Capacity building for think tanks: advice from Goran Buldioski

30 November 2012

Developing the capacity of think tanks in developing countries has emerged as a key concern and objective for many international development agencies. Efforts by the Think Tank Initiative, the Open Society Foundations’ Think Tank Fund, and now AusAid’s Indonesian Knowledge Sector Initiative  all focus on developing the capacity of think tanks (among other actors. Goran Buldioski, from the Think Tank Fund, has published a list of very interesting recommendations based on his own experience:

You should go to the original blog, Capacity building for think tanks, but here are the highlights:

Goran offers some principles (copy-pasted excerpts) that are all worth paying attention to:

  • Training is provided only to those who demand it.
  • If donors want to raise awareness, it is best to invite TT leadership to exchange practices, discuss issues and hopefully realize gaps in their own performance (and perhaps request some training as a follow-up from the donors).
  •  Interventions need adaptive designs
  • Mentoring, on-the-job training and learning, peer-to-peer and expert exchanges should take precedent
  •  Mid- and long-term time horizon is a must
  •  Skills-building has to be linked with development (design / production) of a concrete product
  •  Most of the capacity building efforts will need a wider organizational buy-in
  • (This one is worth copy-pasting entirety) The efforts should have clear calculation / benchmarks of the cost per participant ($USD or EUR/ participant). To date, I have seen quite a few costly activities, where the investment per participant has gone over 10,000 $USD. As a colleague of mine put it some time ago, this is the cost of an average one-year master program at a solid university in Europe (and not only in Eastern Europe). While, the MA degree and the capacity building are not directly comparable, it useful to keep this and similar parallels in mind.
  •  Donors should charge a participation fee almost as a rule!
  •  Demand / competition for offered places

Overall, Goran places an increasing emphasis on real demand from the think tanks. This is very much in line with what I have written before on capacity development. Goran’s principles are important because they ensure that there is real buy-in from the think tanks rather than this being just an exercise driven by the funders and the consultants brought in to do the job.

Goran also recommends that capacity building is organised in a such a way that responds to different levels of organisational development. He is right. It makes no sense to put highly capable think tanks with those struggling with basic tasks. He recommends at least 2 tiers: basic and intermediate.

Equally, there are different forms of capacity building that could be taken into account. Not everything can be done with a single mechanism.

And the skills that are necessary for each think tank are also different. Again, this demands that each organisation is treated separately and allowed to demand the support they really need.

Getting to this point in the process is hard and can take some time but, as I have found, it is worth while. Not only is the work more interesting but the results of the support provided are far more significant and faster to achieve. The alternative, to plough through with external consultants and expensive interventions with little buy-in from the think tanks themselves, is far less effective.

Other relevant blog posts on capacity development can be found below:

Think Tank Initiative 2012 exchange: on building research capacity for ‘young’ think tanks

Research communications support: why do donors, think tanks and consultants keep making the same mistakes?

Capacity development: it is time to think about new ways of generating and sharing knowledge,

Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences

INASP’s reflections on lessons from recent research communication capacity building experiences