Challenges for think tanks in the era of the ‘new normal’

27 July 2021
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced us to face problems that we did not know existed, and to adapt to the implications of a new reality. In the professional space, even governments have faced challenges; for example, large numbers of staff (drivers, messengers, and others) cannot possibly carry out their work from home. In the private sector, companies have faced problems that depend, to a large extent, on their line of business and the sector to which they belong (formal or informal). For its part, in the world of think tanks, the challenges are perceived in a generalised way, with differences that can be attributed to the country where the organisation is located, its size, or its main areas of research.

One of the challenges shared by think tanks in countries where the economic crisis has been most acute is the possibility of facing reductions in funding. In this type of organisation, resources usually come mainly from the public and private sectors (companies), international funders, or foreign governments through their international cooperation agencies. The weight that each source of funds represents varies from organisation to organisation. What is certain is that the economic crisis has affected the whole world and that for several think tanks this will surely translate into greater economic pressures.

Furthermore, it is not news that for governments, companies, and international funders, priorities have changed and resources have been concentrated primarily on alleviating health problems and their consequences. This creates an opportunity for organisations to justify why, at this juncture, it is still essential to finance the type of analysis they carry out. For example, the work of think tanks is essential in the development of scenarios and alternatives to achieve a fairer and more sustainable recovery in the world. In this sense, the reduction of traditional sources of financing should prompt a new search and diversification of funding sources, which may be a beneficial strategy in the medium and long term.

Before the pandemic, contact with various actors ( stakeholders ) was fundamental to think tanks’ work . Face-to-face interviews were commonly used to complement analyses, as well as the journalistic reports in those think tanks that carry them out. Similarly, it was customary to hold a series of events to launch publications and initiatives, round tables to encourage discussion of issues, meetings to build alliances and networks, and much more.

The pandemic removed the possibility of carrying out the aforementioned activities in the traditional format and led to the events taking place virtually. And although the closure of most offices made it difficult to carry out interviews, and caused delays in the projects that required them, it also emerged that virtual formats had many advantages that had not previously been seen or exploited. For example, online events can host a greater number of people, without any additional cost. Likewise, international experts can be called upon to participate in online events without the effort and expense of international travel.

Another challenge relates to the difficulty of maintaining a committed team with a sense of belonging towards the organisation in a work-at-home scheme. Undoubtedly, despite the fact that a series of advantages associated with the virtual format have been identified, it is true that it has its limits when it comes to nurturing social capital and informal relationships. The use and abuse of virtual meetings make the organisation of integration activities through this format unattractive. It is important for think tanks to think about how to rebuild their ties with the team. One way to do this is through a series of face-to-face integration activities once the entire team is vaccinated.

Finally, another topic to be discussed relates to returning to the offices and the best way to carry this out. Although think tanks and other civil society organisations are characterised by their flexibility in work schemes, some only allowed working from home in particular cases. Colleagues from the United States and Canada comment that the response of their teams to the possible ‘return to the offices’ has been mixed. In some organisations most of the staff want to return to a physical space, while in others they want to continue doing their work from home. Young people are the ones who mainly want to go back and resume physical contact with other people. Given these differences, many organisations have considered adopting a hybrid model. What is certain is that times have changed and think tanks must have the capacity to take on new challenges and innovate to ensure that their work model remains in force in the new normal.