Funding think tanks requires careful consideration of a number of variable: who is funding, who receives the funding, what is it for, and how is it delivered. Think tanks should not be funded as if they were just another organisation; nor should they all be funded the same way across the board. In this post I try to outline some of the questions (and analysis) that funders may want to consider before funding think tanks.
Posts tagged ‘donors’
Hans Gutbrod analyses how 20 leading US think tanks have developed over 2012. Seven of them are doing very well, while four of them are not exactly comfortable, at least not in financial terms. Analysis and detailed spreadsheet available.
In this post on supporting think tanks, Hans Gutbrod argues that supporting think tanks may mean encouraging new functions. Think tanks can make a contribution by generating the data that researchers and policymakers so desperately need.
A former US Senator's investment in a new think tank shows that philanthropy is a common activity in rich nations - not so in developing countries. Domestic philanthropy must be promoted, and local donors must be persuaded to invest in local think tanks.
This article on how Western think-tanks got it wrong on the Arab Spring got me thinking about recent discussions about think tanks’ impact. A great deal of emphasis is placed on whether think tanks should measure their influence -and even on the individual tools that think tanks sometimes use to communicate their work. In the last few weeks I have been asked to review a couple of papers on monitoring and evaluating think tanks policy influence and a couple more M&E framework proposals. This focus on policy influence often:
- Forgets about all the other positive (and, at least, neutral) contributions think tanks can make to society (educate, provide oversight, improve political debate, break the consensus, strengthen parties, help fund research, etc.);
- Overestimates the influence think tanks have; and
- Tends to assume that think tanks are always right about what they say.
The fact is that think tanks play very small roles even in the most think tank savvy societies and quite often they do not know what they are talking about. This is a quote referring to Anthony Seldon that Emma Broadbent wrote for a study on think tanks in the UK:
Rohrer (2008) quotes Prof Anthony Seldon, editor of Ideas and Think Tanks in Contemporary Britain and biographer of Tony Blair, who believes their influence is overstated. Of the three major prime ministerial periods of post-war Britain, the Attlee, Thatcher and Blair eras, he believes only Atlee was significantly influenced by think tanks. For Blair, he says, “What is striking, as Blair’s biographer, is how little impact they [think tanks] made. You see hardly any influence on policy at all. It is very hard to see how ideas get into the system.” Seldon argues that “As the numbers of think tanks have accelerated their influence has declined. Influence comes from people who break off them and come into government.”
Last year, Prospect Magazine’s Annual Think Tank Awards had no real winner for the foreign policy category. According to the judges the winner would have had to predict the European financial crisis and the Arab Spring. None did. So not only are think tanks not as influential as sometimes we’d like to think they are, but they can also get it wrong; even where the resources and opportunities are as readily accessible as they are in the UK.
This is important for two reasons:
- According to the Prospect judges and to The National’s article think tanks play an important role not only in influencing policy directly (by telling governments what to do) but also by informing decision makers of things they may not be aware of. Think tanks, according to both political publications, fulfil a key function often overlooked by those too focused on tangible indicators of impact: enlightenment, information, inspiration… When attempting to assess think tanks contributions therefore we must pay attention to this more indirect yet crucial aspect of their work.
- Often, even the best think tanks, with all their resources and top academics -even with local offices and programmes, get it wrong or miss key processes and developments entirely. This means that we should not simply assume that everything a think tank says should influence policy. This would be quite dangerous. What we should be looking for is evidence that their recommendations have informed the public debate and the decisions made by those with the legitimate power to make them.
We should genuinely worry when donors put pressure on their grantees/sub-contractors to influence policy (and show them evidence of their influence). What they should be looking for is more informed policymaking and not just cases of policy influence.
[Editor's note: This is the first post by Hans Gutbrod, Director of the Think Tank Initiative. I'd like to welcome him to onthinktanks.org and look forward to his ideas and reflection on think tanks. Over the next few days and weeks we'll also be sharing some of the videos from the sessions organised at the TTI's exchange mentioned in this blog post.]
Bringing together more than 100 think tank executive and research directors from more than 25 countries, the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) Exchange in Cape Town, in June 2012 probably was one of the largest gatherings of think tanks from the global South held to date. Some of the substance of the event has already been covered, in various ways, by lively Twitter commentary. Short videos from the sessions, highlighting particular topics, will be made available in the coming days and weeks.
So what continues to stand out from this event in hindsight? Here are some personal reflections, not intended as a conclusive summary, but as points of discussion.
For think tanks to make a difference, they have to attract exceptional staff. Thomas Carothers, from the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has made this point. It is obvious, but not trivial: think tank research needs to be both substantive and hedged, smart and safe, and, on some occasions, cautious and bold. As think tanks trade on their authority, they are particularly vulnerable when making claims. Raymond Struyk highlights this risk in the first page of his classic book on managing think tanks, describing this unsettling scenario:
A report on a high-visibility and urgent problem is sent to the Ministry of Finance with significant flaws in the statistical analysis. These flaws are discovered by an analyst from another organization after the report has been widely distributed. The think tank loses significant credibility with the government and other clients.
Not many people are good at responding thoughtfully and quickly, while getting everything right. Peer review processes can prevent errors, but given the pressure, any first draft has to be solid, and review steps need to be executed with great care.
That means not only do think tank leaders need to be remarkable (and there were a lot of exceptional people at the TTI Exchange), but they also need a remarkable team behind them. The success of a think tank depends on building a deeper team, on recruiting exceptional staff, and getting exceptional people to work together. Core funding is thus critical, as it allows think tanks to attract and retain exceptional staff. Some innovative funding arrangements notwithstanding, core funding remains a key feature for the type of local research that can improve lives, because it makes high-performing think tank teams possible.
Connecting to Conversations
Even with great teams, unnoticed loneliness at the top can be a severe challenge: since the leaders of think tanks rarely engage peer-to-peer on management questions, their loneliness is often profound. With a few exceptions, leaders mostly figure things out by themselves, maybe with a board or their personal circle. This loneliness sets them apart from people in other professions such as doctors, accountants, lawyers, or even managers in the private or public sector, who regularly discuss and enhance professional practice.
Yet the loneliness can go unnoticed, since the leader of any think tank will engage extensively with fellow researchers and policymakers, clients, maybe diplomats, scholars from abroad, journalists, interns and students. After six years at CRRC, my email address book had accumulated more than 4400 contacts. Yet except for two extended conversations that Goran Buldioski from the Think Tank Fund made possible, I not once – not a single time – in those six years, sat down with someone else who was running a research organization to exchange experiences on how we do things. And to me, the remarkable thing was that I didn’t even realize, until the TTI Exchange, that I had not discussed how to run a research organization with anyone other than my colleagues. Bringing think tank leaders together helps to overcome this loneliness, and gives them an opportunity to begin conversations and connect.
Communities of Practice
Following from this, I think it’s fair to say that there is no fully established community of practice – defined by Wenger as a “group of people who share a concern, a set of problems, or a passion about a topic, and who deepen their knowledge and expertise in this area by interacting on an ongoing basis” – for running think tanks, especially not in the South. There are some personal links, and there are well-established practices of research in relevant academic disciplines, but these are different from the practices of generating policy research with the aim of improving people’s lives – perhaps as different as physics is from engineering.
If policy research in the South is seeking to have a greater impact, it’s probably worth cultivating habits of sharing more, deepening knowledge and expertise, and interacting on an ongoing basis. These are the kind of habits that are well established in other professions. Patent lawyers, insurance actuaries, heart surgeons and project managers alike – they all set up a trade publication, ways of exchanging information, and they get together regularly, to discuss how to do things. The formalization is not all happy: there is tomfoolery in most jamborees, but if you only pick up a handful of better practices, tell a few peers what has worked for you, and identify the colleagues you will call for advice when things get sticky in the office, you serve yourself and the profession, as well as the people your profession serves.
In the case of successful policy research in the South, strengthening a nascent community of practice could probably go a long way toward making better policies stick. On our end, at TTI, we are certainly thinking about how to cultivate such a community of practice. We have quite a few ideas on how to do this, but welcome ideas and input from others.
This is also why I’m contributing these reflections here in this blog. Onthinktanks.org serves as an excellent aggregator for many of the issues that are worth debating in the community. To broaden the debate, we will be making videos from the TTI exchange available in the coming weeks, and hope they find a good audience. Check our website or follow us on Twitter.
In addition to what has already been published on this blog, do you have any other thoughts on what we can do to cultivate a community of practice for policy research and think tank management?
Allen McDuffee of the Washington Post´s blog Think Tanked has recently written a piece on how the presidents of several large American think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation and the Rand Corp. are stepping down, some after a considerable amount of years in the position. This renewal of leadership, however, is taking place in the face of several new challenges that the new generation will have to deal with.
A new, often more diverse leadership is arriving in a rapidly changing think-tank environment. The policy field is more crowded, the flow of information is faster and the fundraising is tougher.
Arthur Brooks, president of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) believes that communications will be the biggest challenge for newcomers, due to “too much noise in public policy today”. This will require new presidents to become more creative about reaching out to their audiences. Brooks became AEI´s president in 2009, after Christopher Demuth stepped down after 20 years. He characterises these challenges as exhilarating and fun. However, James McGann, director of the Think Tanks and Civil Societies Program at the University of Pennsylvania, thinks that this approach, combined with less financial resources and more competition due to the appearance of more organisations in the think tank field, is contributing to the large amount of retirements.
McGann also is of the opinion that these think tanks have political considerations in mind when choosing their new leaders. Some have decided to maintain the status quo by choosing new presidents from among their own ranks, as was the case with Rand Corp. and the Peterson Institute of International Economics. Others have behaved differently, like the Centre for American Progress who chose Neera Tanden as its new director, signalling a change by forming part of the new wave of women leaders in positions traditionally filled by men.
In any case, these new leaders have their work cut out for them. Increased competition, donor expectations, the 24 – hour news cycle and the expectation to respond to politics will put a strain on think tanks, particularly when new directors do not have the same relationship with donors as their predecessors did. This means that they will not have the leverage to resist donor requests, and so research will come in danger of being dictated by politics. All of these issues will certainly keep new think tank directors up at night.
Here is an idea for think tank funders: do not fund them.
I’ve been thinking of this for some time. As more and more funds are being channeled to think tanks in developing (and many least developed) countries this might come as a surprise; but I think that more funds for think tanks (and I stress: in some cases) may not be the best way forward.
What I propose is that before funding think tanks in any given country donors ask a few important questions and consider alternatives.
Think tanks are important institutions -I would not be publishing a blog on think tanks if I did not think so. They are, in some cases, indispensable. However, think tanks cannot exist in a vacuum. Think tanks, as Tom Medvetz would have argued, are boundary organisations that define themselves by their differences and similarities with others. They need a strong academia from which to draw skilled researchers and ideas; they need a strong media with which to reach the general public; they need a strong political system and policymaking institutions to act as intelligent consumers and often competitors in the market of ideas; a healthy private sector that both helps to bring about change and provides the surplus wealth that may fund think tanks’ work; etc.
And of course, just as they need them, think tanks can support them, too.
In some cases, when all these other institutions are absent or are simply not strong enough, funding think tanks alone could be, in my view, a waste of valuable resources and have negative consequences on the think tanks themselves. And I think of it a bit as running before learning to walk.
For applied research funders (research focused on policy and intended to have an impact on policymaking), options can be rather limited. They are not in the business of strengthening the media, the public sector or the private sector. Although bilateral and multilateral agencies that do have the capacity to do so should consider how their research funding programmes or initiatives link up with initiatives focused on these other institutions. And this should be done at the country level, at least.
Applied research funders however do have an alternative to funding think tanks or other research-based policy influencing organisations or initiatives: funding academia.
If someone in the corporate sector was charged by their employer to expand operations in another country they would certainly start by assessing both the demand for your products and services as well the availability of inputs that they would need to carry out their business. If they worked for a bank, they would not plan to set up a 50 person office unless they knew they could find and hire sufficient bankers (economists, managers, financial experts, etc.). They would not want to find themselves unable to fill vacancies or having to offer salaries that were simply unsustainable in the long term. They would also no plan for a large scale operation if they knew that their market was limited. Savings and loans targets would have to be based on a detailed assessment of the market. Maybe, they would start small, slowly building up their market (informing potential clients about the products they offer, trying new services, slowly scaling-up operations) and possibly building their own workforce by employing promising young staff and training them on the job or offering to pay for their MBAs or MiFs.
At some point of course this is not something that can be solved by a company alone and governments will have to be made aware of the damage that under-investing in human capital can have in relation to their own efforts to attract foreign direct investment.
When it comes to funding research, and particularly research that is expected to influence policy, it appears as if some funders pay no or little attention to the market in which they plan to intervene and hence are investing (or in these cases, spending) much more than can be absorbed. Success then is almost just a matter of chance: where these other institutions exist or are being supported think tanks will succeed; but where they are not, think tanks may not fulfil their potential.
The problem of funding think tanks under these circumstances is that it can lead to overwhelming weak organisations, unsustainably high salaries (which cannot guarantee (high) quality research) or to poaching researchers (communicators and managers) from the private and public sectors, and from academia.
I would argue, therefore, that before funding think tanks in a particular country, donors should ask at least one question: who will work there? They could (and should) also ask questions about the rest of the research policy system like AusAid has done for Indonesia, but let’s start with this.
In other worlds, if more funds were made available to think tanks (or for setting up new think tanks), would it be possible for them to easily find highly qualified staff (researchers, managers, communicators, etc.) for them? Would their salaries be appropriate for the sector and country? For instance, would they be similar, in purchase power parity terms, to those paid in think tanks in the developed world, where the market of experts is more competitive? I think that a good proxy is to determine if salaries (or the cost of research in general) in nominal terms is at least equal (or more) to that paid in developed countries. (I should say that I am not suggesting that researchers, communicators and managers should not be paid good salaries. I’ve always said that although I worked for a charity I was not one. If we want quality we need to pay for it. But when salaries become so high that they are simply unsustainable for think tanks and distort the market of experts then we should be aware that this cannot be good for their purposes.)
If they are, then this is an indication that the most important input for a think tank, its researchers, is a scarce resource. High prices denote an excess in demand.
In these cases, the way to improve the role of research in policymaking may not necessarily be to fund think tanks directly (or to fund research, in general). Rather, it may be more appropriate to fund the formation of researchers.
What to do, then?
One thing that funders could consider is to allocate part or all of their budget to support the development of a strong tertiary education system. This will, of course, demand donor coordination (small amounts of money will only pay for a few workshops and this is definitely not what I am advocating for). Even if only a few young men and women get through the system at first, over time, the supply of competent professionals will continue to increase and think tanks (existing and new) will see themselves strengthened. Some graduates will probably join the public and private sectors (many will go back to teach and nurture the next generations that will have to make it through the system) -but increasingly, as more graduate, more will seek employment in think tanks.
In some cases I am talking about a Marshall Plan for tertiary education. If this is not possible for every country then maybe donors could pick a few universities to support and facilitate access to those from other countries in the region. They should not be afraid of working with private universities as well as public ones. The Chilean experience speaks for its self about the importance of a strong academia to produce the researchers that will then staff think tanks.
I must clarify that I think this funding should go to developing strong teaching and research departments on economic, management and business, sociology, law, engineering, architecture, journalism, design, ICT, medicine, agriculture, veterinary, biology, physics, chemistry, political science, philosophy, mathematics, etc. Professions, in other words. I do not think it should go towards ‘development studies’ courses or the sort.
This also means that donors need to develop a sense of perspective and accept that change (policy and otherwise) takes time. Outcomes and outputs will need to be reviewed to reflect this. Patience is the key word.
Another option is for funders to demand (or expect) think tanks to hire staff from a larger market -a global market of researchers, communicators and managers. When corporations hire staff they cast their net as wide as they possibly can. This helps them to find the very best candidates out there but also ensures that the salaries they offer are not necessarily limited to their own local markets. Many think tanks do the same. It would not surprise anyone to find researchers from all over the world at ODI or CGD. Even U.S. and British based and focused think tanks employ foreigners. The director of the Centro de Investigacion de la Universidad del Pacifico (CIUP), Cynthia Sanborn, is from the U.S. but that has not stopped her from becoming a respected intellectual and now the director of a think tank in Peru. Although this is not the case for Peru, where sufficient competent researchers, communicators and managers are not available in a given country, funders should support their grantees by helping them to reach other markets -regional or global- where they might find the right candidates.
Here I must emphasise that this does not mean paying expat salaries (with housing and transport allowances) as is often assumed. There are many young and experienced think tankers who want the opportunity to work in other countries and who would be able to carry out the work and also share their skills (and most importantly their think tank experience) with their peers. They will be happy with decent salaries. So if think tanks cannot find the right staff in their own countries they should look for them in the region, or even other regions of the world. Some skills (economic or policy analysis, management, communications) are easily transferable across contexts.
In other contexts, where the market of experts is more developed and where more funds for think tanks can be easily transformed into more and better research and policy advice with little other support then, by all means, donors should go ahead and fund them. (Although,they should also keep an eye on the academic sector and certainly make sure to do all they can to support universities and ensure that they continue to produce competent researchers.)
In any case, though, research funders must pay more attention to mobilising domestic public and private funds for research (I’ll write more about this soon -but if anyone has ideas about how to do this please let me know).
In summary then: If there are not enough researchers, wait; invest in human capital first.
George Monbiot has published a rather interesting commentary on Comment is Free about the damage that secretive think tanks can make on democratic institutions.
I have talked about this before, arguing that direct impact, without public debate, can be damaging to the development of necessary democratic institutions such as political parties (I dedicated a whole book to this), the media, parliaments, etc.
Monbiot here focuses on how ‘secret’ interests are funding public policy influence and the effect that this has on how we conduct politics:
When she attempted to restrict abortion counselling, Nadine Dorries MP was supported by a group called Right to Know. When other MPs asked her who funds it, she claimed she didn’t know. Lord Lawson is chairman of the Global Warming Policy Foundation, which casts doubt on climate science. It demands “openness and transparency” from scientists. Yet he refuses to say who pays, on the grounds that the donors “do not wish to be publicly engaged in controversy”. Michael Gove was chairman ofPolicy Exchange, an influential conservative thinktank. When I asked who funded Policy Exchange when he ran it, his office told me “he doesn’t have that information and he won’t be able to help you”.
In other words, if think tanks demand better policy making then they must be ready to achieve this by the right means: they must be ‘better’ themselves. In this blog, Goran Buldioski has argued that think tanks can gain independence if they strive to be transparent. George Monbiot takes it to another level saying that if they do not then their action can in fact be damaging.
I would like to encourage other journalists and researchers to follow on his footsteps and call your local think tanks enquiring about the source of their funding. Paraphrasing Monbiot (I’ve replaced the words in italics):
I charge that the groups which call themselves independent think tanks are nothing of the kind. They are public relations agencies, secretly lobbying for the donors and NGOs who finance them. If they wish to refute this claim, they should disclose their funding. Until then, whenever you hear the term independent thinktank, think of a tank, crushing democracy, driven by the big Aid industry.
Interestingly, though, these efforts are likely to find that it is not unusual for think tanks in developing countries to openly name most of their funders. Many funders in fact demand that they give them preferential space on their websites and corporate communication materials. So is it then that, unlike their British counterparts, they are not undermining democracy?
No. I think that the issue of whether funding sources are disclosed or not is important but not crucial. If all funding was disclosed and all parties were open about the source of their funding -and ideas- then the public policy debate would be richer as a consequence and democracy would be strengthened. We, as citizens, would be better informed (even by ‘paid for by’ evidence that may hold some truth) and capable of make our own assessments and choices. The same applied to newspapers and the media in general. I think it is clear to anyone what to expect from The Guardian or The Times and so would not take what they write about at face value. By reading both papers however, one may be able to get a more balanced view on issues of public interest.
The worrying situation in some developing countries is that the funders of research and influence are foreign. Ideas and influencing efforts then are driven by objectives and targets that have been externally set and not by local interest groups, that exist in any democracy and are eventually accountable to local rules. We should remember too that local interest groups include unions, consumer associations, and civil society coalitions -it is not just large corporations.
A policy maker in Zambia told me earlier this year that he preferred to read the advice from business associations because he knew what they were interested in and could therefore make up his own mind about the reliability of the evidence that was presented to him. With NGOs, he said, you cannot know if it is what they really think or if they are saying whatever their funders want them to say.
Besides funding, then, what I’d really like to know then is how is it that the think tanks in my country developed their research and influencing agendas. Again, it is the question of autonomy that concerns me most.