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The onthinktanks interview: Nicolás Ducoté (Part 1 of 2)

Continuing our effort to keep the knowledge and experience within the organization and to share that experience with other think tanks through our platform Executive Directors of Latin America (DEAL) and Bridging research and policy in Latin America VIPPAL and its newsletter (see the interview to Laura Zommer), I recently interviewed Nicolás Ducoté, co-founder and former Executive Director and General Director of CIPPEC, where he worked for 10 years (currently, he is the Undersecretary for Political Affairs at the Ministry of Government, of the Government of Buenos Aires, Argentina). The interview (translated by Andrea Moncada from onthinktanks.org) is very interesting for current think tanks’ heads, but also for those who wish to found a new one and need more information on organizational processes. In the interview, Nicolás talks about what inspired him to establish CIPPEC, what were the main challenges at the beginnings, how was the experience at the head of the institution, and how CIPPEC successfully managed his departure. He offers some tips for those who want to engage in a project of creating a policy research institute and highlights some personal characteristics that an executive director should have.

Someone who wishes to start with a think tank project should ask himself about where to find the best human resources to meet the needs that a think tank has, wherever it is: where to get the people who want to communicate, who want to raise funds, who want to study issues and propose a policy agenda

Leandro Echt: From what think tank models did you draw your inspiration from when you founded CIPPEC?

Nicolas Ducoté: I got to know a small think tank in Boston, the Pioneer Institute, from whom we took three things. First of all, interdisciplinarity: contrary to what most recommended, which was having focus and dedication, at the most, on two or three subjects, this institute understood that public policy problems were many: ten or fifteen at least, and so they built a model with many areas. The second issue was the focus during implementation: while you could invest time in analysis, research and writing proposals, at least half of the energy had to be placed on how we affected and influenced the public policy process. The third element was working with other actors, because the capacity of an organisation to produce change in public policy is limited. Therefore, we needed a coalition with several actors, or to pass along battles that last ten or fifteen years, like the public information law or co-participation in Argentina. We knew then that CIPPEC would not be able to work alone, which led us to invest an important amount of time in articulating efforts with other executive directors, including the Vida Silvestre Foundation, the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), Greenpeace, the Association for Civil Rights (ADC), and several other organisations. So, from the get-go, we began working in a collaborative rather than a competitive manner.

LE: What motivated you to establish CIPPEC?

ND: I was convinced that in Argentina there were no institutions that were strongly and perseveringly dedicated to taking the best ideas in public policy and pushing them towards the political process. I was very interested in putting together people whom I was approaching, who had an interest in causes such as education or health, and who did not have a vehicle to take their ideas to the world of public policy. And so, together with my associates and friends I decided to create an institution that would support entrepreneurs who wanted to change the Argentinean reality and who worried about what was important: that the things they proposed got done.

For them to be able to accomplish that, they would be free from some administrative tasks in the institution; we told them, “come work at CIPPEC and we will help you get funding, we’ll take care of communications, administrative issues, etc.; you just do the best you can to have impact, to put together a good team and to insert your area of knowledge into others, because most problems are interdisciplinary”. That is how we began with the idea that this would serve as a platform for public or social entrepreneurs, to integrate public policies, and to do it with a very strong focus on implementation; not just producing papers, but having an impact on the decision making process.

LE: What were the main challenges that you faced at the beginning and how did you manage to make a place for CIPPEC in Argentina’s public policy space?

ND: 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. That way, 270 people who we wanted to influence, would have some sort of contact with us. 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.

Other products of that calibre were the NGO Directory and the budget analyses. 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 an 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. By 2004 or 2005, we had the capacity to put on the agenda certain issues that were central to different policy topics.

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.

LE: What were the key sources of financing in the beginning?

ND: Most importantly, 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 went through a period of scarcity of individual donations (mainly out of fear, uncertainty on how Argentina would turn out, what would happen, if investing in public policy was worth it, etc.). This, added to a currency devaluation, made us think straightaway about getting external funding. So 2002 was the first year that 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 (e.g. the Centre for Legal and Social Studies (CELS), and Poder Ciudadano) and later CIPPEC was also generous in helping other organisations get external aid, such as Help Argentina, the Argentinean Network for International Cooperation (RACI), etc.

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

LE: What do you think is CIPPEC’s contribution to public policy in Argentina?

ND: The biggest contribution was allowing that many people with a calling for public service could drive transformations; it was a platform for people who wanted to dedicate themselves to public policy. What I emphasize the most is not the changes public policy, but on people’s lives, by letting them work on what interested them. There wasn’t a space in Argentina that gave young people a possibility to work on education policy, justice, etc., and to do so in a professional manner. Nowadays, around 400 or 500 people must have gone through CIPPEC and are now mostly public entrepreneurs, people who found a way to dedicate themselves professionally to their vocation. That’s the most transcendent transformation, because many of those people today are working within the state, and I think that CIPPEC will still permanently be a launch pad for different people to access the public space.

Secondly, I think we have made strong technical contributions in some public policy affairs. Thirdly, we generated a model, a way of working to influence public policy that many organisations later learned from, whether they did it in a formal or informal manner. Fourth, we generated a capacity for articulation between parts of the university sector, the private sector and NGO’s that didn’t exist before; we helped create groups of executive directors, of communication directors, of fundraising, the Argentinean Network for International Cooperation (RACI) and we developed a capacity in Argentinean civil society that it didn’t have before; and all that in part served CIPPEC’s interests.

LE: How can you measure this?

ND: You can measure it in a superficial manner, making a list of all the initiatives or laws that CIPPEC had some impact in, through the testimony of the political protagonists. But I think that the most transcendent or long-term impacts will be those that I mentioned beforehand: if we manage to demonstrate that from civil society a group of people can organise themselves to have an impact on public policy and transform reality, we will get many more people to commit to progress and development in public policy in Argentina.

LE: What advice would you give to someone who wants to establish a new think tank? What are the most important steps of this process?

ND: 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 complimentary: 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.

Also important is 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.

Next week: Part two of the interview.

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