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:
- 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.
Institutional structure +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
There are different options available in terms of institutional structures. 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.
Who will lead the think tank?
Although there are several ways to understand leadership, in this section we are referring to the senior operating person who is responsible for ensuring the day-to-day running of the organisation: the executive director +CEO, general manager or president are other names to refer to the person with the highest responsibility for day-to-day operations. . We will reflect on the key responsibilities this role undertakes, the mix of skills (profile) that an executive director should have, and the key challenges that most executive directors face.+This section draws from: - Mendizabal, E. (2016), Setting up a think tank: Step by step. Learn more+Mendizabal, E. (2014c), Resources for executive directors: Competences, structure and tools. Learn more+Echt, L. (2013), Think tanks’ executive directors: Background, profiles and qualities. Learn more+Ramos, C. (2021) Think tank leadership: Functions and challenges of think tank executive directors. Learn more
Executive directors are key for think tanks to be successful, have credibility and achieve impact. They are responsible for key roles and functions that range from day-to-day management to more strategic tasks. Although specific functions vary between organisations, there are five key responsibilities that executive directors fulfil:
- Providing strategic direction: delineating what the organisation’s mission is and drawing a strategy for how to achieve it. Strategic direction also entails being able to identify, anticipate and react to changes in the organisation, external or internal (e.g. new parties in power, COVID-19, shrinking funding).
- Management of operations: the executive director is ultimately responsible for a variety of supervisory tasks to ensure that the organisation runs smoothly. This includes general administrative issues, human resource management (strategy, hiring and line management of senior staff), managing and overseeing finances, engagement with the board, and project management and/or monitoring.
- Providing intellectual leadership and ensuring research quality: think tank leaders should provide intellectual leadership to ensure that the organisation produces high quality research that is credible and relevant to the public and to policymakers. This involves functions that range from establishing and maintaining the relevance and credibility of the organisation, to research management and quality assurance, and even mentoring others.
- Fundraising and ensuring the availability of resources: leaders manage existing funding sources while actively working to attract new ones, and ensuring that the organisation has the funds that it requires to operate. This is not to say that executive directors are the only ones undertaking fundraising activities, as researchers in many organisations actively and successfully fundraise, but it is the responsibility of the executive director to ensure the coordination of fundraising activities so that there are enough funds to take the organisation towards its goals.
- Representing the organisation, establishing partnerships, and building networks: executive directors regularly interact with a wide range of stakeholders, such as funders, policymakers, their own staff, the board of directors, external partners or the media. They engage with them for different purposes: establishing alliances, advocacy, advice giving (or receiving it as well), dissemination and outreach, negotiating, discussing proposals, exploring funding opportunities, examining key issues, informal conversation etc. The executive director is the main representative of the think tank; they serve as a spokesperson, are in charge of establishing and maintaining partnerships, enhance the profile of the organisation and engage with policymakers, media and other key stakeholders.
The first three functions are more internal to the organisation, while the last two are outward focused. It is important for directors to be able to balance these two aspects of the role. For instance, focusing too strongly on the internal issues may limit time dedicated to obtaining the resources and external validation that the staff needs to function. Striking a balance is difficult and, more often than not, executive directors feel that they are spread thin. It is important to also establish a good team (see Who will work on it?) and work with the board when necessary (see Who will govern it?)
Box. Undertaking research
Although many think tank leaders want to devote time to their own research, the reality is that the day-to-day running of the organisation leaves them no time to do so. We have found that this related to the think tank’s model, but also to the stage it is at. But it is important to bear in mind that executive directors seldom have the time to devote to their own research work, and if this is something that you want to do you will have to establish the structures and support to do so.
Even though there are a mix of skills and characteristics that are needed for the job, the profile, personal characteristics, or background that a think tank leader should have vary greatly between organisations and are also a function of the context. According to a typology of policy entrepreneurship developed by Simon Maxwell, think tank leaders, and policy entrepreneurs in general, need to combine a set of certain key skills and characteristics (the strength and mix of each will vary, though):
- Communication skills: the leader should be a good storyteller who can confidently navigate different audiences and engage with each to achieve the organisation’s goals.
- Interpersonal skills: the executive director should be a good networker who has strong public relations skills and is well connected in order to fulfil some of the most important responsibilities of the think tank. Responsibilities include representing the organisation, raising funds and mobilising and empowering people to deliver the organisation’s mission.
- Management skills: the leader should be an engineer who is involved ‘on the ground’. They need to supervise day-to-day operations while being active in high-level meetings. Academic expertise may provide legitimacy about policy issues, but management skills will make it possible to deliver the mission. Good management practice suggests that directors should give leeway to their teams and help them gain recognition in their fields. It is also important to keep an eye on younger researchers and plan and prepare progression of staff. Finally, leaders should also be able to think about business models, identify and solve problems, translate policy problems into research projects, and anticipate and manage change within the organisation.
- Political savviness: this means being a fixer – someone who is knowledgeable, authoritative and recognised by their peers on particular issues so that they can convince decision makers and other audiences on how to approach them.
- Commitment to the organisation: although not part of Simon Maxwell’s typology, a commitment to the think tank project and being willing to devote at least five years to get it established would be a requirement for the leader of a new organisation. Being dedicated to success will help deal with the many challenges that come with leading a think tank.
Finally in terms of knowledge and expertise the following are important:
- A nuanced understanding of think tanks and/or of evidence-informed policy.
- Knowledge of the context in which the think tank will operate, including policymaking processes.
- Knowledge of the topics that the think tank will focus on.
- Being capable of mobilising resources.
Box. Key skills for thinktankers
Watch here Simon Maxwell explain key skills for thinktankers.
It is interesting to reflect on how your profile will influence your think tank’s activities and whether you need to seek complementary roles to balance your profile, or work with people with similar orientations. This will depend on the type of think tank you wish to develop and your policy impact aims.
As a think tank leader, you are likely to face many challenges, and identifying them could help you prepare in advance. These challenges can be summarised into personal and organisational categories.
- Juggling too many functions: think tank leaders are responsible for many tasks that range from overseeing day-to-day operations and conducting research to meeting with funders or talking to the media. Some leaders eventually find themselves spread too thin and lacking the time or knowledge to deal with everything. It is thus important to ensure that there is support available, be it team members, external services or board members, to help deal with the many responsibilities.
- Personal characteristics: in some cases, leaders, or think tank staff in general, experience challenges in how they are perceived by others. Unfortunately, there is prejudice and/or discrimination in the sector and sometimes leaders of a particular gender, race or age experience pushback from others they engage with. This is not intended to deter anyone from any position, on the contrary, we should work as a sector to ensure this does not continue to happen.
- Learning to manage a think tank: many think tank leaders have been trained as researchers rather than as ‘managers’ so they find they have to learn new functions on the job. They must prepare in advance for the management tasks that they will need to undertake (or appoint someone with those skills). This guide is a good place to start (see the resources sections for more tools on management).
- 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.’
Who will engage with it?
Think tanks need an audience to fulfil their missions.+This section draws from: Mendizabal, E. (2013i), Think tanks and their key audiences: What do they have to say? Learn more+Grant-Salmon (2014), Audience development: Can we have a meeting to discuss the dissemination of my research report? Learn more When exploring your context you should identify your main audience and who will be interested in what you have to say. Identifying who will listen to your think tank relates to the question of what it will aim to influence, the policy debates your aim to contribute to, and the policy level you wish to influence (national, local, etc.).
Start by identifying who is interested in the issues your think tank is working on; who are you aiming to influence and who can support you in that process (e.g. media, funders, NGOs and opinion makers)? Remember that your audiences are not only policymakers, civil society and the media. Other thinktankers and donors (to name a few) also play a role. There are many tools available to help you in this process (see Box 27) – but don’t get overly focused on an exhaustive process at the beginning.
The question of who will listen to you is also relevant to your research uptake strategy. It is important to involve or consider your various audiences throughout the whole process to ensure that the research is relevant to their needs and interests +For more on research uptake read Mendizabal, E. (2013), Research uptake, what it is and can it be measured Learn more.
A good suggestion is to approach your audiences and ask them directly:
- How do you prefer to access new ideas and knowledge?
- How could think tanks communicate better with you?
- What examples can you share of good and bad experiences with think tanks?
Their answers will help plan your engagement with your audience. For example, a Peruvian journalist told us that ‘accessibility and credibility of the sources is very important’. When a source works well then it is very likely they will go back to it (Mendizabal, 2013i)
Audience development is a useful concept to understand when thinking about who will listen to a newly formed think tank. Grant-Salmon (2014) describes it like this: ‘audience development is about developing our communications with existing and new audiences, not just increasing the number of people we are talking to. By understanding and gaining knowledge about existing and potential audiences, we can develop relationships in order to communicate relevant, timely, simple messages of value. And by understanding our audiences we can build up trust and credibility so that they seek our help. We can also avoid trying to communicate with audiences who are not interested in our work.’
Finally, remember that not all audiences need to be convinced that your policy recommendations must be acted on. Some may need convincing that they should support your ideas while others may need to be supported in developing and communicating their own arguments.
Box. Tools for stakeholder mapping
Here is a selection of tools that could be useful for analysing and mapping stakeholders:
- GIZ (2010), Youth development stakeholder analysis: A handout for practitioners.
- Schiffer, E. (2007), Net-map toolbox: Influence mapping of social networks.
- IIED (2005), Stakeholder power analysis.
- Brouwer,H., Hiemstra, W. and Martin, P. (2011), Using stakeholder and power analysis and BCPs in multi-stakeholder processes.
- Overseas Development Institute (2010), Planning tools: Stakeholder analysis.
Engaging with stakeholders and counterparts + Based on Datta, A. (2018), Twelve tips to set up a team and establish relationships. Learn more
Datta (2018) offers advice for setting up your team and establishing key relationships in order to participate in projects that help counterparts and policymakers use evidence.
- Ensure your team has the ‘right’ people and organisations: Aim for a small team of 3–4 people including: an insider with deep knowledge of the policy issue and understanding of the context; someone with facilitation skills and the networks to engage with policymakers; someone with technical skills; and a team leader who coordinates the members and brings together the technical and political dimensions of the project.
- Make the most of prior connections and shared experiences: To foster strong relationships it is important that there are expectations that something ‘good’ will happen. Having some prior contacts and shared experiences can accelerate this process.
- Base your team close to the ‘action’: The team should be as rooted as close to the ‘action’ as possible and be made up of national staff. When bringing in foreign team members, immersion in the context for long periods of time is essential for them to build good relationships with key actors.
- Establish ‘good’ team working practices: Make sure your team members communicate regularly and that they feel comfortable talking and listening in equal measure.
- Work with high-capacity institutions for short-term change: Your counterparts will be more likely to use your support if they have high levels of capacity to begin with. This doesn’t mean that you avoid institutions with lower levels of capacity, just that doing so will require a longer-term approach.
- Negotiate the role you play in relation to your counterpart: When working with partners in government, you have to decide with them how much emphasis should be placed on getting results versus capacity development. If there is a results approach you may take a more hands-on approach (managing the overall process). If the focus is on capacity building, your team may take a more reflecting approach by limiting inputs to observations.
- Listen to the needs of your counterpart but don’t set out to meet all their demands: Your counterpart has deep knowledge of the local context, but there is value in what you have to offer, so it is important to have discussions that consider different perspectives and to see each other as partners or collaborators.
- Identify and coordinate with existing in-country policy support or evidence-related initiatives: There may be other teams who are supporting policymakers to use evidence. If this is the case, try to find ways to work together, as you may find that your work is complementary.
- Consider setting up an advisory group: A steering group may help ensure that the work produced between you and your counterparts is relevant beyond the actors you work with. It can also pressure your counterparts to ensure a rigorous engagement with the process. For this advisory group you can approach institutions with a cross-government mandate or representatives of other policy support initiatives.
- Formalise the relationship between the delivery team and your government counterpart: Consider revising the memorandum of understanding that often underpin agreements between government institutions and external actors if there are areas that you would like to see changed, such as confidentiality or intellectual property clauses.
Box. Partnership toolkits
These two partnership toolkits provide advice on how to build successful partnerships through structured approaches that will help you identify the type of partnership needed and the kind of agreements you will need to reach.
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.’
Who will fund it?
Most think tanks would agree that landing core funding is a once in a lifetime opportunity +For more on how to manage core funding (for the first time) see Vurmo, G. (2014), Developing a think tank: First-hand experience with core funding. Learn more. There are now only a handful of funders willing to provide it. Also, foreign funders are under more pressure to tone down the support for civil society, especially organisations trying to influence policy. In many African countries, for example, international agencies are being increasingly monitored and managed by stronger governments, turning already risk-averse funders even more conservative. This scenario is a risk for any organisation that aims to be creative, and provide alternative policy suggestions (Mendizabal, 2015c).
But there are many other options available for think tanks to consider:
- Short- or medium-term project funding.
- Research consultancy work.
- Paid-for training and capacity development services.
- Sponsorship of reports, events or capacity development initiatives.
Although global and regional funders are decreasing in number or reducing their support, there is a diversity of other funders at national level, such as domestic governments, INGOs, and research networks. Overall, it could be said that the funding environment and incentives are challenges for a think tank. However, there are other fundraising methods you can pursue (Lah, 2021).
Here are some other income-generating ideas that you could consider (Mendizabal, 2015c):
- Paid membership that provides access to member-only events, report launches and advice: Membership programmes can provide a source of income, as well as a good platform for other more profitable ideas, or even generate relationships that can turn into more important supporters. See how Bruegel and the Atlantic Council have set this up.
- Renting out capacity: for example, the Busara Center for Behavioral Economics rents out its behavioural insights lab to organisations interested in research of this kind.
- Renting out space: this is useful for organisations that have free office space, including space for events.
- Hard copies of reports and books.
- Paid-for courses.
A new think tank may have to be creative and seek out in-kind support. You could, for instance, benefit from free office space by requesting support from a university or a foundation. Some of your central costs, such as utilities, administrative, and accounting support, could also be covered by a host.
Therefore, while core funding is now less common, there are many ways to generate income. Do not limit yourself by thinking that you need to constantly search for core and long-term funding. This kind of funding is important, and you need to find it, but there are other ways. On the other hand, it is key to start building your network and your name before you can start approaching funders.
Box. The philanthropic sector in Africa
It is a challenge to tap into local philanthropists in countries in the global south. As economies are strengthened, the number of people that could become philanthropists should increase. But their number has not followed economic growth. Nonetheless, philanthropy is emerging as a force. For example, African philanthropist Mo Ibrahim has a foundation that has launched several initiatives. There is also the African Grant Makers Network. These institutions, and others that might develop, are a promising opportunity for think tanks to diversify their funding. But the road is long, and developing an active philanthropic sector requires patience and a concerted effort from different actors (Yeo, 2013).
With the reduced availability of accessing flexible and core funding, think tanks are devising new funding strategies, and engagement between think tanks and the private sector is growing across the world. Engaging with the private sector is one way to access new funds but it can be difficult to convince those actors of the value of funding research.
Other challenges of establishing relationships with businesses and corporations include maintaining a think tank’s self-determination and safeguarding its credibility. To overcome these challenges and take advantage of the opportunities these engagements offer, think tanks should research potential partners and identify how and why they can be attractive to them. For instance, they may offer public relations and legitimacy, strategic philanthropy, or advice and expertise (Baertl 2019).
Funding models +This section draws from Ralphs, G. (2016a),Think tank business models: The business of academia and politics; Learn more+Garzón de la Roza, T. and Weyrauch, V. (2016), What does a successful funding model look like? Learn more
A funding model goes beyond the funding streams described above. This is the approach that an organisation has for raising, receiving, accounting for, and reporting on funds: ‘A funding model tells the story of the different sources of funding of an organisation and how this funding pool is maintained, expanded, or diversified’ (Ralphs, 2016a).
You could aim for a mix of funders, explore funding from the private sector +For more on fundraising read the following series: Funding for think tanks part one: Domestic funding Learn more+and Funding for think tanks part two: The private sector Learn more, approach foundations, work for contracts or grants, or charge for content (Garzón de la Rosa and Weyrauch, 2016).
The funding mix that you aim for (or have access to) will have implications on the way that your organisation is managed and functions. Successful funding models take many forms, but most importantly they create ‘sustainable revenue in a way that enables the organisation to best pursue its mission’ (Garzón de la Roza, & Weyrauch, 2016). Here are some aspects you should aim for:
- Reliable funding that does not come and go randomly.
- A diversification of funding sources, not only of donors but of type as well. Strike a balance. If you are stretched too thin it can become difficult to manage different projects and research objectives.
- Acceptable conditions that enable the organisation to do their policy work to the best of its abilities.
- Intellectual independence from donors.
- Transparency. Always be clear about where the funding comes from (this will also help to ensure and protect your credibility).
It is also important that your think tank has reserves that can cover expenses in times of unforeseen crisis, such as a shortfall in revenue or a worldwide crisis like COVID-19 +Based on Resilience and relevance: The role of reserves in managing think tanks by Simon Maxwell (2021). Learn more. In order to be resilient when your cash flow is under pressure, and to remain relevant when policymakers need your work, you should have around four to six months’ worth of cash reserves. This, of course, is difficult, as donors do not often provide funds that can be saved, so this surplus may have to come from other sources or from investments.
Who will do the fundraising?
This is an issue that concerns many mature think tanks facing funding challenges. Who will be responsible for funding?
In the beginning, it is useful to encourage all the leadership to assume responsibility for seeking and securing funds for the think tank. This includes the executive director, senior members of the team and even some board members.
It is always worth considering involving a fundraising or business development expert in your team. While some may see this as a luxury expense, the contribution of an expert to a think tank’s sustainability should not be underestimated.
You can make sure that you raise enough funds in different ways. Some from think tank directors recommend starting with contacts you and your team already have (e.g. from a university, from donors already known to you in previous positions), applying to calls from international donors and, especially, being open to combining different sources of funding. The below are some strategies based on the experiences of STIPRO, a think tank in Tanzania who received core funding for almost a decade and then had to find new and sustainable funding sources + Based on Six strategies for sustainable think tank funding, by Sulamba Shaban (2019). Learn more:
- Involve all staff by creating an organisational fundraising culture and training all staff in the basics of fundraising.
- Scan the donor environment to understand which donors may be interested in your work. After mapping them, you can approach them, let them know about your work, and develop a relationship with them.
- Offer capacity development services to donors in the areas you specialise in. Providing training can be a good way to become known and to earn an income.
- Maintain a good relationship with existing donors even when you are looking for new ones. Make sure that your reports are submitted on time and that you keep in touch.
- Engage your board members, who may help in different ways, such as reaching out to their contacts or providing seminars to your staff on issues such as proposal writing or project management.
- Increase your visibility through communications such as your website, blogs, news outlets, seminars, public debates, etc. This will help potential donors know who you are, what you do and what impact your work has.
Below we provide some examples of how think tank directors approached accessing funds when their think tanks started. One way is to start by reaching out to existing contacts and capitalising on any standing affiliations (e.g. to a university). Another way is to identify international organisations and foundations interested in your region or priority areas so that you can target them when you apply for grants. Another is to rely on funding from the funding sector. Although some think tanks prefer to avoid these funds, if the corporations that are willing to fund your work allow you to remain independent, it is a good way to increase your financial resources.
Box. Key sources of funding at the beginning: The experience of CIPPEC in Argentina
‘We wanted to obtain funds from individuals, and we didn’t think in the thousands but in the hundreds. That way we identified a niche of individuals who we would ask for considerable amounts, dealing with them in a personalised manner. During the first year we held around 100 or 150 meetings to ask individuals to work with us, and some of those individuals became contacts who couldn’t give us money but who could open the door to those people who could give us resources or who got other institutions to support us. At least in Argentina, although I imagine that the same thing happens in many countries, there’s a lot of overlap between people who could donate a lot of resources and companies, which is why in many cases the initial search for funding turned into financing from the corporate sector: when I sat down with someone to ask them for their support, they would channel it through a company, which is why the necessity to take care of the company’s needs materialised.
We created a fundraising area within CIPPEC that went from dealing just with individuals to dealing with individuals and companies. Afterwards, with the crisis at the end of 2001/beginning of 2002…we invested part of CIPPEC’s resources to assign someone to search for funding from the international cooperation sector: we invested 12,000 to 13,000 pesos and we got 80,000 in the first year, with which we opened up a whole portfolio of international projects. We learned a lot about how to finance ourselves internationally, having discussions with other actors that were doing that long before us.
When the institution grew stronger, in 2004, we began a search for funding among state actors, which at that time was marginal (5 or 10% of the budget, which in general was more a cost recovery from some projects), because we found that state financing came with a larger capacity for impact: establishing links with the ministries of the provinces to provide them with a project ended up giving us more leeway to convince ministers of things, and we also noted that when the state paid for something it gave more attention to it. We created that mix, and I had the idea of reaching a point in which at least 30% would be financed by public national sources, and 50 or 60% would come from individuals and corporations. What was true is that, taking into account devaluation, the international cooperation sector acquired a more important role and through the years we became better at collecting corporate funds. I would say that there were four sources, 25% each, with a preference for increasing state funding and depending less on few big donors, trying to broaden our financial sources.’
Box. Starting with established contacts: The experience of GPTT in Iran
Seyed Sadegh Emamian is the founder and former director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT), established in Iran in 2012.
‘First, we worked with our university affiliation because we were established as a university affiliated think tank, and it is a very well-respected university in Tehran. We capitalised on this reputation and we defined ourselves as a new institution that was an extension to the university.
We have had different stages of fundraising. In the beginning we capitalised from the reputation of the university. We gathered a group of talented graduates from the best universities and some young, talented policy researchers and the idea was interesting for some funders that had already funded universities and university institutions. We also were able to use the facilities that the university already had, like the building or staff who were already working there.
Once we started to function and the think tank itself had a basis of trust and respect, it was time to approach some funders and show them that this wasn’t just an idea but a real institution. We showed some interesting impact. In another stage of fundraising, we built up on the recognition that GPTT itself had.
At the moment, some of our funds come from the university, directly or indirectly, some come from policy projects and some come from funders and donors that are willing to fund.
Projects are usually from the public sector to work on policy issues. The government, the parliament, and some research institutions have funded us for several projects. And some grants that have come from private foundations.’
Box. From supply-driven to demand-driven funding: The experience of CADEP in Paraguay
Fernando Masi is the director and co-founder of CADEP. Read the full interview here.
‘All funding came from international foundations and organisations. In the beginning, it was more supply driven: identifying foundations with interest in Latin America and their priority areas in coincidence with ours, elaborating and presenting proposals.
It became more demand driven from 2000 onwards: donors started launching calls for papers and setting the research agenda. In addition, getting private or public local funding for research in Paraguay was not a possibility in the 90s. Only very recently public funds for research have become available.’
Box. Combining different sources of funding: The case of CAPRI in Jamaica
Diana Thoburn is the director of research at CAPRI, a public policy think tank in Jamaica. Read the full interview here.
‘Funding affects our very existence and everything we do – from the research that we conduct, to our staffing. As an independent think tank, we do not have a parent organisation that we rely on. The majority of our core funding is from large Jamaican corporations and a couple of non-Jamaican private businesses. That core funding primarily pays most of the organisation’s 12 employees. The university supports us with office space, overheads and two salaried positions.
Most of our research funding comes from international development partners. The main ones we’ve worked with in the past few years are the UK Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO, formerly DFID,) UNICEF, the European Union, the Inter-American Development Bank and USAID, in response to themed calls for proposals. This means that, for the most part, our research agenda is not solely determined by us. While we are fortunate to be in a stable financial situation, our salaries are well below market rates which makes it difficult to hire and retain quality talent.’
Who will support it?
A good question to ask yourself is ‘who can support your think tank?’ This not the same as asking who will fund it. Rather, who will be able to support the organisation with access to their networks, guidance, knowledge, and even office space?
Think about what you need to get started and who can you turn to for support. Board members and their networks are a good source for this. For example, in the case of On Think Tanks we are supported by Soapbox, Universidad del Pacífico, the University of Bath, our fellows and board members, to name just a few. Soapbox has provided us with invaluable guidance (and work) on the development of our website. The University of Bath has supported us with space for our annual conference and Universidad del Pacífico supports us with space and access to their research network. Our fellows are ambassadors to On Think Tanks and regularly submit articles. All of this enables us to have a lean operation that looks much bigger than it is.