Core funding unexpected (positives)

14 December 2018

Core funding from foreign aid funders for think tanks in developing countries does not seem like a revolutionary idea – but it is. Think about it: a funder provides long term funding for an organisation to decide, with minimum or no interference, what to do with it.

When the Think Tank Initiative (TTI) launched about 10 years ago providing think tanks in Latin America, Africa and Asia with core funding the expectation was that this kind of support would have a transformative effect on them and the field. In a previous article I suggested that core funding led to several unexpected negative consequences. But the TTI’s core funding has also made important positive contributions to think tanks and the field.

This article offers a few reflections on unexpected positive effects from this kind of support.

1) New generations

OTT has placed particular attention to supporting new generations of thinktankers. Over the years, and through our various initiatives, we have come across many up-and-coming think tank leaders who have benefited, directly or indirectly, by core funding from the TTI or the Think Tank Fund (TTF), to mention two such efforts.

These young thinktankers have been encouraged and able to explore the ins and outs of their organisations and contemplate a career in think tanks, in no small part because of the stability provided by core funding.

These new thinktankers are now able to support generational renewal in the think tanks supported by core funding or even help launch new think tanks.

With the end of this kind of funding, many organisations are showing clear signs of concern. I truly hope their leaders do not try to solve this challenge on their own and, instead, turn towards the young thinktankers who may very well have the answers they are looking for.

2) Communication is here to stay

I have concerns for the future of communication budgets and teams within many of the think tanks that will now lose core funding. Without an alternative business model to sustain years of investments in communication this is a part of the organisation that is likely to suffer the most.

However, for most think tanks, the recognition that communication is important will not be lost -certainly not in the short term. Many of the think tank leaders we have talked to have expressed concern for their capacity to fund this function because they realise its importance.

They would not care if they did not think communications mattered.

Core funding allowed think tanks to experiment with communications. Those who were not convinced of its value had a chance to observe their peers sprint ahead of them by launching new websites, social media strategies and gaining coveted attention from much broader audiences. Others have been able to suspend disbelief in communications and give it ago for longer than they would have without core funding. Getting it right the first time around is unlikely to happen. Core funding allowed think tanks to experiment with different models, different skills, different approaches and strategies, etc.

3) Downwards accountability

Another interesting effect of core funding has been the greater concern from mid-to-lower levels of the organisation on strategic matters hitherto reserved for senior leaders.

This is a working hypothesis and requires further analysis. Over the years, we have advocated that think tanks should award greater responsibility to their researchers and other senior staff by, among other things, making them responsible for their teams’ budget. This responsibility, of course, should come with benefits: raise funds for your programme, use those funds effectively, and you get to make decisions about those funds in the future.

What we have often found is that senior management and executive directors complain that their programme leaders and researchers do not pull their weights in terms of fundraising for the organisation -let alone their own programmes or teams- but, what can you expect if these individuals see no upside to the deal? Greater responsibilities should be accompanied by greater benefits.

This means that, among other things, think tanks need to open up about their strategies, funding portfolio, etc. to their staff. This openness can be difficult for some leaders who keep these matters close to their chest. In part because openness, as we know, ushers in all kinds of accountability; in this case, downwards.

Core funding has had a similar effect. All staff is aware that their organisation is recipient of funding from TTI. For the entrepreneur thinktanker, it has not been hard to find out how much funding their think tank was receiving every year and what this money was being used for. In many cases, the leadership has made some of these funds available through a range of allocation mechanisms, including competitive internal grants, supporting central services, investing in strategic areas of work, etc.

Over the years, this has helped raise a breed of thinktankers who is in-tune with the financial ins and outs of their organisations. They are very much aware of the opportunity cost of the core funds spent and are increasingly more comfortable expressing dissent.

The young thinktankers that we have worked with through projects, the Winterschool and our Fellowship programme have a strong sense of entitlement over the core funding received by their organisation -and an equal sense of responsibility to contribute to its effective use.

Has core funding made think tanks more horizontal?

4) Orderly transitions

The TTIX in Bangkok illustrated this point. Off the top of my head, ASIES, GRADE, Grupo Faro, CADEP, IPAR Rwanda, CSEA, KIPRA, CEPA, CPR, PAC India are just a few of the think tanks, that have gone through orderly leadership transitions.

In our interactions with many directors and their staff, during the first phase of the TTI, we found a significant degree of concern about leadership transitions. Many felt that they were single-handedly supporting the organisations on their shoulders, few had the support of their boards who should have been charged with transitions, and most were concerned about the signal that leaving would give their funders.

When it became certain that TTI would continue for a second phase, many of these transitions fell nicely into place. Core funding gave think tank leaders the opportunity to weather any transition uncertainty, attract new directors with an attractive 1 year plus ease of mind promise, and even take their time to explore new job descriptions and try out recruitment strategies.

New leadership brings forth new ideas and new opportunities for the think tank. In some cases, these new leaders have been prepared in-house while in others they have joined from other organisations or upon returning to their countries after a period abroad – these think tanks being the must-work-at-place. I doubt that either group would have existed without core funding.

5) A renewed field

A final unexpected positive effect of this core funding experiment has been the opportunity to study think tanks for a prolonged period of time and with the participation of think tanks themselves.

IDRC and other TTI funders could have funded a think tanks study fund to encourage the development of a new field of think tanks in developing countries. (They should!) Instead, the core funded they provided awarded some think tanks and their leaders the time to explore thinktanking as a researchable subject. We at On Think Tanks have benefited from and have been party to this since our inception.

We have helped produce and edit organisational reform cases from Latin America, written by the think tanks themselves; have contributed to and supported a South Asian newsletter focused on think tanks edited by CSTEP; and are closely involved with researchers focused on the study of women in research and new business models.

The Think Tank Fund’s support in Europe has had a similar impact: breeding think tank thought leaders among think tank directors, researchers and communicators. Their contributions to the field have helped re-shape it and re-balance it with a much stronger southern voice and perspective.

In summary, core funding has made important contributions to the field beyond what think tanks did with the funds themselves. We have made progress in our understanding of the impact that core funding has had – positive or negative. But what is really important for us to find out is under which conditions may the positive outcomes be maximised while the negative ones are minimised.