Core vs. project funding for think tanks: Managing development

3 November 2014
SERIES Life after core funding 4 items

[Editor’s note: This is the second post in a series on core funding written by a new contributor to On Think Tanks, Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) in Albania. This post could be read alongside a reflection on organisational development in Latin America.]

Good management starts with (good) planning. CSO and think tank management is no exception from this rule. However, in a predominantly project-based civil society, how much time is left for thinktankers to plan and manage their existence as an organization with an agenda and expertise? With mostly short-term and project-driven funding, not much, I believe.

If I could describe core funding for think tanks in such an environment with a single word, I would choose “breathing”. This is what core funding offers to thinktankers – a moment to breathe amidst the pressure of project deadlines, activity implementation, donor reporting, staff retention, etc. Basically, a moment to take a break from the thought that in 6 months time all your current projects will come to an end, while the chances for new ones remain worryingly low. Throughout your modest existence as a think tank (wannabe) you’ve wished for such a time that would allow your researchers to think research, advocacy and development creatively instead of driven by project deadlines.

Nevertheless, for those lucky thinktankers that have managed at last to get organizational development support, switching from a project to core funding mindset has not been so easy.

The challenge to overcome such mindset starts with planning.

Plan your development…not simply products

The idea behind core and institutional support is to create or improve the organizational settings of your think tank’s development, its deliverables, and its impact on the policy environment. While the keyword here is “internal development”, our project-driven instinct usually drives us towards “external deliverables” first. Overcoming such confusion is essential for core funding management. What makes the difference is exactly the “organizational development” purpose; something you don’t typically see to its full extent under any specific project funding.

Namely, under project funding the donor expects you to design deliverables and achieve impact as per the terms and objectives of the specific project. Project deliverables are non-negotiable under the terms of the “contracts” that think tanks have to sign and one is not expected to fail in achieving impact. Your future development as a think tank that continues to deliver is just a welcomed “side effect” of these projects.

The expectations of core and institutional development donors are quite the different. Your think tank’s internal development is the primary focus to them. Deliverables are important, but your sustained capacities and resources to design quality products are even more so. In doing so, one is encouraged to experiment and seek out original ideas even if the chances for impact are not very promising.

In other words: becoming a resourceful and influential policy actor is a non-negotiable objective; but failing to influence decision-making on a particular issue through specific products you’ve designed is acceptable.

So, how does this translate in core funding management?

Let’s look at some key “budget headings” for think tank institutional development funding – internal development and governance, research, communication and advocacy.

Internal development and governance

The very first budget line/item that comes to a thinktanker’s mind for any of the above headings is personnel costs. The second thing we usually do then is split funds into smaller amounts to cover often-disconnected parts of a think tank’s agenda or its projects’ portfolio.

However, none of these alone will address your internal governance and institutional development. Starting with a strategic planning process instead will lead you to the core questions. In addition to rethinking your modus operandi as a think tank and reassessing the challenges and potential within your structures, this will likely affect also your thoughts on your think tank’s programmatic focus.

Of course, core funding will cover some of your personnel costs but if you stop here then you’re probably just buying some more time until the next call for project proposals while institutional uncertainties still persist. This part of your core fund needs to establish or strengthen existing governance structures and processes that will help you to better manage those uncertainties in the future. A broad range of governance and management issues could be considered in this regard, including:

  • How is your organization managed?
  • Who makes decisions?
  • Do fundraisers or researchers get more attention?
  • How to approach recruitment and develop incentives for staff retention?
  • Team or stars serve best to your institutional agenda?
  • How to maximize the Board’s role in your development?
  • How to get the best of your associates’ involvement?
  • How to move from capacities to “develop projects” towards processes and skills to “influence donor priorities” too?

There isn’t a “one-size-fits-all” solution to these questions. You must walk the road to answering them by taking into account the dynamics of internal and external factors conditioning your development. While doing that one must bear in mind that you are looking for your own model of development that will help you function as a think tank. Most importantly, you are looking for a model that will work without any institutional development grant in the future.

Research, advocacy, communication and… funding

On Think Tanks offers a rich resource of experiences and literature on each of these aspects of think tanks’ reality. With a fairly “good start” in the internal governance section of your journey, the existing best practices related to think tanks research, advocacy and communication capacity-development may guide you towards your own model. As this is not a copy-paste exercise; your core fund is there to help you go through a process of establishing and improving your (a) research quality assurance mechanisms; (b) research capacity development; (c) advocacy potential; and (d) target-specific communication.

However, let’s see this process and its outcomes from a less attractive perspective – that of think tanks’ managers.

Keeping such framework of research / advocacy / communication instruments alive costs money. Your core fund may have helped you design and test the trial version of your model; it may have even solved, although temporarily, your biggest headache –personnel costs.

But how do we keep this nice model functioning without core funding in the future?

Policy research, advocacy and communication of think tanks are not just about hiring the right people. Your institutional support grant is about developing competent teams and a working style, rather than buying the best service in the market. This model can “pay for itself”. It can also generate more projects (a manager’s hope) and greater influence as a policy actor (policy researchers’ ambition).

To illustrate this and hint at some skills you’ll have to develop as you manage your core funds, let’s go through a list of five “myths” I’ve often encountered in discussions with my peers:

  1. Research quality is expensive – Not always. Participation is a key ingredient of policy processes so there’s no reason why it shouldn’t serve policy research, too. No one can steal your unborn (yet) ideas so sharing your agenda cannot harm you. Professional peer reviews do cost, but you can also make use of the expertise of those knowledgeable actors who care about the specific policy issue. Let them know!
  2. (Policy) Advocacy is not free – In most cases it is. Sometimes you can get policymakers onboard with just a few media pieces. Two years ago IDM got policymakers’ attention just by releasing in the media some data on crime trends with no accompanying public event or printed publication. Some advocacy costs need to be budgeted, but think tanks must approach it as part of their existence and functioning. It should not be seen as an ‘additional’ cost.
  3. Researchers vs. fundraisers – Combine skills (because there are no “super thinktankers”). Should we expect researchers to do fundraising, too? Should we push project managers to focus on research design/implementation? Is outsourcing an option and if it is, would you opt for outsourcing research or fundraising? Managing a think tank’s team is not a mere workload management. It’s about managing the skills and capacity of your team. Some outsourcing is inevitable, but it shouldn’t be your mainstream approach. While it could work with some aspect of a project, outsourcing your research may turn you into a consultancy without your own agenda.
  4. Communication doesn’t pay off – Of course it does. However, communication is not only about promoting your products to specific audiences. It also involves getting their feedback and keeping audiences interested about the policy issues that matter to you. To achieve that you will often have to be more “open-minded” than promoting your perspective only. Others’ viewpoints may improve your products too. Just like with Facebook pages – you get fewer clicks if you only advertise yourself.
  5. Donors (priorities) are non-receptive – You can make them (at least some of them)! Although donors are quite diverse in their approach to policy issues and civil society support, they too go through a process of agenda (funding priorities) setting. In most of the cases, think tanks and other civic actors can “jump” in this process and share their priorities, often invited by donors themselves. However, as this is a cycle and donors too have deadlines, you need to figure out the right time, access point and instrument to feed in the process. Arguing about “wrong” funding priorities when Call for Applications are published would probably be counterproductive. Think tanks need to act strategically on this. Influencing donor priorities happens not only when invited by them but also as you present your research findings, advocate for legislation at Parliamentary standing committees, or raise awareness among policy stakeholders in a public event. It also happens while discussing about think tanks and… that’s one of the goals of On think tanks


To conclude, as you progress with the implementation of your core fund and develop your own skills as a think tank manager, research director, advocacy or communication officer etc. your organization’s development does not end there.

Think tanks should rely on teams rather than on a star researcher, manager or director. Therefore capacity-development must remain an open process that encourages everyone to grow professionally. Most likely, you will not be able to compete with what others (e.g. donors, business or politics) can sometimes offer to your team members. However, with the right capacity-development framework in place, that shouldn’t be all bad news for your organization. In tandem with the right internal governance and management framework, you are now managing change and development rather than your think tank’s existence.