Challenges for the activist think tank

14 February 2022

Adapted from Simon Maxwell’s blog.

Some think tanks focus exclusively on research and policy engagement. Others describe themselves as ‘change hubs’ opening space for collaborative research and programme design, or ‘think and do tanks’ piloting innovative programmes. Some have political affiliations. Others go even further and actively work with, support and join campaigning groups. There is a continuum from ‘pure’ research to activist think tanks. 

Examples of activist think tanks include the New Economics Foundation that ‘works with people igniting change from below, combining this with rigorous research to fight for change from the top’ and Positive Money which describes itself as a ‘research and campaigning organisation’. Both are supported by Partners for A New Economy

There is a similarity with NGO research departments – think for example of Oxfam or Save the Children’s policy work. But activist think tanks face challenges that more traditional outfits do not. 

At the On Think Tanks School for Thinktankers 2022, I explored these challenges with a group of 20+ thinktankers from around the world. This was the fifth School and each year we workshop a different ‘pizza night’ case study. 

As usual, the School participants did great work responding to the case study and I have drawn on their ideas to reach my own conclusions about think tanks and activism.

Think tanks and activism ‘pizza night’ case study

The office was closed and everyone had left, but in one corner of the building, a light still burned. Cecilia wanted to go home to her family, it was pizza night, and she had hardly seen the children all week. But there was a Board meeting coming up, and as Director of the think-tank, it was preying on her mind.

In the old days, Cecilia had been careful to nurture an image of neutrality and objectivity among her staff, emphasising careful peer-reviewed research. Individual researchers could take positions, but the institution did not. Cecilia had always been sure to maintain a good balance of different perspectives on the Board.

But the sands, she felt were shifting. She herself was passionate about delivering real change, and so were many of her staff. Walking around the office, she would notice that many staff had pictures of Greta Thunberg pinned to their walls; many also wore the badges of campaigning groups, like the Extinction Rebellion. Some members of the Board, too, were committed activists. She expected to see them any day, gluing themselves in protest to the entrance doors of one multinational or another.

Cecilia could see the attraction of being more outspoken, and of linking up with campaign groups; even of being, in some sense, a campaign group. But mulling things over with her Chair, she could also appreciate the risks. Indeed, the Chair had asked her for a briefing at the next meeting. What differences was she proposing? What were the benefits? What were the risks? And how could the risks be mitigated?

That was a serious challenge. Cecilia pulled off a page from her pad and wrote a heading: Challenges for the activist think-tank. She needed to fill that in, answering the four questions the Chair had posed. but it was too late to do more. She thought of the pizza and her mouth began to water. Margarita or Quattro staggioni? It was time to go home. Cecilia rose, stretched, and switched off the light.

I asked School participants to answer the four questions the Board Chair had posed and suggested some entry points: the think tank’s mission statement, statement of values, organisational culture, five-year strategy, annual business plan, funding plan, recruitment, appraisal and promotion, outputs and board membership.

Seven reflections on think tanks and activism

Be robust about wanting to change the world. 

That drive, after all, is why we work in think tanks, rather than University Departments or pure research institutes. All think tanks, in one way or another, set out to frame the debate, and use their outputs to shift the Overton Window

Understand that analysing the forces which shape change – including those unleashed by campaigning organisations – is central to the policy work of all think tanks.  

There is a large literature on how think-tanks engage with the policy process (see for example ODI’s  Rapid Outcome Mapping Approach, or the IFPRI Kaleidoscope model. But there is also a large literature on the art and science of activism (for example, the excellent play-book by Duncan Green, ‘How Change Happens’). If activists make use of the Alinsky principles, the least we should do is be aware.

Accept and encourage informal links between the staff of think tanks and campaigning organisations

Even when the institution is careful not to take a formal position or declare an allegiance, many staff members will have links to campaigning organisations which are active in their field. They may help research, write or review reports, sit on advisory boards, or speak at events. They may even, as Cecilia observed, go on demonstrations or glue themselves to the door of a multinational. 

Think tanks and campaigning organisations each play an important role in making change happen: it is useful to be connected to debates and channels of influence. Staff may also feel more motivated. 

There are some risks, however. Not all campaigning organisations that staff want to support are necessarily benign, and not all are seen by governments (and potential funders) as legitimate.  That is why it is important that staff act, and are identified as acting, in a personal capacity.

Be aware that both the benefits and the risks rise as the degree of overt and formal activism rises

Imagine. A new and more assertive mission statement. Explicit campaigning objectives in the strategy and business plan. Staff recruited and rewarded for campaigning skills. New products, aimed at a campaigning audience. And new funders courted and secured.

On the one hand, all this will offer a more direct connection to some aspects of the policy process. It may be the case, for example, that the think tank is much more closely connected to non-specialists and to local campaigning groups. New avenues of influence may open. New funding may be secured. 

On the other hand, the quality and legitimacy of research may be questioned. Funding from traditional sources may be at risk. Activist think tanks may find that their research is not taken seriously (‘they would say that, wouldn’t they?’). They may find that their political access is diminished or funding cut if a political party they have been supporting loses power. 

Think about actions the think tank can take to mitigate the risks. 

There is much to be said for preserving a diversity of views on the Board, for example. It is also more necessary than ever to assure the quality of research, using advisory panels and peer review. The more funding can be diversified, the better. And financial reserves are crucial to provide a cushion in case campaigning has adverse consequences.

Consider becoming an activist slowly.

As participants of the School for Thinktankers suggested: try it on a small scale before plunging into the deep end. Choose your battles carefully. And be sure to communicate well with all your stakeholders.

Consider whether you are using existing tools fully to deliver change. 

Remember that even non-activist think-tanks already have many tools to help deliver change. Consider carefully whether those tools are being used to best advantage.

Previous Simon Maxwell ‘pizza night’ case study sessions at the School for Thinktankers covered: policy engagement, think tank governance, management of cross-cutting issues, and think tank management in times of crisis.