Join our network:
Support us

On Think Tanks was founded in mid 2010. It has evolved from a blog into a global platform dedicated to study and support policy research and policy research centres, or think tanks. The members of the On Think Tanks Team and its Advisory Board are spread out across 6 continents!


Please subscribe to On Think Tanks. The suggested contribution is GBP5.00 per month and you can unsubscribe at any time.

Contribute Monthly


Alternatively, please send us a donation of any amount you think is appropriate

Donate


For alternative ways to support us, or if you would like to read about our strategy and find out more about On Think Tanks, please visit the support section of the website.

Our strategy 2019-2021+

This strategy statement provides a brief outline of the On Think Tanks strategy for 2019-2020 and beyond. It has been updated three times in the past 2 years: 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; and third, in September 2018, in preparation for a new 3-year grant from our main funders, the Hewlett Foundation.

The strategy is a guiding document. We expect it to adapt to the changing context and so new projects will be added and some may merge with others. It will be updated as we go.

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. To us, think tanks are the way into the broader challenges that pose macro level and international political knowledge regimes.

In practice, On Think Tanks two initiatives: a not-for-profit think tank of sorts that provides think tanks, their staff and supporters with knowledge, ideas, advice and key services; and a consultancy (OTT Consulting) which offers tailored solutions to think tanks, policymakers, funders, and more.

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.

Find our more about On Think Tanks: The 2017 Annual Review

On Think Tanks is the only initiative of its kind: it provides practical services for think tanks such as a jobsboard, 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 through ongoing research and analysis; it maintains a repository of knowledge from and about think tanks in an open think tank directory; 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.

But precisely because of this fluid quality, we think that think tanks are a particularly effective vehicle to strengthen local and global political knowledge regimes – which affect how knowledge is generated, communicated and used.

What do we want to achieve?

Our goal is policymaking that is, always, better informed. To achieve this, we believe that we need credible, sustainable, connected and ethical policy research communities across the world. Their characteristics will depend on the nature of national and regional political knowledge regimes.

In the process, we want On Think Tanks to be the go-to place to learn about policy research centres, advertise and find jobs in think tanks, access resources, and develop new skills and competencies.

What are we up against?

Think tanks are relatively small actors. We know that think tanks cannot exist as islands of excellence. Without strong, well-resourced and well- run political parties, a professional state, universities capable of undertaking research and training future generations of researchers, civil society capable of public contestation, or supporting corporations and the media, think tanks would struggle to deliver high quality work in the long run.

Notwithstanding these challenges, they can still play an influential role in promoting evidence informed policy and developing the necessary capacities and, even, those other institutions required for a sustainable use of evidence to inform policy.

We do not advocate for policymakers to copy-paste policy recommendations put forward by an expert -no matter how brilliant the expert may be- or to scale-up all successful interventions –no matter how convincing is the RCT which evaluated it. Informed policies are not the same as policies influenced by research. We believe that the decisions made by policymakers must be informed by evidence (which may or may not be contested -but should be debated) but that, ultimately, the choices they make are a matter of values (which should be publicly held). Evidence can only tell us what is (or what was) but not what to do.

Think tanks are particularly well suited to put forward policy arguments that combine evidence and values -hence their potential to inform public debates.

However, across most of the developing world, think tanks remain broadly underdeveloped and rarely fulfilling their potential. Weak think tank governance and management, limited fundraising capacity, poor donor funding practices (more so than lack of funding), weak research competencies and skills, passive and old-school communication practices, and a poor understanding of how to monitor and assess their influence (and many other factors) hold them back.

Even in many more mature think tank communities, new challenges to their independence and sustainability are just around the corner. See, for instance, the threat of hacking to D.C. think tanks or calls for lobby rules to apply to them and attacks on experts in the UK or the US.

Furthermore, except for a few large think tank communities in the US, the UK, Germany, Chile, India and China, most think tanks do not enjoy a vibrant peer network from which to draw inspiration, advice and support.

This limits their capacity to reflect about their own work and the roles they fulfil in their societies; which in turn limits their capacity to respond to an increasingly complex world -with unprecedented and unexpected challenges.

All of this contributes to policy communities and broader societies that are poorly informed and unable to engage meaningfully, policymaking processes that rely on the views of few influential individuals and vested interests or respond to urgency, fear and spin, and, inevitably, poor 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.

Who do we work with – and what for?

Although, as our name suggests, think tanks are our main audience, we know that the most successful policy research centres need to be part of a much larger community to thrive: this is what we understand as the political knowledge regimes within which think tanks exist. Therefore, at OTT, we work with a range of people and organisations and on their relationships.

These include:

Who? What for?
Policy entrepreneurs and thinktankers, particularly young and up-and-coming leaders To provide them with the knowledge, skills, opportunities and inspiration they need to develop personally and professionally and to strengthen their organisations’ capacity to inform policy at the local, national and international levels.
Think tank funders and policymakers, particularly those working to strengthen national political knowledge regimes and mobilise new funding in developing countries and those potential funders themselves. To inspire and inform their approach to supporting the generation, communication and use of policy research. Particularly, we want them to look beyond islands of excellence and short term policy impact and focus instead on supporting sustainable political knowledge regimes.

We are also very interested in encouraging new funders (public and private), at the local level, to support policy research.

Think tanks’ audiences including policymakers, political parties, civil society, the private sector and the media. To inform and improve their relationship with think tanks and other policy research institutes.  In particular, we want them to use their research more systematically and, in doing so, support think tanks’ long term capacity.
Scholars focused on the study of think tanks and the broader political knowledge regimes. To provide them with the necessary information and spaces to undertake new research and strengthen the field.
Potential funders for On Think Tanks. To develop new partnerships and mobilise resources for OTT.
On Think Tanks’ alumni (those who have taken our courses in the past) and On Think Tanks Fellows. To strengthen the OTT network of partners and collaborators, to amplify their work and expertise through OTT, and to provide them with the knowledge, skills and opportunities to develop personally and to strengthen their organisations’ capacity to inform policy at the local, national and international levels.
On Think Tanks’ partners and collaborators such as Transparify, Politics & Ideas, Hewlett Foundation, Soapbox, MediaTank, Socio Público, Southern Hemisphere, Southern Voice, etc. To join forces in delivering our own missions and maximise our common impact.

To strengthen the OTT network of partners and collaborators and deliver better services to other OTT’s audiences.

OTT team and advisory board To strengthen their own skills, improve collaboration, contribute to the delivery of the OTT strategy and work together to deliver OTT’s outcomes.

How will we contribute towards all this?

On Think Tanks wants to contribute to the development of sustainable policy research communities offering a range of services and initiatives to think tanks and various other policy actors:

A. Services for think tanks, thinktankers and their supporters

Expected outcomes:

  • Thinktankers, policy entrepreneurs, scholars and funders have access to services and information that support their missions.
  • (Internal) The OTT audience expands to new thinktankers, policy entrepreneurs, scholars and funders.

Services:

  1. Jobsboard: OTT offers a jobsboard for think tanks to advertise jobs and internships.
  2. 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.
  3. Newsletter: The Newsletter provides information about On Think Tanks’ services, new knowledge, capacity development opportunities, jobs, initiatives and funding for think tanks. On Think Tanks offers a special newsletter for alumni and fellows -with access to specialised knowledge.
  4. Data – Open Think Tank Directory (OTTD): OTTD offers think tanks and other actors access to information about possible partners and collaborators as well as insights into their own communities. The database can be downloaded to support research on think tanks.
  5. Networking – OTT Conferences: The OTT Conferences offer OTT’s audiences the opportunity to connect with each other and with the work we and others the field are doing. The global OTT Conference takes place in early February in various locations.

In addition, OTT offers bespoke services to think tanks, policymakers and funders through OTT Consulting.

B. Information, evidence and knowledge

Expected outcomes:

  • The research communities focused on the study of think tanks and, more broadly, evidence informed policy are dynamic, sustainable and influential in helping shape national and international political knowledge regimes across the world and how funders support think tanks.
  • Think tanks, funders and policy entrepreneurs make strategic decisions (What to study? How to communicate? What to fund? What business model to pursue?) based on sound research based evidence and advice.
  • The think tank sector is better understood –first by their immediate policy audiences (political leaders, policymakers, philanthropists and business leaders, civil society actors, editors and journalists, etc.) and then by the broader public.
  • (Internal) On Think Tanks is positioned as a credible source of information, evidence and knowledge on think tanks and evidence informed policy.

Activities:

  1. Ongoing analysis and opinion: Interviews, articles, resources, and series on key topics and regions.
  2. Research: On Think Tanks publishes:
    1. The On Think Tanks Working Paper Series,in partnership with Universidad del Pacífico and the University of Bath, to promote new researchers and research on think tanks and evidence informed policy. Some of the papers will be written by OTT team members while most will be written by researchers across the world;
    2. Studies, reports and manuals and the OTT Best Practice series, produced by OTT team members as well as partners and collaborators;
    3. An annual review that brings together ideas and work from across the industry, produced by the OTT and its close partners. The review provides an insight into the think tank sector across the world.
  3. Data – Open Think Tank Directory (OTTD): OTTD offers think tanks and other actors access to information about possible partners and collaborators as well as insights into their own communities. The database can be downloaded to support research on think tanks.
  4. Networking – OTT Conferences: The OTT Conferences offer OTT’s audiences the opportunity to connect with each other and with the work we and others the field are doing. The global OTT Conference takes place in early February in various locations. In 2019, it will take place in Geneva.

C. Capacity development

Expected outcomes:

  • Thinktanks, funders, policymakers and policy entrepreneurs make informed choices to strengthen their sectors and deliver their missions.
  • New think tank leaders and supporters pursue new and creative business models, research agendas and approaches and communications strategies to develop sustainable think tanks and policy research communities.
  • A community of OTT Fellows and alumni actively engages with OTT, shares experiences and collaborate with each other, supports their institutions and policy research communities, and acts as champions of evidence informed policy in their own context.
  • (Internal) OTT’s approach to capacity development is sustainable.
  • (Internal) The OTT School is incorporated into accredited courses delivered by leading universities.

Activities:

  1. Short term: We support thinktankers and other policy actors through the On Think Tanks School:
    1. Free webinars by leading figures and thinktankers.
    2. Short courses focusing on the various issues of interest to On Think Tanks, including governance, funding models, research, communications and M&E.
    3. Long courses including the Cutting-Edge Communications for Research and Policy long course an face to face workshops, trainings and mentorship such as the Winterschool for Thinktankers in Geneva in which future think tank leaders learn from current practitioners in the world of think tanks.
  2. Long term: In addition, we offer longer term support to young thinktankers and future leaders through the:
    1. On Think Tanks Fellowship Programme: The Fellowship is aimed at providing a select group of individuals one to one mentoring as they develop their own thinktanking skills and emerge as leaders.
    2. OTT School library: We offer Fellows and Winterschool alumni access to a library of videos of webinars (both free and paid-for) and background notes as an ongoing service.
  3. Ongoing review of the OTT School model: We continue to review the model for the school to find the most appropriate approach to deliver a sustainable service.

In addition we offer bespoke courses for think tanks, networks and funders through OTT Consulting.

D. Advise

Advice is at the core of our work. As such, the expected outcomes described above are shared by this function.

Activities:

  1. Free advice: We offer advice to anyone who contacts us directly via email or social media. Our approach is to be willing to help people find any public information available, explore their needs together and direct them to best possible advice at hand –whether this is provided by us or by others. In 2019, we will join a new task force to support the University’s ongoing efforts to strengthen the business model of its research function and specifically its policy research and communication capacities.
  2. OTT Consulting provides a vehicle to support individuals and organisations (for instance, supporting the set-up of new think tanks in Tunisia and East Timor, evaluating think tanks, delivering training services for think tanks in Latin America and South Asia, helping to develop a strategy for a ministry in Peru, etc.) who require greater advice. OTT Consulting also runs the OTT School and is a contracting vehicle for large projects and initiatives, such as the Fellowship programme.

OTT Consulting shares all lessons learned from its work via the On Think Tanks website and other communications channels.  You can find more about OTT Consulting and OTT Funding more generally here.

E. Partnerships

For us, partnerships are fundamental in the delivery of our mission. We believe that it is only by working with others that we can make a meaningful contribution to think tanks and their wider environment. As such, the expected outcomes described above are shared by our approach to partnerships. In addition, these activities seek several important outcomes of OTT.

Expected outcomes:

  • Our principal partner, Universidad del Pacífico, benefits from our knowledge, expertise and networks to strengthen its own think tank functions.
  • Think tank networks, policy entrepreneurs, funders and other service providers adopt our good ideas and promote them among their own audiences. By working with us they are better able to deliver their missions.
  • (Internal) We incorporate the good ideas of others into our work.
  • (Internal) OTT and OTT’s work reaches new audiences.
  • (Internal) OTT can mobilise new core and project based funding to support its work.
  • (Internal) OTT’s initiatives are sustainable.

We will work with others to deliver our strategy and contribute to the objectives we have set out to achieve. The kinds of partnerships we pursue include (with current examples):

    1. Participate and promote national, regional and inter-regional initiatives: The OTT Team will join, support and report on think tank events and meetings, including academic conferences where new research will be presented, as well as join or promote initiatives that seek to support think tanks and their context, such as Transparify and the Evidence Week in Latin America.
    2. Nurture existing and develop new collaborations around specific projects such as with the University of Bath and Universidad del Pacífico for the Working Paper Series, with foraus on the Winterschool, Southern Voice on helping to raise the profile of Southern researchers, ACBF on developing the capacity of African think tanks, Revista Poder in Peru for the Premio Poder al think tank del año, MediaTank for the On Think Tanks TV, and others.
    3. Develop and deliver training opportunities through the OTT School in partnership with individuals and institutions.
    4. Organise and host networking opportunities such as the On Think Tanks Conferences:OTT will seek new partnerships to organise these conferences at the global and local level. The OTT Conferences offer OTT’s audiences the chance to connect with each other and with the work we and others in the field are doing. The global OTT Conference takes place in early February in various locations. In 2019, it will take place in Geneva.
    5. Support our host, Universidad del Pacífico: OTT will collaborate with the university in the development and implementation of the research agenda and will join a task force led by the university’s research centre director to strengthen the centre. This may involve drawing skills and advice from out network and associates.
    6. Develop OTT’s own capacities and services: Close collaboration with Soapbox enables OTT to develop and deliver its communications strategy and bespoke products. OTT’s Director of Communications will be hosted at Soapbox at least once a year. A similar collaboration with MediaTank led to the launch of the OTT-TV and will continue to support OTT’s video production in the future.

F. Communications and engagement

Communications, as a crosscutting function, are embedded in all our activities. No project starts without considering our expected audiences and how we may best communicate with them. Our approach to communications is underpinned by a strong brand, co-developed with Soapbox, following the principles that branding must help us:

  • Become the organisations we want to be;
  • Stake out a piece of intellectual territory; and
  • Produce the right kinds of communications for the right audiences.

As such, all the expected outcomes described above are shared by the communications strategy. In addition, our communication activities seek several important results to contribute to OTT’s mission.

The following describe the main communication activities that OTT will pursue over the next period, for each objective.

To reach wider audiences:

  1. Publications plan/s: Starting in 2019, On Think tanks will develop a thematic focus (weekly or monthly), where we produce new content and revitalise old content. This can help to invite new contributors and to respond to current issues or events.
  2. Curated series: Out content spans 8 years and multiple subjects. Therefore, new monthly and re-edits of previous series provide an excellent annotated window into the rich content published by On Think Tanks and its partners.
  3. Targeted email messaging campaigns: Our email subscribers list will be updated and constantly developed to enable direct email blast campaigns.
  4. Content presentation: We will explore and develop new ways of presenting OTT content, which can include video, animations, podcasts, long-form, etc.

To engage more readers (listeners and viewers):

  1. Social media strategy: We will develop a social media strategy to target campaigns to direct readers to specific content on OTT as well as the OTT School and our various initiatives.
  2. Working Paper series promotion: promote the Working Paper series and the Best Practice series on an ongoing basis, particularly the long-form format (Medium)
  3. External platforms: We will proactively place content in external platforms such as the LSE Impact blog or Duncan Green’s FP2P blog to draw attention to the articles and resources published in OTT.
  4. On Think Tanks TV and podcasts. We will continue to produce and publish videos on think tanks’ work and approaches as well as videos of the OTT School to help inform think tanks and the wider public of the work they do. We will explore producing a podcast in 2019.

To attract more contributors:

  1. Analysis of contributor’s profiles: This analysis will inform our engagement with past and future contributors: when and what they published, who contributed more often before and has not in a while, do they follow us on social media?
  2. Updated list of contributors: We will systematically approach past contributors for updated profiles and encourage them to contribute again.
  3. Promote new and old content: Our social media strategy will include the communication of content through our channels with the intention of enticing new contributors to submit content.

To increase engagement with OTT and out work:

  1. OTT Conferences: OTT organises an annual global conference (and where possible local and regional follow-up meetings) which bring together thinktankers, think tank funders, policy entrepreneurs and think tank scholars. The conferences offer an opportunity to nurture a growing think tank community, strengthen partnerships, identify new ideas and inform OTT’s annual plans. The conferences have a key theme which guides some of the sessions; but most is co-developed by the participants themselves.
  2. OTT Annual Review: The OTT annual review is a publication that compiles new and recent work by several leading figures in the field. The articles published focus on the main theme of the OTT Conference. The review offers and insight into the sector.
  3. Ongoing social media presence: Based on the social media strategy, OTT’s social media channels will focus on promoting engagement with its audiences; “comments rather than likes.”

To increase participation in the OTT School:

  1. Sales campaigns: In addition to our communications we will also develop and launch an annual sales campaign.

To increase resource mobilisation:

  1. Communications support to fundraising: The communications supports OTT’s fundraising efforts.
  2. Visibility of OTT Consulting services through OTT’s associates and social media campaigns: Through strategic branding and targeted communication, we will clearly communicate the services that On Think Tanks can offer individual think tanks, funders and others.

How will we know we are on track?

OTT measures and assesses its impact across all lines of activity considering the following criteria:

  • Output: We keep track of the outputs and services produced and delivered. This helps us determine if we are on track in respect to our own targets and avoid “moments of silence.” From 2019, a summary of the data will be published in the Annual Review and this tracking document will be published on the OTT website.
  • Quality of the output or service: To keep track of this we will:
    • Carry out an annual survey with our key audiences and the participants of the OTT Conference.
    • Carry out immediate surveys and after-action reviews for OTT School courses and OTT Consulting.
  • Relevance to our primary audience: To assess this we will:
    • Carry out an annual survey with our key audiences and the participants of the OTT Conference.
    • Undertake ongoing conversations with key informants
  • Uptake of the information, knowledge, skills and competencies: We keep track of micro-stories of change on key issues of interest to OTT and directly addressing our various objectives. These are included in the annual reviews.
  • 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.
  • Principles: In addition, we will monitor our approach to core principles, by reflecting on them in our choice of indicators and bi-annual reporting.
    • Truth: Are we accurate? Are we honest on our reporting and opinion?
    • Justice: Do we promote diversity among our members, collaborators and our audiences? Are we fair to different views and opinions?
    • Voice: Do we offer a platform for issues and actors which are not mainstream?

These provide a framework for reporting on a 6-monthly basis, including the annual report (part of the annual review) which is published and submitted to the advisory board, our main core-funder, the Hewlett Foundation, and our host, Universidad del Pacífico.

What resources do we need to deliver this?

To deliver this strategy we will continually seek to strengthen the initiative. 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. Between 2019-2021, OTT will prioritise the following roles:
    • Director
    • Director of communications
    • Research officer
    • Programme manager also in charge of the OTT School[1]
    • Senior research associate with responsibilities for business development and management of OTT Consulting
  • A global advisory board: OTT has established an advisory board to offer long term support to On Think Tanks leadership. Its members provide long term strategic support and oversight. The advisory board was first established in 2016 and will therefore undergo some reform in 2019: including new members and roles. To involve the board, we will:[2]
    • Invite board members to OTT Conferences;
    • Invite board members to host or participate in OTT events; and
    • Involve board members in initiatives (e.g. the Winterschool or the Fellowship Programme).
  • Sound governance and management: We must now establish better internal leadership, communication and project management practices to ensure smooth collaboration between OTT and OTT Consulting and between the various members of the network.
  • Secure location(s): OTT must 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 OTT Fellowship, are managed by OTT Consulting Ltd in London. We will explore setting up a not-for-profit organisation to take on these roles in 2019.
  • A global community and partners: OTT manages various communities (for instance, Collaborators, Fellows, Alumni, Funders) through bespoke communications and services. Where possible, OTT seeks to work in partnership.
  • Appropriate funding: In 2019, funding from the Hewlett Foundation will allow us to prioritise the development and delivery of a fundraising strategy by working with a consultant. The consultant will review our existing funding model, put forward a new improved version considering the funding context we face, and support us as we seek out new funders in 2019. Current funding streams for OTT include:
    • Core funding: OTT has secured funding from the Hewlett Foundation up until the end of 2020. 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 seeks further core support from other, similar, funders. This may include tweaking our work to respond to funders regional and thematic interests.
    • Support for the OTT Conferences: OTT receives contributions, monetary and in kind, from funders, think tanks, universities and others to host its annual conferences.
    • Voluntary contributions: OTT seeks contributions from individuals through PayPal by encouraging voluntary donations and subscriptions.
    • OTT School Fees: These fees are 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, efforts that allow us to deliver our mission (e.g. generate new knowledge, build capacity, etc.):
      • The Think Tank Fund supported the first part of the Open Think Tank Directory.
      • The 2018-2019 Fellowship Programme is supported by the Think Tank Initiative.
      • 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 overhead: Based in London, it funds various activities (such as On Think Tanks TV, the role of the OTT School 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.