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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!


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Our strategy

This strategy statement provides a brief outline of our strategy. The strategy is a guiding document.

What do we want to achieve?

Our first goal is policymaking that is, always, better informed.

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.

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 OTT 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.

Our summary is that the OTT is the place that we go to when we need to find templates, understand the news and understand how think tanks get by and do their business.

Kwame Owino, Executive Director, IEA Kenya

What are we up against?

Decision-makers need data, evidence, and knowledge to inform policy priorities, design, and delivery, as well as to evaluate and learn from their efforts. Think tanks, or policy research institutes, are an effective institutional vehicle to strengthen local and global policy regimes, generate new evidence and knowledge in an accessible way, and connect and convene relevant actors in the public domain. Despite being relatively small players compared to other political actors, think tanks complement and build upon a range of other knowledge-generating and decision-making institutions—from political parties to government agencies, universities to civil society organisations, the private sector to the media, and more. They are wide-ranging, fluid, and porous in their definition, but think tanks from around the world share a common objective: to inform public debates, policies, and practice.

Yet, both well-established and new and emerging think tanks face a range of political, economic, and institutional challenges. Sudden challenges to political systems, rising populism, and the backlash against globalization have resulted in rising distrust of think tanks and the evidence and recommendations they produce. In some countries, the space for civil society is shrinking, offering fewer opportunities for think tanks to grow and thrive. Fake news continues to be pervasive, and even in more mature think tank communities, new challenges to their independence are on the rise. Furthermore, in friendlier contexts, the rise of new knowledge producers such as streaming platforms, not-for-profit media, foundations, and the private sector are increasingly challenging their traditional place at the heart of informed policy debates.

Financially, think tanks are under increased pressure to be sustainable. With the end of multi-donor or multi-country initiatives such as the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) or the Think Tank Fund (TTF), combined with other funding trends, core and flexible funding is seen as increasingly harder to find and secure. In developing countries, broader cuts in funding to think tanks are a result of political shifts toward the private sector and impact investment, direct support to governments as well as a reduction of aid, organisations changing leadership and strategies over time, and concerns about think tanks’ independence and roles.

Many funders are increasingly focused on project support, often due to demands from their own governing bodies for accountability, financial tracking, and closer direction of the work.+

Organisationally, think tanks have varying capabilities to operate effectively and influence how their knowledge is generated, communicated, and used. Weak think tank governance and management, limited fundraising capacity, poor donor funding practices, 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 U.S., 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. Such challenges have real consequences: think tanks have limited capacity to deliver their mission, reflect on their own work and the roles they fulfil in their societies, and respond to an increasingly complex world with unprecedented and unexpected challenges.

The COVID-19 crisis in 2020 has accentuated think tanks’ financial and operational challenges.

Notwithstanding these challenges, think tanks can, do, and must play a vital 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. They can generate relevant evidence on key issues or spaces, share that evidence and recommendations, and engage with key stakeholders to facilitate its use.

They also offer a moral foundation to policymaking, according to former Director of the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation’s Global Development and Population Program Ruth Levine. They have the capacity to provide truth through their research, achieve justice by advising governments on how they allocate and distribute resources, and make visible and give voice to the most vulnerable populations. Without them—and the evidence they generate—policy communities and broader societies may not be as informed and be unable to meaningfully engage. Further, policymaking processes may end up relying on the views of a few influential individuals and vested interests or responding to urgency, fear, and spin, which in turn inevitably results in poor policymaking and outcomes.

Who are we?

With the right competencies, skills, and support networks, think tanks can put forward evidence, shape public debates, and support a broader vision where better-informed policymaking can help societies flourish. To pursue this vision, evidence based support is necessary to build credible, sustainable, well-connected, and equitable policy research systems across the world. This support may come in the form of open and independent sources of knowledge, competencies, and assistance upon which relevant actors in these systems can reliably access and trust.

Within this framework, OTT provides an integral solution for think tanks, their funders, and other relevant policy stakeholders. Since its founding in 2010, it has shown proof of concept as a valued resource, evidenced by some of the following indicators of impact:

  • OTT has been a strong partner for emerging and existing think tanks and received feedback on how its support and guidance has influenced others’ work. This has included significant and sustained engagement with multiple think tanks, such as CIUP (Peru), BCSP (Serbia), Grupo FARO (Ecuador), and CSEA (Nigeria), among others, where OTT has been a consistent and catalytic voice for their growth, development, and success.
  • Strong demand for OTT’s conferences, with multiple participants returning each year, as well as demand for the fellowship programme and the OTT School, with 1,588 attendees to date (including returnees).
  • High demand for and readership of OTT’s content, with an average of approximately 23,000 unique page views per month and geographic diversity.
  • Establishment and growth of a diverse network of associates, who represent various partner organisations and collaborators from around the world.
  • Development of a global community who average 11,000 unique visitors to the OTT platform from the broader think tank community, many of who represent both well-established organisations and as well as new and emerging think tanks.
  • Demonstrated support from reputable, international funders, including the William and Flora Hewlett Foundation, Open Society Foundations, IDRC, the Robert Bosch Foundation, and others.
  • Demonstrated support and engagement from senior members of staff in leading think tanks who actively participate in OTT’s multiple spaces, including from Chatham House, the World Resources Institute, the Overseas Development Institute and more.
  • Positive feedback from key partners on the value and importance of OTT’s work, as well as from the users of OTT’s content, trainings, and engagement opportunities. Users have commented, for example, how much they learned and will use the information provided through the conferences and trainings. For example:

OTT’s work has been valuable to OSF’s leveraging its support to our grantees in the field. For example, OTT’s role as a neutral facilitator in the field has enabled us to provide support to the field in ways that also mitigate the effects of power imbalances /dynamics that often accompany funder/grantee relationships. In addition, OTT’s work as a bridge-builder among thinks tanks, NGOs, and social movements allows us to benefit from its extensive expertise and knowledge of the field, and offers us unique and multiple lenses from which to analyse the field and relate with actors whom we seek to support.

Savior Mwambwa, Programme Officer, Economic Justice Programme and Soros Economic Development Fund, Open Society Foundations

My work in a think tank initially was an isolated journey. There was not just another institution like mine within the country. Therefore when challenges came by, they seemed unique with hardly any model to learn from. Reaching out individually to another think tank in another country or the world often seemed intimidating because it felt as if they will never appreciate your issues. When OTT came on, it created a platform for think tanks in different parts of the world to share experiences regarding issues that confront our work. From the different types of networking, it was enlightening to learn that despite the different countries we all belonged to, as think tanks, we were confronted with similar issues; how to communicate our work to different audiences; how to be relevant and whether we were having any policy influence to start with; how to measure this policy influence or impact. Therefore, OTT became one of the platforms to learn from other think tanks’ success stories and as well to learn from what not to do. This made my work in the think tank a whole lot easier than before. Because when you know someone has walked your path before, you approach your challenges with confidence and you begin to produce results.  The remarkable results my think tank has produced in the last 10 years is owed in part to the lessons learnt from other think tanks which OTT helped to facilitate.

Pamela Nakamba, Director ZIPPAR, Zambia

I’m really happy that I came [to the OTT Conference in 2019]. You’ve probably all heard me say before that it was very lonely in Jamaica being the only think tank. So now I actually feel like I have a bit of a family. My executive director sent me with a list of things I was supposed to come back with, and I think I’ve checked most of them. But I am also taking back a lot of what I didn’t expect, which is great ideas about things we can do, new experiences that we’re looking forward to being a part of like the Semana de la Evidencia, we’re going to a photo exhibit, and also some promising new collaborations with other think tanks in the UK and in India, which I am extremely excited about. So, this was a win for me all around.

Diana Thornburn, Director of CaPRI, Jamaica

OTT is a unique initiative in the field. OTT is practitioner-led and practitioner-focused. While other organisations are solely focused on producing academically-oriented, scholarly writings, and sustained issue-focused work, OTT is tailored to bring its front-line experience and research – and that of other leaders and experts – to other organisations and help them thrive.

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

The OTT 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 2020 Annual Review

OTT is the only initiative of its kind:

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

How will we contribute towards this?

Over the last decade, OTT has been a consistent and catalytic partner for both individuals and organisations in their growth, development, and success. Looking forward, OTT will build upon its reputation as a go-to resource; deepen its influential programming, initiatives, and networks; and foster a community of actors dedicated to evidence informed policymaking. Our strategy and work programme is directed towards three main goals, or outcomes:

  1. Policymaking is always better informed, helping societies to flourish.
  2. Communities of think tanks and, more broadly, institutions dedicated to evidence informed policy, are strengthened and are more dynamic, sustainable, and influential in helping shape national and international political knowledge regimes.
  3. Think tanks, their funders, and other policy entrepreneurs use sound, research-based evidence that enables them to make better strategic operational decisions (e.g. areas of study, ways to communicate, what to fund, what business model to pursue, etc.) to effectively deliver their missions.

In support of these goals, OTT follows a “wholesale” versus “retail” model—that is, it is not focused on promoting a particular idea, issue, or policy solution, but instead focuses on how to systematically help other organisations better deliver on their missions. OTT organises its efforts in four main work streams, which both complement and reinforce one another: generating knowledge, strengthening capacity, fostering engagement and community, and communicating content and resources; all underpinned by a monitoring and learning plan.

GENERATING KNOWLEDGE

Our knowledge strategy is led by Andrea Baertl, director of research can leering.

OTT aims to provide thinktankers, funders, policy entrepreneurs, media, and civil society organisations with more and better evidence about the think tank operating environment and trends, the policy ecosystem, and the importance of evidence in policymaking.

To achieve this, OTT will continue to publish a body of data, analysis, research that encompasses two, mutually-reinforcing thematic areas:

  • Operational themes, including understanding think tanks and their context, governance and management, funding and supporting think tanks, delivering policy relevant research, and communication and impact. These are long-standing themes where OTT has developed a critical mass of expertise—both in-house and through its expanded network of associates and partners—and where it will continue to add value.
  • Cross-cutting themes, which delve into issues that think tanks and the evidence informed policymaking community are working to better understand and address. These include topics such as quality and credibility, a new era of public engagement, the role of gender in think tanks, diversity, social movements, think tanks in a time of populism and evidence scepticism, and more.

The tools and tactics for delivering this research agenda include the following outputs:

  • OTT’s flagship Annual Review, which is released during the first quarter of each year and curates ideas and work from experts across the sector. The AR focuses on an emerging and cross-cutting theme, which is usually identified in concert with the OTT community during its annual conference (described below) and other engagements and discussions.
  • Working papers and reports, which are published in partnership with Universidad del Pacífico and University of Bath, as well as procured through OTT’s network. OTT aims to produce at least four working papers per year and two in-depth research publications. These pieces may include research on specific geographies (e.g. Sub-Saharan Africa) or sectors (e.g. health); a regular State of the Sector report; survey reports; and applied research and evaluations of specific programmes or initiatives (conducted by OTT Consulting) that can provide broader lessons and insights for the think tank community.
  • Ongoing analysis and opinion through OTT’s blog and other platforms. Such commentary can bring visibility to OTT’s more in-depth research, as well as to provide timely viewpoints on other key issues.
  • Open Think Tank Directory (OTTD), which provides the only open-source data on think tanks and related organisations from around the world. The Open Think Tank Directory currently includes information on more than 4,600 think tanks, and OTT is actively working to expand and maintain its data. In turn, the data will offer the evidence informed policymaking community and funders a unique source of information for and about think tanks, as well as increase the transparency of the sector. As part of this effort, OTT is partnering with Transparify to integrate their financial transparency rating into the Directory. To develop the directory, OTT has partnered with the Open Society Foundations, the Konrad Adenauer Foundation, UNICEF and the Robert Bosch Foundation.

In addition to contributing research through book chapters published by other organisations, OTT is also exploring opportunities to publish more in-depth research through its own books and/or edited volumes, as appropriate, to reach key audiences.

FACILITATING LEARNING

Our learning strategy is led by Andrea Baertl, director of research can leering.

OTT seeks to empower think tanks, and particularly the growing pipeline of emerging thinktankers, so that they have better capabilities and skills to manage and grow their organisations, deploy innovative business models, and generate, communicate, and use evidence more effectively. To achieve this, OTT provides information, tools, and training to support leadership development and improve awareness, strategic decision-making, and operations among thinktankers and policy entrepreneurs.

A central component of this effort is the OTT School, which distinctly builds capacity and supports think tanks on a continuum—from short-term to long-term engagements, as well as from emerging to more senior thinktankers. Activities currently or are planned to include:

  • Webinars, which are provided free of charge and offer a short introduction to key issues by recognised experts. Webinars are scheduled both as live or recorded events. Afterwards, the webinars are made fully available on the OTT website and its YouTube channel. From 2020 onwards these will be edited into 15-20 minute webcasts and shared through our communication and engagement efforts.
  • Strategic courses, which vary in length and intensity depending on the course, are facilitated by expert trainers, focus on various aspects of think tank work (e.g. leadership, governance and management, research skills and methods, and communications), and feature an optional task for review by the trainer to receive a certificate of completion. Most courses are provided on-line, but tailored courses can be conducted in-person and focus on personal and/or organisational competencies.
  • The School for Thinktankers, a 1-week intensive course that OTT has delivered in Geneva since 2017 in Geneva. These courses primarily target new and emerging thinktankers, as well as those who are mid-career think tank professionals, but welcome the full gamut of participants. From 2021 onwards, OTT will aim to deliver two Schools every year, starting with a new remote version.
  • Long-term fellowship or mentoring programme, which lasts 9 months to one year and features dedicated interactions (virtually and in person) to mentor and support the personal and professional development of emerging and rising think tank professionals. Previous fellowship activities were conducted in partnership with TTI; with TTI now having concluded, OTT is building upon that successful model to develop and launch future fellowship cohorts and foster a community amongst its alumni.

In addition, OTT also provides the following:

  • A repository of how-to information and best practices, including OTT’s Best Practice Series; the OTT Library of past webinars, manuals, and other publications and resources.
  • A communications healthcheck tool to help think tanks to refine and improve their communications. It evaluates a number of key areas: audiences, channels, messaging, systems, strategy, capacity, and monitoring. Having received positive feedback on this tool’s utility, OTT developing further healthcheck tools and dashboards to support organisational development, M&E, and other areas.
  • Advising new and emerging think tanks, particularly those trying to get started in resource-strapped or otherwise difficult contexts.

FOSTERING ENGAGEMENT AND BUILDING COMMUNITY

Our engagement strategy is led by Erika Perez Leon, director of communication and engagement.

OTT aims to help strengthen, expand, and better connect the global think tank community and broader  evidence informed policymaking ecosystem. To achieve this, OTT focuses on convenings and engagements that support learning, promote collaboration, and provide spaces for enhanced global exchange, networking, and innovation in policy research communities. These include the following:

  • OTT’s flagship global conference, which takes place each spring and offers a forum to present and discuss the latest research on think tanks and the broader evidence informed policy field. The event, which since 2017 has so far been held in London and Geneva, convenes a global audience for a series of in-depth sessions, keynotes, and a public event that also engages the local think tank audience. This event often pulls themes and content from OTT’s Annual Review. In 2020, OTT has hosted a series of online conferences in response to the COVID-19 crisis. The 2021 OTT Conference will be hosted by the Robert Bosch Foundation and the German Council on Foreign Relations in Berlin. The 2022 conference will be hosted by Chatham House in London.
  • OTT regional conferences and events, which expand OTT’s reach to key geographies and audiences. In 2018, for example, OTT organised a mini-conference in Pretoria, South Africa. In 2019, OTT piloted a mini-conference in Washington, DC, which was met with great enthusiasm and response; OTT plans to continue its Washington, DC engagement, as well as pursue new communities, particularly in the Middle East and North Africa, Sub-Saharan Africa, and South Asia/Southeast Asia. To enable these conferences OTT will pursue a licensing model which will be available to our Alumni, Fellows and long term partners only.
  • OTT Communities of Practice (CoPs), which emerged at last year’s global conference as a key opportunity for sustaining engagement with OTT’s audience. OTT is piloting two COPs—one on captured states and one on M&E and learning—to test the model, which has already shown significant demand from past conference participants.
  • OTT Community forum, which responds to a demand from the members of the OTT community and will enable individuals to engage with each other directly. This space will be facilitated by OTT to maximise engagement of and with members of our community in shaping our work.
  • Jobsboard of think tank employment opportunities, the only one of its kind.
  • Calendar of upcoming think tank events to provide the OTT community with the opportunity to find events that address evidence informed policymaking and the world of think tanks.

In addition, OTT promotes and engages in convening with other partners to elevate their work and the evidence informed policymaking field. This includes two events in Latin America—the 90+ events Latin American Evidence Week (Semana de la Evidencia) and the PODER Think Tank of the Year Award in Peru —along with participation in and engagement with other global and regional conferences, such as the ACBF led Africa Think Tanks Summit.

COMMUNICATION

Our communication strategy is led by Erika Perez Leon, director of communication and engagement.

OTT aims to provide information about research, tools, trainings, events, and other resources to support growth, development, and continued engagement in the think tank sector. As such, OTT disseminates learnings and offers the OTT community much-needed information to support their continued involvement. Core offerings include the communication of OTT research, tools, trainings, and convenings through  regular newsletters, OTT-TV features, videos, social media, and other channels. OTT currently has over 23,000 page views per month of its website; it has built a significant social media audience with 8,300 followers on Twitter, nearly 5,000 on Facebook, and 1,300 on LinkedIn; and has significant engagement through its newsletter, with an average open rate of 20.7% and an average click rate of nearly 16%. These all demonstrate that OTT has a dedicated following that represents countries all over the world.

Usual OTT outputs include (not limited to):

  • Survey reports, annual state of the sector reports plus short animations with key facts and findings from the surveys
  • Article series, case studies and best practice accounts
  • Briefing papers and working papers
  • New edited videos delivered by leading figures in the policy research sector based on their areas of expertise.
  • Events design, communication and facilitation.
  • Social media campaigns to disseminate the content widely
  • Targeted newsletters (or topic specific)
  • Reports from the events identifying key findings, suggestions, and summaries of what went on.

Monitoring, evaluation and learning

To track its progress towards its goals—and its broader impact—OTT employs both qualitative and quantitative indicators:

  • Qualitative:
    • Anecdotal evidence and feedback that OTT’s publications and data are useful, relevant, and informing how stakeholders view the sector
    • Anecdotal evidence or feedback from participants on how engagement with OTT has improved skills and practice
    • Evidence of demand from key audiences for OTT support and engagement (# of people and organisations who approach OTT, position or stature of participants)
    • Level to which OTT School content and curricula is used by other organisations
    • Feedback and evidence from OTT and other convening and events on new connections and partnerships developed.
  • Quantitative:
    • # of publications produced
    • # of views/downloads of publications, as well as the # of citations
    • # of think tanks that submit information to the OTTD
    • Scope and reach of OTT community (# of alumni, fellows, associates, organisational partners, conference attendees, participants in CoPs, along with their geographic representation)
    • Demand for OTT School (# of views of webinars, and # of participants in short courses, School for Thinktankers intensive courses, MOOCs, and the Fellowship)
    • # of views, opens, and clicks and geographic representation for OTT content, newsletter, social media channels, and other media
    • # of jobs posted

As part of this effort, OTT will employ annual and timely surveys with key audiences and proactively solicit input from informants. These feedback loops provide valuable information on the quality of OTT’s work, relevance, and uptake of the information, knowledge, skills, and competencies.

OTT will use this input and the above indicators to reflect on what is working and not working, lessons learned, and future opportunities that could be seized for greater impact. For example, key learning questions could include:

  • What are the emerging advocacy and policy moments coming up that OTT can tap into to broaden its reach?
  • How is the global landscape and international architecture changing, and how does that affect the strategy?
  • How are OTT School alumni faring in the long-term? Did OTT influence positive changes in their careers and/or organisations?
  • Are there new, relevant stakeholders involved that OTT needs to reach out to?
  • What tactics and innovations are working to achieve OTT’s desired impact and scale? What is not working and how can OTT adjust?

How to get involved?

We are always looking for contributors, collaborators and supporters. If you would like to find out how to support OTT or individual initiatives please get in touch.

And why not support us? OTT is free to use but it is not free to develop.

Also, because:

On Think Tanks is an extremely valuable source of insights, experiences and lessons for think tanks, helping them consistently strengthen their work and achieve success. It’s also an excellent resource for those who don’t work in think tanks but who understand the value they bring to evidence informed policy and decision-making and would like to support them more. At the Think Tank Initiative, we have gained greatly through our many engagements with On Think Tanks over the last ten years and have really appreciated all that they have to offer.

Peter Taylor, former Director, Think Tank Initiative (IDRC)