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 2-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.
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.
Who do we work with?
Although as the name suggests, think tanks are our main audience, we know that the most successful policy research communities need an entire ecosystem to thrive: this is what we understand as a political knowledge regime. Therefore, at On Think Tanks, we work with a range of people and organisations. These include:
- Think tanks in developing and developed countries;
- Thinktankers, particularly, young and up-and-coming leaders;
- Think tank funders and policymakers, particularly those working to strengthen national political knowledge regimes and 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, Hewlett Foundation, Soapbox, MediaTank, Southern Hemisphere, Southern Voice, etc.;
- Potential funders for On Think Tanks;
- Think tank audiences including policymakers, civil society, the private sector and the media.
What are we up against?
Think tanks are relatively small actors in the policy research ecosystem (and even smaller in the greater political space – let alone the political knowledge regimes). We know that think tanks cannot exist as islands of excellence: without strong and well resources and run parties, a state, universities, civil society, corporations and the media, for example, think tanks would struggle to deliver high quality work in the long run.
However they can still play an influential role in promoting evidence informed policy and developing the necessary capacities and, even, institutions required for a sustainable use of evidence.
This is easier said that done. Evidence informed policy is not the same as policy influenced by research. We do not want policymakers to copy-paste policy recommendations made by an expert -no matter how brilliant the expert may be. 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 must 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 the developing world, think tanks remain broadly underdeveloped and rarely fulfilling their potential. Poor donor funding practices (and more so than lack of funding), weak think tank governance and management, limited fundraising capacity, 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.
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. And 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 in DC think tanks or calls for lobby rules to apply to think tanks and attacks on experts in the UK or the US.
This limits think tanks capacity to reflect about their own work and the roles they fulfil in their societies. This further 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 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.
What do we want to achieve?
Our ultimate goal is policymaking that is, always, better informed.
We would love to see the development of reliable, sustainable and valuable policy research communities across the world.
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?
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:
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 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.
In addition, OTT offers bespoke services to think tanks, policymakers and funders through OTT Consulting.
Information, evidence and knowledge
- Ongoing analysis and opinion: 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.
- Research: The On Think Tanks Working Paper Series, in partnership with Universidad del Pacífico and University of Bath, to promote new researchers and research on think tanks. Also, studies, reports and manuals including an annual review 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 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.+
- 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.+
We support thinktankers and other policy actors through the 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 Winterschool for Thinktankers in Geneva in which future think tank leaders learn from current practitioners in the world of think tanks.+
- Bespoke courses for think tanks, networks and funders through OTT Consulting.
In addition, we offer longer term support to young thinktankers and future leaders through the:
- 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.+
- Bespoke partnerships through OTT Consulting.
We will work with others to deliver our strategy and contribute to the objectives we have set out to achieve. Partnerships include:
- Efforts to 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.
- Nurturing 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.
- Developing and delivering training opportunities through the OTT School in partnership with individuals and institutions.
- Organising and hosting the On Think Tanks Conferences, 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 at the global and local level.
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 also runs the OTT School.
OTT Consulting follows the same principles as OTT and shares all lessons learned from its work via On Think Tanks.
You can find more about OTT Consulting and OTT Funding more generally here.
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 carryout an annual survey with our key audiences. The OTT School and OTT Consulting also carries out immediate after-action reviews. The OTT School conducts immediate surveys after each course.
- Relevance to its primary audience: We carryout an annual survey and annual in-depth interviews with our key audiences.
- Uptake of the information, knowledge, skills and competencies: We keep track of micro-stories of change on key issues of interest to OTT. These are be 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.
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 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
As of 2019 we expect to incorporate at least a community manager who will focus his/her attention on OTT’s growing social media platforms.
- 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.
- Sound governance and management: We must continuously review and strengthen our overall 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 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, 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 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 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, for instance:
- The Think Tank Fund supported the first part of the Open Think Tank Directory.
- The 2018 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: 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.