June 13, 2018


Chukwuka (Chuka) Onyekwena, Executive Director at the Centre for the Study of the Economies of Africa (CSEA)

On Think Tanks’ met up with Chuka Onyekwena at the 5th Africa Think Tank Conference held in April in Accra. Chuka, an On Think Tanks Fellow, has developed a framework to improve CSEA’s fundraising approach. We discussed about the challenges that think tanks face to meet the expectations of their funders, the policy audiences and themselves.

Enrique Mendizabal: What are the main concerns that think tank in Nigeria ice today?

Chukwuka Onyekwena: There are two key concerns. One is being relevant given that policies are not rally made by considering evidence. There are many political and ideological considerations. And this is not how think tanks produce research based evidence. It is not based o ideology; it is very neutral. So policymakers are not really demanding information.

EM: So relevance comes from incoorating some of that ideology into the way you decide your projects or choose your agenda, because politicians are deciding what is relevant based on what they public is interested in.

CO: Yes, the is the difficult bit. Trying to cling our research agenda to suit the way they think, they way they process information.

And then a related challenge is sustainability. Funding for think tanks is shrinking.

EM: Is it thinking everywhere? Also in africa?

CO: I think this is general, all over the world. But particularly for Africa because the demand side is weak. The demand for our research is weaker in Africa. Unlike as in the U.S., in D.C., where working with think tanks is part of the decision making process.

EM: This is interesting. What you are saying is that because governments are not that interested in research they do not pay for it. And funders (mostly foreign) who used to pay for it are now saying: “The government is not interested. There are other ways  we can have influence, not necessarily by funding a think tank or a research centre”.

CO: The funders are no seeing much impact of the work that think tanks are doing so they are less motivated to fund think tanks. Nowadays they are more likely to put conditions, reduce flexibility to funding.

EM: And what kind of things are think tanks such as CSEA in Nigeria doing to address this change in funders who are less inclined to fund think tanks in a flexible way?

CO: We are trying to align out research agenda in a way that we think might bring more policy impact. this is difficult. then we are also trying to engage with diverse funders. Funders who are more likely o understand the challenge we face and empathise with our situation.

EM: So you are trying to align yourselves with the political agenda of policymaking so that there is demand for research and also trying to cling yourselves with the funders agenda…

CO: Without compromising the objectivity

EM: …so you are somewhere in the middle, but you have to keep at arms-length from politicians and arms-length from funders; but at the same time you need both the interest and demand for your research from politicians and the money and ther resources form the funders. Not an easy thing to do.

CO: Not easy at all. So you are trying to go to the policy space to find out the issues that would really be relevant and that we need to understand. And then, we need to engage with the funders and convince them that if they fund these issues that we are interested in then we will do some  good analysis and bring some interesting perspectives to them.

EM: And these funders tend to be foreign funders

CO: Most of them are. Entirely are.

EM: But Nigeria is a lage country and a the richest coutry in africa…

CO: The biggest economy in Africa.

EM: …and there are many rich people, corporations and philanthropists in Nigeria.

CO: We have engaged most of them. But there is something about research that is not very catchy.. it is not very, shall I say, not very sexy.

EM: Yes, you are not building schools.

CO: Yes, exactly they want to do things that people will see and there will be an inmediate impact. There is something soft about research that is a long term impact and not a very tangible one.

You can see that philanthropists are not very aligned with that.

EM: Have you had a chance to talk to, maybe, Nigerians in the diaspora in the U.S. and the UK who might be more familiar with think tanks and funding research.

CO: Not quite. We have not been able to identify most of them and we are still tying to engage with them.

EM: You have developed an approach to fundraising. Can you tell me what this is about?

CO: The approach to fundraising that we developed is something based on our experience in seeking for funds. We were like: “Hey, what determines your ability to get funding?” So we listed the factors.

EM: What kind of factors?

CO: The factors are 1) people you have done prior work with, 2) people your board of directors can help you to link up with, 3) also your credibility as a think tank, and then 4) the availability of calls for proposal and how competitive they are.

EM: So the opportunities that are there.

CO: Yes, the opportunities out there. So we brought this factors. But being a think tank we tried to provide a methodological process to it. So we did a mapping of all the contacts that we have and we categorised them and then we weighted them according to each of the factors.

So those weights that we applied to them would determine how we follow up with them, how we engage with them and how we rank them in terms of priorities.

EM: They give you a sense of likelihood of success. These are quite likely to be successful. But these ones a very tough, we few connections, we have never worked with them, no funding opportunities that we can see… maybe let’s not put too many resources right now.

CO: Exactly. And the weights that we give them are based on our experience. So another institution might weight them different.

EM: But the model would be replicable. They could take the same table and use it.

CO: Yes. We have an experience that a board member being connected helped us, so we add weight to it. Some people have higher visibility and credibility. That could be a bigger factor.

EM: So some organisation might give a higher weight to a connection to the board that they might give to the availability of opportunities for funding – all because of their own style of organisation.

CO: In our case, our board is important because they have played a role in the policy process

EM: But other organisations might have boards who do not have these connections, they might be mostly academics, so their connections won’t be as important for funding purposes. The model helps you prioritise the resources you spend on fundraing but also gives you an idea of the kind of activities that you can carryout to try to raise funds.

CO: It is a methodological approach because one of the most daunting tasks is the making innovations and try to see how they fit with what we do as a think tank.

EM: And have you tried it out?

CO: Yes we have been trying it out. It has not been easy to follow up with all the information. You prioritise it but then you have to follow up and that involves manpower. You have to check what they are doing and try to cling what you are doing to it. If you are disseminating your work you  have to target it tat them. Sending them emails, recording activities with staff, etc.

EM: And you have to assume that for every yesses you might need to get through a few nos. Success rate might low but it is a better way of doing it because you are being systematic.

CO: Yes, absolutely. I am aligned to doing things systematically. It is a better  way to do it. That is why we apply this to fundraising. And it has been fairly successful. I have been able to gain access to donors through this process.

But it is still a challenge.

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Watch the video of a webinar with Chuka

About the author:

Enrique Mendizabal:  Founder, On Think Tanks

Read more from: Enrique Mendizabal