March 28, 2022

Building a think tank: why, what, who, how, when?

If you’re thinking about setting up a new think tank, you probably have a lot of questions.

Like: Where do I start? How do I fundraise for it or budget operating costs? How much weight should I give to research, communications and management? When should I start thinking about monitoring, evaluation and learning?  Who should I approach first?

The prospect can be daunting. Establishing a new think tank is hard work.  But we are here to help. 

Over the last decade On Think Tanks has engaged with policy entrepreneurs and thinktankers from all over the world who have either asked us these questions or helped us solve them for others. 

We’ve turned the many contributions we’ve received from policy entrepreneurs sharing their experience and advice of building new think tanks, plus the experience we have acquired helping a small number of new think tanks through the process, into a build a think tank guide for policy entrepreneurs

The guide is designed to accompany you through the process, asking important questions along the way and sharing insights from think tank leaders around the world.

It is centered around the key Why? What? Who? How? And When? questions you need to ask yourself in setting up a new think tank (plus a final checklist). It aims to help you deal with the many decisions you will need to make and the different aspects you need to consider.

Here’s an overview of some of the key questions and topics you’ll find in the guide.

Why do you want to set up a think tank?

This is the most important question you can ask yourself.  Most people answer this question with a specific policy or political or social situation that they want to change in their country or region. But the motivations can be diverse.

The answer to this question is your north star. Understanding your motivations and objectives will help you figure out what kind of think tank you wish to establish, what activities it will undertake, who will work in it, and more. 

You should come back to this question often to help you make the decisions you need to along the way.

What will your think tank do?

To answer this, you must first understand the context in which you’re working. This includes the political context. The evidence needs and access to information. Funding opportunities. The intellectual climate. The civil society context. Regulatory regimes. 

Understanding this will help situate you in the context the think tank will be operating in and thus help answer questions like: What is your think tank’s vision, mission and values? What topics will you focus on? What impact do you want to achieve? What business model will you choose? 

Who will be involved?

People make the think tank so there is a lot to consider here. And we are not only referring to staff. But rather to all the people and organisations that your think tank will be involved with.

For example, who will govern your think tank? Who will lead it? Who will you employ? Who will fund your think tank? Who will be your allies and partners? Who is your audience?

How will you do it?

Research is a cornerstone of any think tank. In the guide we don’t focus much on the ‘hows’ of research methodology, there is plenty of support and resources available out there on that. Instead, we help you reflect on how to build a policy-relevant research agenda. How to position your research for policy influence? And how to ensure research quality?

Linked to this are important questions about how you will ensure your think tank’s credibility? How will your think tank communicate? How will it monitor progress, learn and adapt to change? 

There are also often overlooked, but very important, questions about how to manage your think tank – from budgeting to your physical (or virtual) workspace.

When to start… and when to let go?

Start now! If you’re waiting for everything to be in place you will probably never do it. Having said that, there are some skills and knowledge that you will need to have to make this work. And if you don’t have them yet, start building them now (one way to do that is to join our next School for Thinktankers).

When to let go is the other important ‘When?’ question. There will come a time when you might need to step down from leading your think tank – because it’s what’s best for you or for your think tank. Transitions are difficult times for organisations, so best to plan ahead for when the time comes and establish the structures the organisation will need to thrive from the start.

Think-Plan-Start-Adapt

To sum up, we advocate for the Think-Plan-Start-Adapt approach to building a think tank. This guide will help you think through and plan the different elements of setting up a think tank. Once you have a plan, start. Make sure you build in a monitoring mechanism and reflections spaces to recognise if something isn’t working. Then it’s time to think again, make a new plan, start and adapt.

About the authors:

Andrea Baertl:  Director of Research and Learning at On Think Tanks

Louise Ball:  OTT Director of Communications.

Read more from: Andrea Baertl Louise Ball

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