition, debate or will you complement each other? How can you work together if necessary?

    Civil Society

    • What is the role of the media? Is it free? Is it overtly partisan?
    • What other players foster the dissemination and use of evidence? Are there any academic communities with an active role in policymaking? Who are they? Who has more credibility Why?
    • Is there a demand for evidence from civil society organisations? What type of evidence do they prefer? Is civil society familiar with the evidence-informed approach that think tanks promote? What is their stance on it?
    • Is there demand for evidence from social movements and other grassroots organisations? What type of evidence do they prefer? Are they familiar with the evidence-informed approach that think tanks promote? What is their stance on it?
    • What is in the agenda of other research centres, universities and think tanks?

    Regulatory regimes

    • What are the regulatory frameworks that affect think tanks and research organisations? How do they enable or limit their ability to mobilise resources, human or financial? How do they enable or limit their ability to influence policy and practice?
    • How will labour legislation affect your organisation? Does it permit flexible work contracts? Will you be able to hire globally?
    • What is the tax legislation like? (Think not only in terms of how it affects the organisation but also potential donors). Does it encourage or discourage philanthropists to support research? Does it limit the activities think tanks may undertake (for instance, to maintain tax exemptions)?
    • How does the exchange rate affect you? (crucial to consider if you have foreign funders)
    • How does civil society legislation more broadly affect think tanks?

    Other practical issues

    • Is internet access widespread and reliable?
    • Will you have access to online databases, academic journals, communities of practice etc.?
    • Will you be based in a large or a small city? Will it be in the capital or in another part of the country? How will this affect your access to policymakers, the media or other relevant actors The definition of your location will be influenced by your goals and your desired level of influence.
    • What is transport like within the city or to other cities? Will traffic affect the types of activities you wish to organise? For example, you might not be able to organise too many events if traffic limits mobility in the city.
    • How does the education policy affect think tanks? Is critical thinking a value? Are research methods and writing well taught? These factors will affect the quality and quantity of researchers available to work with you.

    Strategic planning

    Based on the reflection and analysis you have carried out in the previous steps, define your strategy – but don’t overdo it.+ Based on Mendizabal, E. (2013b), Strategic plans: A simple version Learn more A strategic plan does not need to be too prescriptive. It clarifies what a think tank does and why, but it should not read like a log frame. After reflecting on the questions in this manual (and answering them) you should be ready to draft your strategic plan. Here is an example of a simple plan (based on Mendizabal, 2013 c):

    • Vision and mission (1/2 a page). The reader should understand the contribution that the think tank is attempting to make.
    • Things we will do to fulfil our mission (2–4 pages). The activities that the think tank will do, for example research, communications, capacity development. Alternatively, you could frame it in more original terms: generate knowledge, share knowledge, promote public debate/understanding, develop capacities, etc.
    • Things we need to deliver the mission (2–4 pages). These are the inputs or the back-office to the mission. Here you can describe its governance, business model, human resources, organisational change projects, etc.
    • How will we know we are on the right track (1–2 pages). An outline of the MEL strategy.
    • How will others know how we are doing (1/2–1 page). For instance annual reports, website transparency, etc.

    Another example of a starting strategy is that of PMRC – ZAMBIA. The ‘PMRC series’ consists of +Based on Mendizabal, E. (2013), A Zambian think tank start-up: A possible model Learn more:

    • A background note, followed by:
      • A snapshot (a nice innovation by them)
      • A reading list
      • A blog or a series of blogs
      • Videos and podcasts
      • A cartoon (another innovation)
      • An infographic (developed in the last week)
    • One or more policy briefs based on the background note, and followed by:
      • A snapshot
      • A reading list
      • A blog or a series of blogs
      • Videos and podcasts
      • A cartoon
      • An infographic

    For more on strategic planning read Mendizabal, E. (2013b), Strategic plans: A simple version and Datta, A. (2016), Strategic planning: It’s just as much about the present as the future.

    Now we present some examples of the challenges that founders faced when they started their think tanks. Some of these challenges surrounded getting people to know them and their work, or recruiting and retaining qualified staff; others arose around ensuring the availability of funds or building the very idea of think tanks in a context where they are barely known.

    Box. Nicolás Ducote on the challenges faced when setting up CIPPEC Argentina

    Nicolás Ducote is a co-founder and former executive director and general director of CIPPEC Argentina. Read the full interview here.

    ‘The main challenge was for people to get to know us, which is why we put a lot of effort into communicating ‘face to face’ and into grabbing their attention so that they would have us on their radar. We would generate products, like the Legislative Directory, that didn’t have great aggregate value but that allowed for a lot of people to know about us. For example, all of the legislators, who we would go visit one by one, got to know us during the process. At the same time, the Legislative Directory was a tool used by all of those with some connection to public policy: the institutional departments, the executive branch, the media; in relation to which we placed ourselves as a bridge that many people wanted to cross.

    We also worried about communication and the press, although, at the beginning, it was beyond our capacities: we tried working with a news agency, but we didn’t have the capacity to produce the press releases that they would ask for every week. So instead we found out who were those people who wrote about our topics, and we created links with them, we put ourselves at their disposition: when they asked us about a fact regarding some topic, we would kill ourselves to get it, even if it meant distracting ourselves from other projects, because we thought that if we delivered they would be more willing to talk to us in the future. Therefore, we became a habitual source of reference, and naturally, other actors began to recognise us as knowledgeable in certain subjects, and so we gradually became a mandatory source of reference. 

    At the same time, our efforts in getting people to know us were linked to our search for funding: it would be easier to get financing as more and more individuals knew us. Alongside all of this, we put forward a process of institutional investment that wasn’t visible: we would put 10% of all of our revenue each year into creating an anti-cyclical fund; we sought to buy our own offices, etc. Sustaining institutional strength was a challenge because donors, particularly those who had a strong outlook on impact, like the international cooperation, had no incentive to finance institutional strength, and CIPPEC was always expensive for donors: we had all of our employees on the payroll, we did everything in a neat and demanding way, etc.

    In summary, the mix of effective communications, fundraising, and strengthening the institution made a lot of very talented people want to approach CIPPEC. When we communicated, they got to know us; when we raised funds they knew that they could count on a good salary; and they knew that we were a ship that had all of its flotation devices put in place in order to continue with its course.’

    Box. Challenges faced by ISET Nepal: Retaining staff and ensuring funds

    Ajaya Dixit is the executive director of ISET Nepal. Read the full interview here.

    ‘Retaining qualified human capital and ensuring financial sustainability are our two major challenges. In fact, retaining qualified professionals is a major challenge for many research agencies and think tanks in Nepal. We find ourselves competing with international NGOs, bilateral donors, and multilateral agencies for qualified human resources. This has forced us to be creative: we invest in training a young generation of professionals and provide them with new opportunities. This has helped maintain our staff retention rates.

    The changing in-country regulatory context presents another challenge. Any research organisation or think tank must comply with national laws. In Nepal, regulators inquire about the specific contributions that our research has made to meet the country’s development objectives. We reiterate that our role is to produce knowledge and argue that research findings should be aimed at improving policies and practices – but are not directly responsible for them. But we have a hard time making a case.

    Regulators use the same yardstick to judge research organisations as they do to judge a development organisation that, for example, works on building schools or planting saplings. This is like comparing apples and oranges. One of our biggest challenges right now is to change the perceptions of government regulators regarding the importance of critical research and the role it can have on the policy landscape.’

    Box. Challenges faced by GPTT in Iran: Developing the concept of a think tank

    Seyed Sadegh Emamian is the founder and director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT) in Iran.

    ‘My main function as a founder not just as a director was to establish the institution. We defined ourselves as a university accredited think tank, so I started to approach former colleagues who had graduated from the best universities in the world and had returned to Tehran and I asked them to join the initiative. One of the main challenges was attracting prestigious academic figures who were interested in the policymaking process, rather than just being academics, and also attracting young, talented, recent graduates as policy researchers.

    The second challenge was the challenge of the unknown. The concept of think tanks in Tehran was very new when we started. It wasn’t a national concept that everybody knew about. We tried to define what a think tank is, the reasons behind establishing one and why we need to have think tanks when we already have research institutions within public departments or academia. So, defining, rationalising and legitimising our institution was an important challenge.

    Other challenges that I can mention were how to establish and maintain ourselves as an independent think tank that is not politically biased or academically attached to a specific school of thought. And also fundraising. This was challenging at the beginning and continues to be a challenge.’