This strategy statement provides a brief outline of the On Think Tanks strategy for 2017-2018 and beyond. It has been updated twice: first, in early 2017 after a January 2017 version which was shared with the team and advisory board members with inputs from the 1st On Think Tanks Conference in London where individual plans were discussed; second, in February 2018 on the basis of a review of progress in 2017.
The strategy is a guiding document. We expect it to change: new projects to be added and some my merge with others. It will be updated as we adapt.
Who are we?
On Think Tanks is a global collaboration of policy entrepreneurs driven by the conviction that better informed societies have a better chance of delivering progress for their most vulnerable. The members of the On Think Tanks team and its partners consider that policy research institutes, or think tanks, can play many important roles in supporting better informed societies.
In practice, On Think Tanks is a digital platform that provides think tanks, their staff and supporters with knowledge, ideas, advice and key services.
We are sometimes referred to as a think tank for think tanks.
The On Think Tanks team is spread-out across the world offering a range of views and experiences to address the many different contexts and challenges that think tanks, in all shapes and form, face.
On Think Tanks is the only initiative of its kind: it hosts the On Think Tanks School, which is dedicated to developing the competencies and skills that old and new policy research centres require; explores the challenges that think tank leaders, their staff and supporters face; seeks solutions for these often encouraging opportunities for peer-to-peer learning; it hosts innovative initiatives such as Transparify and promotes broader efforts to encourage evidence informed policy such as the Latin American Evidence Week; and proactively aims to influence think tanks’ and funders’ own policies and practice.
I don’t see anywhere else other than On Think Tanks where you have this collective of people who are so dedicated to trying to add value.
Peter da Costa, Technical Adviser, Hewlett Foundation
We spend a lot of time thinking about the label: think tank. We recognise that the boundaries of the definition are porous and dynamic. It allows exceptions to the rule in every society and the definition changes with time. To read more about this going discussion please read our series on the definition of think tanks.
What are the main problems we want to address?
Think tanks are relatively small actors in the policy research ecosystem (and even smaller in the greater political space) but they can still play an influential role in promoting evidence informed policy. This, policymaking that is better informed, is our ultimate concern.
However, across the developing world, think tanks remain broadly underdeveloped and rarely fulfilling their potential. Poor donor funding practices (often rather than lack of funding), weak governance and management, limited fundraising capacity, weak research competencies and skills, passive communication practices, and a poor understanding of how to monitor and assess their influence often hold them back.
Furthermore, except for a few large think tank communities in the US, the UK, Germany, Chile and China, most think tanks do not enjoy a vibrant peer network from which to draw inspiration, advice and support. And in many more mature think tank communities new challenges to their independence and sustainability are just around the corner.
All of this contributes to societies that are poorly informed, policymaking processes that rely on the views of few influential individuals or vested interests, and, inevitably, por policymaking and policy outcomes.
With the right competencies, skills and support networks, think tanks can be great forces for good. There are, however, few sources of services, knowledge, competencies and advice that they can count on.
What do we want to achieve?
We would love to see the development of reliable, sustainable and valuable policy research communities across the world. To contribute to this:
- We want to offer thinktankers, think tank leaders and supporters, and think tank scholars, access to independent knowledge and advice, the skills, resources and the tools they need to deliver their missions;
- We also want to support the development of sustainable national and transnational think tank communities to encourage and steer their members to achieve their goal; and
- In the process, we want On Think Tanks to be the go-to platform to learn about policy research centres, advertise and find jobs in think tanks, access resources, and develop new skills and competencies. To deliver this, all On Think Tanks team members and collaborators must feel empowered to and actively contribute to the development of the initiative.
How will we contribute towards all this?
To pursue these objectives On Think Tanks will deliver services, knowledge, skills and advice along the following lines of work:
Services for think tanks, thinktankers and their supporters
- Jobsboard: OTT offers a jobsboard for think tanks to advertise jobs and internships. From 2017 onwards this will include advice on how to develop effective job descriptions and advertise.
- Events calendar: The OTT events calendar offers think tanks, supporters, and think tank scholars an opportunity to advertise their own events. It is also the main way to feature the On Think Tanks School offer.
- Newsletter: With a minimum of twice-monthly frequency the Newsletter will provide information about On Think Tanks’ services, new knowledge, capacity development opportunities, jobs, initiatives and funding for think tanks.
Information and knowledge
- New knowledge generation, guided by a research agenda, through:
- New (and old) interviews, articles, resources, and series on key topics and regions including: Domestic funding, Staffing and human resource management; Setting up new think tanks; Internationalisation; New communication approaches for think tanks; and Leadership. We will also attempt to connect our work on think tanks with specific policy sectors (e.g. education, health, etc.) where they can make a difference.
- On Think Tanks Working Paper Series: On Think Tanks, Universidad del Pacífico and University of Bath have launched a Working Paper Series dedicated to promoting new researchers and research on think tanks. Also studies, reports and manuals including an annual report that brings together ideas and work from across the industry.
- On Think Tanks TV will continue to produce and publish videos on think tanks’ work and approaches to help inform think tanks and the wider public of the work they do.
- Data on think tanks through the Open Think Tanks Directory: On Think Tanks will promote an Open Think Tanks Directory (already with over 2,000 think tanks) to support the emergence of new partnerships and new research on think tanks.
Capacity development: The On Think Tanks School
- Free webinars by leading figures and thinktankers.
- Short courses focusing on the various issues of interest to On Think Tanks, including governance, funding models, research, communications and M&E.
- Long courses including the Cutting-Edge Communications for Research and Policy long course an face to face workshops, trainings and mentorship such as the School for Thinktankers in which future think tank leaders learn from current practitioners in the world of think tanks. The “Winterschool for Thinktankers – Geneva” is the first effort.
- On going support to a selected group of graduates from the courses and the Winterschool with be provided as a way of promoting an On Think Tanks Fellowship+
- Bespoke courses for think tanks, networks and funders.
- Promote and participate in national, regional and inter-regional think tank initiatives: OTT Team will continue to join, support and report on think tank events and meetings, including academic conferences where new research will be presented, as well as join initiatives that seek to support think tanks and their context, such as Transparify and the Evidence Week in Latin America.
- On Think Tanks will nurture existing and develop new partnerships such as with the University of Bath and Universidad del Pacífico for the Working Paper Series, with foraus on the Winterschool, Southern Voice, ACBF and others.
- The On Think Tanks Conference: Every year the OTT Team will host 3-4 days of lessons learning and planning open to OTT’s close collaborators, funders and peers. OTT will seek new partnerships to organise these conferences.
Initiatives and special projects
To deliver all of this, On Think Tanks develops and supports new initiatives and projects, such as:
- The On Think Tanks School
- The Open Think Tanks Directory
- The On Think Tanks Working Paper Series
- The On Think Tanks TV
- The Premio PODER to the best think tanks in Peru (independent but promoted by OTT – OTT will seek to promote setting up similar awards in other countries)
- An Evidence Week in Latin America (independent but founded and promoted by OTT in partnership with think tanks, funders, universities, public bodies, etc.)
- Politics & Ideas (independent but founded by OTT)
- Transparify (independent but supported and promoted by OTT)
OTT Consulting provides a vehicle to support individuals and organisations (for instance, supporting the set-up new think tanks in Tunisia and Timor Leste, evaluating think tanks, delivering training services for think tanks in Latin America and South Asia, etc.) as well as supporting the members of the On Think Tanks team who are not fully employed by us. OTT Consulting will follow the same principles as OTT and share all lessons learned from its work via On Think Tanks.
Who do we work with?
Although think tanks are clearly our main audience, we know that the most successful policy research communities need an entire ecosystem to thrive. Therefore, at On Think Tanks we work with a range of people and organisations. These include:
- Think tank leaders in developing and developed countries;
- Thinktankers, particularly, young and up-and-coming;
- Think tank funders, particularly those working to mobilise new funders in developing countries and those potential funders themselves;
- On Think Tanks alumni (those who have taken our courses in the past) and On Think Tanks Fellows;
- On Think Tanks partners and collaborators such as Transparify, Politics & Ideas, Think Tank Review, Hewlett Foundation, etc.;
- Potential funders for On Think Tanks;
- Think tank audiences including policymakers, civil society, the private sector and the media.
How will we know we are on track?
OTT will measure and assess its impact across all lines of activity considering the following criteria:
- Quality of the output or service: We will carry-out bi-annual surveys with our key audiences. The OTT School and OTT Consulting will also carryout immediate after-action reviews. The OTT School conducts immediate surveys after each course.
- Relevance to its primary audience: We will carry-out bi-annual surveys and annual in-depth interviews with our key audiences.
- Uptake of the information, knowledge, skills and competencies: We will also collect stories of change on key issues of interest to OTT. These will be included in the annual reports.
- Sustainability of the service or business model of the initiative: We will aim to secure minimum of two-year funding for core OTT functions –Services, the OTT School and various communications activities.
These will provide a framework for reporting on a 6-monthly basis, including the annual report.
What resources do we need to deliver this?
To deliver this strategy we will continually seek to strengthen the organisation. This involves:
- A strong team: OTT has established and will continue to strengthen its team including long term collaborators and trainers as well as regional editors, and research, communications and capacity development leaders. OTT will prioritise fundraising for the following roles:
- Director of communications
- Research officer
- Programme manager also in charge of the OTT School
- A global advisory board: OTT has established an advisory board to offer long term support to On Think Tanks leadership. Its members will provide long term strategic support and oversight.
- Sound governance and management: We must strengthen our overall governance and management. The allocation of team roles and the inclusion of a board are a first step. We must now establish better internal communication and project management practices.
- Secure location(s): OTT has to balance the flexibility that multiple locations offer with the simplicity that a single location promises. OTT has the support of the Universidad del Pacífico which, as its host, provides opportunities for collaborative research and capacity development in the long term. However, some activities, such as the OTT School and the Open Think Tanks Directory, will be managed by OTT Consulting Ltd in London. We will explore setting up a not-for-profit organisation to take on these roles.
- A global community and partners: OTT will develop its various communities (for instance, Collaborators, Fellows, Alumni, Funders) through bespoke communications and services. Where possible, OTT will seek to work in partnership.
- Appropriate funding: We will seek funding for OTT and its initiatives, including individual donations and contributions, a “pay-wall”, services, OTT Consulting, institutional donations, sponsoring, etc. A priority will be given to support this strategy and to deliver it at the regional level. Current funding streams for OTT include:
- Core funding: OTT has secured funding from the Hewlett Foundation for 2017-2018. These funds are managed by Universidad del Pacífico in Peru. They cover most of the activities planned for the period and includes an overhead for the University. OTT will seek further core support from other, similar, funders. This may include tweaking our work to respond to funders regional and thematic interests.
- Sponsorship: OTT will explore collaborations with providers of useful tools for think tanks (for instance, for data visualisation, team communications, project management, etc.) which may support OTT while providing its followers with possible discounts and additional benefits.
- Voluntary contributions: OTT seeks contributions from individuals through PayPal by encouraging voluntary donations and subscriptions.
- OTT School Fees: These fees (approximately GBP150 and GBP500 for short and long courses, respectively) will be shared between the trainers and OTTS on a basis of 70% to 30%, respectively. These fees are managed by OTT Consulting Ltd. All profit is earmarked for the OTTS.
- Project funding: This includes, for instance:
- The Think Tank Fund supports the first part of the Open Think Tank Directory.
- Other activities (such as a course on funding models and ongoing support to think tanks in Latin America funded by the Think Tank Initiative and the School of Thinktankers in Geneva funded by participants and the Swiss Government) are funded by specific projects and partnerships. These funds are not managed by OTT directly but support its mission.
- OTT Consulting Ltd: Based in London, it funds various activities (such as On Think Tanks TV, the role of the OTTS Coordinator and the Programme Manager) through overhead from projects and consultancies. In the future, it may be supported or replaced by a not-for-profit vehicle. As OTT Consulting becomes profitable, we will seek to establish clear guidelines to support OTT.
- Team: In addition, members of the team contribute, in different ways, with their own time in support of the mission.
How to get involved?
We are always looking for contributors, collaborators and supporters. If you would like to find out how to support On Think Tanks or individual initiatives please get in touch.
And why not support us? OTT is free to use but it is not free to develop.