Better Sooner than Later: Addressing think tanks’ governance and management (Boards, Executive Directors, Senior Management Teams, and central services)

12 March 2014
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

In this second of three posts on Governance and Management I will address 5 of the main issues outlines in the previous post.

The last post dealt with the importance of addressing Governance and Management as soon as possible –before accepting core funds or engaging in capacity building exercises.

So what are these Governance and Management issues that think tanks need to address early on? This is not a complete list. Over the years I have gathered some cases and anecdotes that suggest that the following are important. The following are just short summaries of some of the main challenges and questions for each governance and management issue:


I like to repeat that Boards own the think tanks. This comment required clarification at the event. By this I mean that, ultimately, boards tend to be either legally or organisationally responsible for the organisations. In the US, whose NGO legislation is the basis for Indonesian (I was told), boards are legally responsible; in Indonesia they are also responsible for their funding –but this is not something that is taken up much.

There are many kinds of boards. Some are made up of the think tank’s researchers (internal boards) and some are entirely external. Some have been set up by the think tanks and some by donors and some were set up by the founders before the think tanks were created.

Whatever their shape or form, the boards are ultimately responsible for the organisations. They must therefore be strong, competent and committed to them.

Some of the common challenges we find with boards include:

  • Weak boards in relation to the executive director (ED): often the ED has all the power and the boards are only called upon to legitimise what he or she wants. This is not good.
  • Boards are too strong in relation to the executive director: the opposite is not ideal, either. A board should be involved but not too much. This is a challenge that think tanks with internal boards face.
  • The right mix of skills and experience: most boards are made up of individuals with knowledge and experience in the policy and research issues that the think tanks are dealing with. They have been brought in for their ‘academic’ qualifications or their fame and prominence in politics, economics and society. But they do not necessarily know how to be board members of a think tank; they cannot help when it comes to finances, or communications, or staff management. They are at a loss when the conversation turns to the balance sheets of the think tank and the tedious and necessary discussions about contracts, tax legislation and NGO law. These issues, however, are fundamental and any board must be on top of them. Some think tanks try to address this by encouraging retired CEOs or entrepreneurs to join their boards.
  • Boards are un-committed: I have not come across many boards that are willing or able to dedicate the necessary time to the think tanks they govern. Finding ways to get them involved is always a challenge for executive directors. This is particularly important when it comes to managing the transitions of executive directors. These are the responsibility of the boards and must be handled by them.

Executive Directors

Executive Directors (EDs) in many think tanks are usually the most senior researchers. They do not always get recruited or headhunted from a broad short list of professional directors but, instead, it is often that it was their turn to take on the position. Few that I have met really enjoy being the EDs –they rather be doing their own researcher. As a consequence few have developed the leadership and management skills that such a complex organisation like a think tank needs and demands from them. (Simon Maxwell said that Think Tank Directors are doomed to fail because their job descriptions are too wide.)

They may be intellectual leaders and in many cases highly influential in their own right but they may still lack the skills and experience to do some of the most important aspects of the job:

  • Manage donors and clients: raising funds to do a piece of research is not the same as raising funds for an organisation. The latter demands an on-going and rather strategic management of the relationship with the funders that would be unnecessary for a single researcher. They need to have an excellent understanding of the think tank’s entire research agenda and engage with a much broader community of funders.
  • Financial management: many think tanks say finance when they really mean accounting. Most ‘finance teams’ only deal with accounting. The EDs, however, have to deal with and be on top of finance: the strategic use of the organisation’s capital –stocks and flows.
  • Recruitment: EDs are responsible for most of the senior level recruitment. They have to make sure that their Senior Management Teams are up to the challenge of running the think tank. Even if they can count on the support of an HR department, they still have to take the lead (and responsibility) in the appointment of key staff. There is a skill in choosing the right people for the job and avoiding the temptation of picking someone based on personal biases.
  • Talent management: think tanks’ most valuable assets are their people. Their staff can make or break them. Hiring the brightest minds in the country (which is already a challenge) is not enough, though. They have to be supported by an equally brilliant human resources team, managers, communicators, and a coherent vision for how all these individuals will fit and work together.
  • Board management: working with and taking advantage of their boards is a challenge for many directors.  This is not surprising the boards themselves are not always capable of supporting their directors. Still EDs lack of skills and experience in this respect can be a key cause of the problem.
  • Communications: think tank are as much about communication as they are about research. They would not be think tanks if all that they did was communicate other people’s work and ideas but they wouldn’t be think tanks either if all they did were carryout research. At the helm of the think tank’s communications is the ED. He or she may be the public face of the organisation or prefer to let others shine under the spotlight; but the ED will always have to be involved in crafting the organisation’s main arguments and its style and channels of communication.

These challenges are just some of those that directors face. A few years ago, also based on an event at SMERU I outlined some other concerns. The solution to this “impossible role” may be in finding the right support mechanisms and mentors. Or in combining intellectual leadership of ‘research directors’ with more managerial competencies of deputy directors or CEOs.

This may be difficult to accept but it would be a mistake to think that asking for help of this kind is s sign of weakness or unfitness for the job. The CEOs of the most successful companies have teams of people supporting them in every respect.

Senior Management Teams

Supporting the EDs is the Senior Management Team. These are different in every organisation but play a similar role. They are the first management/leadership layer below the ED and can define the overall structure of the organisation: an SMT that includes a head of communications represents a very different organisation than one where all the members are senior researchers or one where the ED has appropriated all SMT roles for him or herself.

The board owns the organisation and must support the ED. But the ED must be able to count on his or her SMT to deliver his/her and the board’s vision. And ideally, EDs can count on their SMTs to help them develop the most appropriate vision for the organisation.

Common challenges that need to be addressed include:

  • No SMT: it was highlighted at the event in Jakarta that many think tanks do not have SMTs. At most, they rely on an Executive Direction (made up of the ED and maybe a deputy or assistant or a senior researcher). This may be OK for a small organisation but a single person cannot manage mid-size think tanks.
  • Composition of the SMT: should it be a purely administrative space limited to the ED and his or her assistants? Or should it involve only the most senior researchers and/or heads of programmes? Should it involve heads of finance or operations? What about a head of communications? Some of these questions can be addressed by being rather creative and, for instance, allowing people from different levels in the organisation into it. For example, the think tank may not be ready for a director of communications at the same level of a head of programme but may still allow the head of communications into the SMT. After all, the SMT is about managing the organisation in all its aspects.
  • Competences and responsibilities of the SMT: ironically, the most inexperienced EDs may find it harder to delegate to their SMTs. In these cases the SMTs become little more than a sounding board of the ED –a legitimising space- or, later on, a source of internal and disgruntled opposition. Delegation, however, is easier said that done and this is a skill that needs to be learned and should be supported by think tank funders.
  • Unclear and unpaid roles: often the responsibilities that SMT members take go unremunerated –no budget is allocated to cover the time they dedicate to organisation-wide responsibilities.  This, coupled with the fact that their roles are often unclear and dependent on the willingness of the EDs to delegate, can transform the SMT into a management black hole rather than the enabler it ought to be.
  • Communications: another challenge faced by SMT is how best to communicate with the rest of the organisation. Even very effective SMTs struggle when it comes to sharing its proceedings and decisions with the staff. Decisions go unnoticed by people who needed to know, staff feel disconnected from the senior leadership, trust can be lost, etc. The effects of poor internal communications are never clearer than at this level. If SMT fails to connect to the rest of the organisation it undermines whatever successes if may have had.
  • Crisis only SMTs: according to the participants some think tanks have crisis only SMTs. This means that their members are only called upon to deal with emergencies or situations that demand an immediate response.

Communications, Management, and Finance (competences and links)

Some of the challenges here are the same as those faced by the directors. Think tanks are not always the most attractive employers in their countries. The private sector is likely to offer higher salaries for the core central services, without which a think tank cannot operate. As a consequence, these aspects of the organisation are often under funded, understaffed, and under skilled. In practice, the roles of heads of communication, management, and finance are held by senior researchers who may at some point shown an interest in these issues or were simply unlucky in the way that roles were allocated.

Think tanks are working around the problem of limited skills in communications. These are highly transferable skills and the supply of local communications experts is sufficient for the needs of think tanks –they may need some guidance on working for think tanks but that is about it. Far more important is that these communicators are hired into the right positions rather than as very junior assistants.

But management and finance functions still remain a challenge. The business of think tanks isn’t a straightforward one. These are not easy organisations to run. By their very nature they face complex legal frameworks than demand a great deal more from their accountants that would be at first expected.  Their funding models pose important questions about their financial sustainability that require far more expertise and experience than most administrative assistants or accountants charged with them may be capable of.

Unfortunately, researchers have a way of thinking, sometimes, that if it is not about research it cannot be ‘that’ important or difficult -well, they’d be wrong. So rather than a problem of skills alone, the challenge really lies in the combination of their limited skills and the relatively low importance awarded to these roles within the organisation.  They often isolated, sat in a dark corner of the office, instead of having an ever present position, mingling with the researchers, and engaging in exiting and even emotional discussions with them.

Think tanks do not just manage projects; they do not just pay invoices; nor do they simply public briefing papers. Their projects have to generate ideas; their have to encourage the best minds to work with them; and they have to communicate complex arguments and ideas. To achieve this they need more than just good researchers.

The Indonesian think tanks were interested in the opportunities that more experienced financial managers could offer them. Could they help develop alternative business models, develop parallel income-generating enterprises, secure loans for them, etc.

This demands a kind of interaction and familiarity of each other’s work that is rare to find in a think tank.

Of course, the usual reaction to this is that it’s not only hard to find competent managers and financiers it’s also expensive. Why would an MBA graduate want to join a think tank or manage its rather limited funds? The solution may lie in putting together a more diverse board that incorporates these skills; using consultants to help set put basic systems, partnering with other think tanks to pool resources, etc.

Organising research teams

Still, research is at the centre of any think tank. Some think tanks organise themselves along disciplines, others according to research areas, others based on policy issues, a few on initiatives, and some as a loose group of experts. Research, you see, is about more than just the research agenda.

The choice often has less to do with strategy and more with history. Along the way, each think tank has tried to balance several interests: those of their researchers, those of their audiences, and of their funders. They have also had take into account their own resources, their capacity to imagine and design the best possible arrangement, and the influences they were subject to in this field.

Some challenges to consider are:

  • Public versus private: as they have become more public and open in their communications think tanks now face another challenge: how the organisation presents itself and how it organises itself may be at odds with each other.
  • Career prospects: the way a think tank organises its research teams (and other teams for that matter) has an effect on its capacity to attract promising young and well established researchers. A think tank organised by disciplines (economics, sociology, politics) may not be as inspiring as one by policy issues (banking policy, infrastructure, education, health).
  • Cohesion and identity: discipline or sectorial arrangements can be easier to manage but may not make it possible for researchers to work across disciplines and sectors thus helping to build organisation-wide arguments and initiatives. Tackling real life problems or addressing clear policy questions rather than working within broad policy issues or sectors may offer think tanks a way to improve their organisational and intellectual cohesion.
  • Flexibility: some arrangements are more flexible than others. Some allow think tanks to reinvent themselves without having to change their entire staff, while others make it impossible to do so; then again, these may be much better at establishing a well-known brand based on a credible and long term body of specialised work. Some think tanks address the need for flexibility by relying on senior researcher to develop their own bodies of work and allowing younger researcher to move around as if in an internal market of experts –this makes it possible to adopt new ideas and shed old ones without much trauma to the organisation. Others prefer to develop broad-enough policy or sector programmes that may be able to work for a range of funders and on several more specific policy issues -thus maintaining at least some funding and issue flexibility. There are trade-offs in each model.
  • Creative decommissioning: a key element of the organisation of a think tank’s research work has to do with its capacity to make the difficult (and unpopular decision) of closing down on entire areas of work. Policy agendas change, often issues come back into fashion, sometimes they never ever see the light of day again. Think tanks’ management must decide whether it should continue to support initiatives or programmes that fail to attract the attention of funders, policymakers, or the public. Some issues may be worth sticking too for as long as it takes; others not. The organisation of the research function can make this process truly traumatic or turn it into an opportunity for the think tank. In essence, does the way that the think tank has organised its research function encourage researchers to continuously defend their ideas and objectives, thus testing their own assumptions and views of their own work’s worth? Few do; most think tanks’ programmes or groups operate under the assumption that their work is important and face very little challenge within their organisations –as long as the money rolls in…

The next post will address three other governance and management issues -that deal, in particular, with staffing and monitoring progress.