Better Sooner than Later: Addressing think tanks’ governance and management challenges to take full advantage of new funding and support opportunities

10 March 2014
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

On Wednesday 26th February I participated in an event organised by SMERU Research Institute in Jakarta on Governance and Management of think tanks. The event was intended to kick start a conversation that I had wanted to have at the now postponed KSIconference planned for the previous week in Yogyakarta (which had to be cancelled due to a volcanic eruption).

Below (and over another two posts) I present an outline of what I talked about and some of the comments and contributions made by the audience. We followed Chatham House Rule to encourage the participants to share their own experiences. (Still, you can see the video of the event here -but you may have to fast forward about 10 minutes.)

Second post in this series: Boards, Executive Directors, Senior Management Teams, and central services

Third post in this series: Line management, staffing, and monitoring for management

The event’s dynamic was the following: It was chaired by Pak Asep, SMERU’s Executive Director and I talked through some of the points below (not all nor in that level of detail). Pak Asep and the participants interrupted me whenever they felt like adding something or asking questions. After each section we had a rather open and increasingly honest discussion and were able to reflect on the importance of these issues for think tanks.

Afterwards, we shared a lunch and were able to continue the conversation.

Before jumping into the topic proper I had to address a question in every one’s mind: what is a think tank?

I tried my luck by suggesting that a think tank is just a label; that an organisation that attempts to inform or influence policy by drawing heavily on its research (or research done by others but which they add value to) could be called a think tank. More on this on a future post (I then had a very interesting discussion about think tanks during a visit to CIFOR that may have changed my own definition).

Then of course I was asked about governance and management. Governance I defined as the organisational arrangement –the way the various parts of the organisation are brought together and the rules of their interactions. Management, I said, had more to do with the practical aspects of the organisation’s functioning: project and team management, staffing, line management, etc.

I think I got away with it.

Why don’t we want to talk about this?

I started my talk offering some views about why this is not as popular a subject as it should be. Discussions about Governance and Management tend to be left for later on in capacity development efforts. Neither the think tanks nor their funders seem to be keen to raise these issues earlier on.

I suggest two reasons for this:

  • Few directors want to openly declare that they or their staff lack the necessary competences to manage their organisations. Few would want to let everyone know that their organisations lack a functioning board, that their finance teams are overwhelmed with the challenges of managing the think tank’s finances, or that their researchers work in a system that lacks the necessary management structures of modern enterprises.
  • For their part, donors are sometimes too politically correct. They do not want to be seen as being too nosy and prefer to “pretend that all is ‘good enough’”. Instead they focus on the kind of things that are open for all to see: communications, research quality (although this is also a contentious issue), and evaluation (of influence).

Why is it important to deal with this?

The problem is that without the right Governance and Management, think tanks cannot expect to take full advantage of the support that their funders and supporters offer. They cannot expect lessons to be learned, or that new funds will be used to improve their work or to seek out new opportunities. Without serious governance and management reforms, early on, the funds and support received may be as good as wasted.

Let’s take some examples:

  1. Communications capacity building. This is a favourite of funders and is often delivered through a series of workshops for research and communication staff. Few think tanks in developing countries have competent communication teams (teams, not staff) and even fewer award the communications directors (or who ever is in charge) a place in their senior management teams. Without the right teams and in the right place within the organisation, the tools and skills shared through these workshops will not go far –not even mentoring. The participants will certainly learn something but nothing that can be easily and sustainably applied.
  2. Core funding. Core funding or institutional funding is fundamental for think tanks. However they manage to get it, they must have a minimum of it to maintain their core functions and, above all, their own initiative. A think tank that relies on funder/client-devised projects is seriously limited in its intellectual autonomy and worth. But access to institutional funds is not enough. The think tank needs to be able to use those funds to explore and design its own initiatives. This demands a Senior Management Team make-up that few organisations have, a human resources strategy that is beyond the reach of most think tanks, and wizards in the finance department. It should not surprise us then that institutional funds do not translate in think tanks driven initiatives and are instead used to cover central services or allocated across the organisations as small incentives for researchers to undertake personal research projects.
  3. Sustainability. A popular objective among funders supporting think tanks is that they would like to see their grantees achieving a certain degree of sustainability in the future. Sustainability less to do with accessing new and more sources of funding and more with organisational resilience. Think tanks are political actors and are therefore (or should be) subject to the merciless ebb and flow of politics and organisational life. They must be able to deal with political attacks, sudden funding cuts, censorship, sudden jumps in demand, changes in the political agenda –for or against their interests, unexpected resignations of senior staff and even of their executive directors, etc. They need a strong, competent and committed board to steer them through choppy waters. A weak board will miss the tide, it will not be able to support its director (it may not even be able to appoint the most appropriate director), won’t be able to invest in long term initiatives or in new skills for future challenges, it may not be able to protect the organisation from political attacks, etc. A well-funded and very visible organisation with a weak board and senior management may be gone from one day to the other.

The next posts will deal with the following governance and management issues:

  • Boards, their strength, composition and commitment
  • Executive Directors, skills, experience, and support
  • Senior Management Team, composition, relationship with the ED and with the staff
  • The organisation of research teams
  • Central services such as management, finance and communications, their competencies and position in the organisation
  • Line management and performance appraisals
  • Staffing, hiring, managing, and firing
  • Monitoring for management, governance, staff, projects, and quality

Read the second post here: on Boards, Executive Directors, Senior Management Teams, and central services.