When I joined the CAPRI team in early 2018 as the director of research, I began to explore an international think tank network for us to join. Founded in 2007, CAPRI—the Caribbean Policy Research Institute—is an independent public policy think tank in Jamaica. It receives core funding from Jamaican and overseas private sector donors, and is supported by the University of the West Indies, Mona, where CAPRI’s office is located; most research projects are funded by international donors. We are the only think tank in the English-speaking Caribbean, and I thought it important that we be a part of a think tank network. We had never actively participated in anything involving other think tanks, so we were a little lonely. OTT seemed to offer what CAPRI needed: a global non-partisan/non-ideological community of think tanks that would provide opportunities for learning, collaboration, and deepening the quality and meaning of our work.
When the OTT Conference was announced, we decided I would attend for a number of reasons: to gain some insight into think tank best practice for internal management systems, to establish relationships and explore collaborations with other think tanks around the world, to see where CAPRI ‘fits’ in the think tank world, and to better understand the OTT community so as to maximise our participation in it. And then there was the usually unarticulated goal of attending a professional conference- to have the space to think about the organisation’s work and mission. As one of the trinkets in the conference goodie bag had printed on it, a mini bookmark, “I work for a think tank. I must make time to think.”
What I learned was beyond my expectations: I filled 22 pages of my notebook with notes from the sessions. I took notes on what think tank work is, can, and should be; about different ways and modalities of doing think tank work; about trends in ‘thinktanking’; about funding; about the intersection between think tanks and partisan politics; about public engagement beyond audience targeting; about epistemic values and knowledge brokering. I was brought up to speed on think tank jargon. I engaged in deep discussion of aspects of thinktanking that I have never had the opportunity to interrogate before, and I was introduced to new ideas and concepts about all aspects of think tanks.
I met and spoke with a wide range of people from different types of think tanks and think tank-related organisations across the globe. The conversations generally involved my sharing about CAPRI, and vice versa. I left the OTT Conference with two fairly certain future collaborations for CAPRI and two other prospective engagements, as well as dozens of business cards.
I was also able to recognise that though we have been thinktanking solo for all these years, there are some things- our funding model and our communications efficacy- that CAPRI is doing really well.
Clarify who we are and what we do by asking ourselves:
- What is our worldview and how do we justify it?
- What are our epistemic values and how do we bring those to the knowledge management, translation and brokering that we do?
- What ideologies and perspectives does the individual thinktanker bring to the organisation’s work? To what extent does the think tank’s position align with the position of the individual articulating it? Should we, and how do we, draw lines between the think tank and the individual?
- Against what schema do we set our research agenda?
- What does our funding model imply for the work we do and how our work is viewed?
- Is our research supply-driven or demand-driven, and what does that imply for who we are and what we do?
Develop a better understanding of the real world of policy-making:
- Identify policy windows.
- Understand how ‘experts’ develop and obtain the ‘knowledge’ that informs policy.
- Establish the decision-making context for any given policy.
- Discern what is the individual perspective that the decision-maker brings to policymaking.
- Explore and identify what are the barriers to uptake of evidence-informed policy proposals.
Improve how we do our research
- Validate research objectives via preliminary consultations with stakeholders.
- Interview/debrief politicians and policy-makers soon after they leave office as to how policy is made and what policy questions need to be answered.
- “Awareness, advocacy and action”: Consider broadening public engagement beyond audience targeting vis-à-vis engaging non-traditional (for mainstream think tanks) groups, empowering people who are impacted to understand policies, and to support them to participate in thinking about solutions.
- Invest in exploring and adopting best practice research guidelines and protocols, eg IDRC’s Research Quality Plus approach.
Networking and collaborating with other think tanks
There are different methods of collaboration – being a part of a group of think tanks, with varying degrees of formality, and direct collaboration with another think tank. I was brought up to speed on the various modalities of collaboration across the think tank world. In general, however, the keys to networking success are similar across the various types and modalities:
- There must be a clear organising mission of the network/collaboration – a well-articulated raison d’etre . That mission is the driver to produce value.
- There must be a designated driver who convenes, owns and leads the network/collaboration, whether an individual or a secretariat.
- Technology can help with the creation of a dedicated virtual space for the network/collaboration, eg a channel in Microsoft Teams, a Slack-type platform.
- Hold regular, structured, objective-driven virtual meetings.
- Review and assess the impact and value of the network/collaboration to determine its future and sustainability. The network/collaboration must bring a return on the investment of time and resources.
Caroline Fiennes, a funding advisor, delivered a plenary specifically about donors who fund (or might be inclined to fund) think tanks; she distilled her presentation into tips:
- Have a dedicated system for keeping track of all donors, past, present, and prospective.
- Ensure that an email address is clearly and easily visible on the website should a potential donor want to make contact.
- Don’t pitch for a small amount on the assumption that asking for less might be more successful.
- “Two ears, one mouth” – spend twice as much time listening to donors than talking – find out what their interests, ideas and goals are.
- Consider the spectrum of broader change vs. individual effect – donors generally want broad change (which is difficult to measure and difficult to determine impact) that leads to individual effects (where there is greater certainty and measurability of impact). Try to frame research ideas that account for both.
- Don’t talk about activities—what the think tank DOES—instead talk about IMPACT and BENEFIT. Eg. Don’t talk about how a toaster works, talk about how great the toast it makes is.
- Every member of the organisation should have three concrete examples of our work which are easy to remember (for both the teller and the listener), have a straightforward storyline which brings a picture to mind of the end-benefit. For each example include STAR – the Situation, the Target, the Action, and the Results (in particular what changed and how the impact was measured).
In sum, I accomplished everything I set out to and more. This was a good investment of CAPRI’s time and money (we funded ourselves to attend), and we look forward to continuing to yield positive benefits from our participation with OTT and its activities.