12 questions from thinktankers in 2017

29 December 2017

During 2017, On Think Tanks delivered a series of initiatives and projects that involved mentoring. The Fellowship Programme, a project to support the Latin American network of think tanks, ILAIPP, and many opportunities to interact with individuals across the world struggling with questions about think tank governance, sustainability, research and communications.

These have been both complex and rewarding efforts. Most of the time, I find myself unable to offer a straight answer but the questions compel me to think about them. So in lieu of a New Year’s message, let me share some reflections with you.

The following questions (and answers) provide a small sample of the kind of challenges that I’ve tried to address over the year. If you have a better answer (which I am sure you do), please, do share it with us.

1. How to make sure you shine at an event you are invited to speak at – and not speak at?

Let’s start with a rather practical one: Speaking at a public event is a great way for researchers and think tank leaders to raise their profile, make connections and advance the interest of their organisation.

More often than not, however, we fail to take advantage of these opportunities. Here is why and how to avoid it.

  • Event organisers are often not very clear about the format of the event, panel or other activities involved. So it is hard for us to plan in advance. Should we take cards, postcards, publication samples? Will there be a place to show case them? How long will I have to present my paper? How will the room set up? Who will be in the audience? What will others in my panel present on?  In doubt, ask.
  • We often attend events on autopilot. We go but we do not really have any specific objectives in mind. We argue: “it is a networking opportunity” or “it is a chance to present our latest study”. This is not enough. We should know who we want to network with and what for; and what do we want the audience to take away and do at the end of our presentation.
  • Most of the worst presentations have one thing in common: they are wrong for the audience. You must therefore think of your audience before preparing your presentation. Use the right language, the most appropriate support, moderate your style, etc.
  • If you are not presenting you may feel that your chances to shine will be greatly limited. You can always take advantage of the opportunity by asking good questions or offering your own views (be brief, do not steal the show), approaching other participants after the event (don’t rush to the stage; often the most interesting people to meet will be those in the audience so take note of who asks the best questions -also, presenters are unlikely to remember you among all the other people who rush to talk to them), having business cards or other “leave-behind” materials such as postcards to share, etc.

Learn more about organising events:

An important note of business cards. Do not cut-corners on design. Our cards are very clean on the front (name, job, email at the bottom of an otherwise off-white card) and they have hand-drawn cartoons at the back (10 cartoons in total, drawn by me). People always comment on the card and when they notice the cartoons they ask about them (and when I give my cards to a group of people and they notice that the cartoons are different they compare and even trade them).

2. Should we buy Sharepoint?

Another practical question. Do we need an intranet? What kind of intranet should it be?

Sharepoint alone won’t solve your problems. It is just a piece of technology (with lots of need for customisation and training). The correct approach is to first think of how to encourage greater internal communications through a shift in the organisational culture and then consider the best tools for this.

An intranet is certainly necessary. But, at first, tools like Dropbox or Drive will do. Urgently, think tanks need to eliminate “My Documents” folders and force all staff to keep their files in a shared drive. Really force them; it won’t work if only some decide to do it.

Internal communications can be improved by rearranging the office. Open plan can help but the location of the kitchen and meeting rooms can also be of great assistance. Putting younger researchers together can make it easier for information to flow across teams or programmes.

A calendar of meetings is also a great idea. All-staff meetings, Senior Management Team meetings, directors of programmes meetings, programmes meetings, Prospect meetings (this is for the communications team), etc.

An internal newsletter or Facebook page can help to keep staff informed of what is going on in the organisation and to put a face to a name in larger think tanks.

We find that Slack is a excellent tool to communicate across teams and regions. Increasingly, think tanks are using it to manage their internal communications.

3. Should executive directors know it all, do it all?

New executive directors, in particular those who have been appointed from within, face a dilema when it comes to facing up to their staff. The temptation is to try to overachieve – try to demonstrate that one is able to do everything: data collection, data analysis, publishing, etc. Of concern to some is not being able to keep up with the latest developments in the field of research methods. They feel they are unable to keep up with some of their researchers (even the younger ones) and therefore experience self-doubt about their roles.

My advice is that think tank leaders (at all levels) do not need to know it all nor do it all. They have to recognise that they play other roles and that their support to their staff has to take other forms.

For example, a head of research in a think tank should be able to discuss and advice researchers on research methods. But it is just possible (and commendable) for younger researchers to consider, test and master methods that the head of research might not know about. The head of research should encourage this.

A head of programme or an executive director might not be able to keep up with the details of every research project undertaken by their staff. But they should be able to act as sounding boards to their ideas and plans, guide them in the definition of the policy and research questions, offer advice on how to develop and present their arguments, facilitate connections with relevant stakeholders, mobilise funds, etc.

Lean more about the executive director job:

4. How to avoid losing top researchers and what do you do when you do lose them?

This is frustrating. You seek out or train great researchers and they go on to take, possibly, better paying jobs at other think tanks, government or international organisations. This can have debilitating effects on a centre’s capacity to deliver its commitments, raise funds and maintain influence in certain policy spaces. But isn’t this a sign of success?

There are at least two things a think tank can do about this.

First, think tanks should consider developing appropriate career paths for their staff (all staff, not just researchers). What happens for a young researcher after a couple of years on the job? Is there a clear career path? From research officer level 1 to level 2 and 3 and then research fellow level 1 to level 2 and 3 and then … what?

And what are the benefits that one gains from sticking to that path? Are there fair short-cuts?

Career paths should also consider opportunities to return to the organisation after a period away.

Second, think tanks should be more relaxed about losing top staff and expect it as a sign of success. Policy research centres are not simply factories of ideas. Their greatest assets are their people. They are also the most effective tool for policy influence. Think tanks should see the silver-lining when government, international development partners or foundations poach their researchers. This means that their ideas will make it into these other important policy fields.

To make up for the potential loss of income that these researchers may command they should turn these losses into gains: measure and claim success by the number and profile of the poaches (this will help attract funding), encourage former staff to come back to the think tank through brown-bag lunches, public events and even full time employment after a while away (this will help improve the policy relevance of the centre’s research and even gain valuable information), do not forget about your former staff – keep them on your website and involve them, as much as possible, in the organisation (this will encourage them to return and bring along their new networks, knowledge and income opportunities).

5. What should your hiring criteria be?

Hiring well is one of the most effective ways to deliver one’s mission. Good researchers need less quality control; good communicators will strengthen your researchers’ arguments; great managers and leaders will empower the entire organisation. But hiring well is a skill in itself. If you cannot rely on a professional HR team what can you do?

Over the years I have made very bad hiring choices. It has taken me many years to pick up a few tricks about hiring but I still make mistakes.

This is the advice I give myself:

  • First have a strategy and then look for people to who fit into that strategy;
  • But make sure that the people you hire will be able to to a keen to improve (and challenge if necessary) the strategy.
  • Before looking for a candidate develop a clear job description;
  • And cast the net widely -don’t just hire someone you know.

Why not use our Jobsboard? onthinktanks.org/jobs

  • Focus on competencies;
  • And test them on them.
  • Be transparent about the organisation, the job, his/her responsibilities, etc. They should not have to wait to join your organisation to find out that they have to raise funds or that there are serious management challenges.
  • Cast aside any pre-conceptions of the job that you have. Avoid hiring a researcher that looks exactly like your idealised researcher (if you are a researcher). Ask others in your organisation to help put together the job description and join the interview process.

The toughest job to hire for: executive directors


6. How to build trust on your organisation?

New think tanks as well as older ones in polarised contexts find it hard to build trust and raise funds. How can they reach out to new stakeholders, possible supporters and their ideal audiences?

I draw inspiration from CIPPEC, a think tank in Argentina. Back when they started, the founding directors decided on a rather effective strategy to raise funds and, most importantly, support.

They visited someone they knew, someone in the private sector, and told them about CIPPEC. What it was, what they wanted to achieve, etc. When they were done and they had answered any questions they ask this person to introduce them to 2 or 3 other people who might be interested in what they had had to say. They did not ask for money. Just names.

Slowly but surely their networks grew; and slowly but surely so did their funding.

This is a great way to build trust, to get to know the people who are interested in your work and to get feedback from them. This applies, too, for efforts to build interest and trust in our research.

Another very obvious approach to consider involves placing transparency at the core of everything you do. Ask Transparify to rate your organisation, be forthcoming with information about funding, staff affiliations, board members, foundation facts, etc.

Learn more about how transparency can help build trust:

7. How to set up think tanks within universities?

Some think tanks exist within universities or larger institutions. Their  governance, management, research agendas and communications cannot be handled in the same ways as independent think tanks might.

To answer this question I should first direct our attention to an article I wrote about setting up a think tank: step by step. In it I suggest that one way to do so is to start with a project within an existing institution, such as a university.

This, however, does not address the fact that many universities do not have the organisational competencies to host think tanks. So be careful.

Universities’ research function is driven by academic considerations. Incentives are stacked in favour of academic publishing and against media appearances. Also, the relationship between researchers in an academic body demands a certain degree of freedom and horizontality that make it hard to establish top-down or long-term policy (and, therefore, research) objectives.

Think tanks disturb this. But the disruption may be necessary. Universities  may find it easier to raise funds for research presented by think tanks: they offer more tangible results. They are also excellent vehicles to accommodate researchers-teachers whose academic credentials stem from their experience rather than scholarship: a former head of policy for a government department, for instance, would make a great policy researcher and as good a teacher as any post-doc fellow.

So, how to go about setting up think tanks in universities without disturbing the positive aspects of academia?

One possible way is to establish them as independent organisations with whom the university can have a formal relationship. In the UK, the Institute for Development Studies (IDS) is an independent NGO (and policy research centre) that pays a rent or fee to the University of Sussex for the use of its facilities and services. On top of the fee (but also as a way of raising funds) IDS offers graduate degrees to the university.

Staff at the centre may be employed under terms of reference that fall outside the pay-grades and responsibilities expected of typical university staff.

This would allow the university to establish agreements with multiple think tanks, even independent pre-existing ones.

Another approach is to bring together a team of researchers from various disciplines (or departments) under the leadership of a senior researcher and in the form of a special project to address a policy sector or issue (e.g. health policy). For all internal purposes, nothing changes; but externally, the project may be presented as an autonomous think tank or policy research centre. Autonomy, for the public, is established by the think tank’s branding and governance.

For the latter, these special projects could include an advisory board, dedicated support staff, and think tank specific job titles: director or research officer of the Centre for Policy Research, for example.

Regardless of the model, universities should consider developing a policy to establish and host think tanks or policy research centres. Setting them up on an ad hoc basis will only lead to confusion later on.

8. How to organise effective staff retreats?

Policy research centres use staff retreats (often annual retreats) to reflect on the year behind and plan the year ahead. But how can they be effective triggers or platforms for change?

Four of the people I worked with this year asked about this. In the end I came up with a few bits of advice that I think make for a decent annual retreat.

  • Planning: It takes time to plan a retreat and it should not be left to chance. Every session ought to be designed so that it contributes to a final objective.
  • Overplanning: Do not over plan. Leave some elements of the retreat open so that staff may be able to shape it as it best suits them.
  • Bottom and up: Do not be elitist. Administrative staff have a lot to add to a retreat. Executive directors’ number one concern is funding. And who is tracking funds, budgets, projects, change after funders, delivering reports, paying sub-contractors, etc? Administrative staff.
  • Do not focus on outputs only: When looking back do not just list all you have done. Think about your impact: on people, on ideas on policy and on society more widely.
  • Ask about yourselves, too: Impact is not just about what you were able to achieve outside of the organisation. It is worth using the time to ask whether your think tank is a great place to work in (and why), whether you have changed -for the better, and what is driving this change.
  • What don’t you know? Ask yourselves that questions do you want to answer in 2018. Again, do not focus on outputs but on questions. This will help you develop a cohesive agenda.
  • Have fun: Finally, retreats are a great opportunity to build cohesion between the staff. Do not miss out on that opportunity.

Find out more about our own annual retreat:

9. How to organise a crowdfunding campaign?

As think tanks explore new forms of funding some are experimenting with crowdfunding. They face a number of questions. What platform should they use? What projects should they attempt to crowdfund? How can they share a convincing argument for support? Is it worth the effort?

In 2015 I worked on a project to explore crowdfunding for think tanks. I will write a lot more about this in 2018 but in 2017 I worked alongside a think tank in Latin America to help it develop a crowdfunding project.

The challenges were many:

  • What is a good project to crowdfunding for? It has to deliver something that feels tangible to the potential funder. An academic report might not be it.
  • What platforms are best? Kickstarter is the most popular but so are other projects on it. You would be competing with films, hover boards and other far more interesting projects – let’s be honest. So it is best to think about what the platform offers:
    • The right audience – what are they looking for?
    • The right services – will they support you and give you feedback on your campaign?
    • The right funding arrangements – are you able to start even if the minimum has not been met? can you combine online with offline funding?
  • You will need funds for your crowdfunding campaign. There are no short-cuts. Crowdfunding is not necessarily cheap and it is not an easy way to raise funds. It requires a significant effort from the organisation. But, interestingly, it offers the communications team to demonstrate how its work can contribute to the sustainability of the organisation.

10. How to incentivise researchers to raise funds?

Tired with carrying all the funding burden, think tank leaders are increasingly interested in passing along some of the funding responsibilities to their senior researchers. But how can they incentivise them to raise funds?

Few researchers think of fundraising or communications as part of their job description. But the modern researcher doesn’t have a choice. Still, organisations can attempt to establish incentives to encourage their staff to take on these responsibilities.

First, leaders need to accept that a greater responsibility to raise funds has to be accompanied by greater rights to use them. If researchers are going to be asked to raise funds they need to know how those funds are used and they should have some say in how they are used -at least some of them on issues related to their work. For instance, a head of programme could be allowed to “keep within her programme” 50% of all income generated beyond a certain target.

Second, leaders have to show by example.

Third, not every researcher should to be treated equally. Some researchers will be great fundraisers, others not. Some will work on issues that are popular among funders, others not. Some will have more time on their hands, others not. The challenge is not to get everyone to fundraise but to get everyone to work together to fundraise. For instance, back when I worked at ODI and headed the RAPID programme, I asked three of the researchers in my team (plus I) to raise funds to meet our programme’s annual target; and allowed two others to “make a loss”. One of the researchers who did not meet his target was working on a very important project, a network, which gave the programme access and legitimacy. The other researcher was still young and had not yet made a name for himself, so I asked him to focus on a few research projects.

Fourth, work on it incrementally. Maybe, first start with symbolic incentives to encourage staff to raise funds for the organisation. Then establish very low targets (per group or programme): e.g. 50% of their annual budget in 2 years. This helps to monitor progress, identify potential fundraising “naturals”, and establish a baseline.

This can then be raised to 100% of their budget and then later on to targets that cover each programme’s contribution to the think tank’s overhead.

Finally, I encourage the adoption of models that encourage cross-funding: i.e. a researcher in programme A finding funds for programme B. This is great to encourage internal collaboration but may also allow researchers whose policy issues may not be in great demand at the time to meet their targets nonetheless.


11. How to raise interest and trust in your research ?

In highly polarised contexts it is unlikely that a policy idea will be bet with general praise. In certain cases, in fact, a policy proposal might be met with such rejection that it could set the organisation back in its efforts to establish itself on the public agenda. How can researchers engage effectively in these environments without compromising their integrity?

The RSA (the Royal Society for the encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce) offers an interesting approach: commissions.

For instance, the inclusive growth commission:

To achieve these objectives, the Commission plans to present a robust, authoritative and compelling case for change and devise new, ambitious measures and mechanisms for how this change can happen. It will seek to create momentum for change throughout the lifespan of the Commission (and thereafter) by working with a range of stakeholders across local and national government, as well as business and civil society leaders, and turn our project stakeholders into leading advocates of the Commission and its recommendations.

What the commission model does is open the research process to participation of the public. In the end, the commission’s recommendations come as no surprise to the most relevant stakeholders. In fact, they can see themselves represented in them.

In the case of the city Growth Commission, the inquiry process included:

  • An open call for evidence.
  • Commissioned research.
  • High level seminars and round tables.



12. Should we advocate for a particular policy or should we be more open?

Some think tanks, especially those who depend on foreign aid or contract work, worry about the effect that “taking a position” might have for their future funding prospects.

Sometimes the policy context promotes this “fragmentation of opinion”. Different parts of government might have different views on policy challenges (e.g. a pro-trade Ministry of Trade might like to hear about policies to promote free trade agreements while a more cautionary Labour Ministry might be more interested in policies that protect local jobs). Sometimes different parts of government prefer different types of evidence (e.g. the Ministry of Finance might be more interested in cost benefit analysis while the Ministry of Culture would prefer qualitative studies). In these cases it might pay off for think tanks to avoid taking very clear positions on any single issue.

However, if think tanks want to have meaningful impact, they will have to, at some point, take a stand on an issue and a recommendation. This is inevitable.

My advice is that think tanks need to recognise that the nature of their work involves some degree of opposition. They cannot expect to make everyone happy all the time.

Learn about different including strategies that think tanks can use.

This needs to be contextualised: who is in government? what is the prevailing narrative? are there any opportunities for change? what is on the public agenda? Etcetera.

This contextualisation needs to be communicated to their funders who must understand that, sometimes, often when the political context is at odds with their believes, their grantees will not be influential. Other times, when political discourse coincides with their views, they will have a greater chance to be relevant policy actors.

This has important implications on think tanks’ business models. Are they able to grow a shrink along with the changing context? Are their funders interested in long term efforts (through the ebbs and flows of political cycles).

Sometimes the business model makes it very hard for the organisation to take a side. For example, more academic think tanks (and think tanks in a university) might not have clearly identifiable ideologies and their researchers’ intellectual independence might often be at odds with their colleagues. In these cases, the RSA style commissions might be a good way forward. Another option, might be to play a greater convening function and seek to host discussions and debates on an issue.


Do you have other questions? Do you have better answers? Join the conversation!