Critical decisions setting up an independent think tank in Colombia

10 April 2019
SERIES OTT Annual Review 2018: Public Engagement 18 items

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2018 Annual Review.]

In 2018, OTT was asked to provide strategic support to a new Colombian policy institute during its foundational stage. The Institute had been founded to carry out, encourage and support research and knowledge production for the sustainable development of Colombia’s energy sector.

The founders had two main concerns: the Institute’s financial sustainability and its effective governance. OTT provided support to design a sustainable business model that promotes growth and impact in the short- and medium- term, and an effective governance scheme that strengthens independence and promotes efficient organisational management.

Behind these concerns, the new Institute faced a major challenge: its independence. The Institute was founded by two major private stakeholders with explicit interests in the energy sector (an oil company and an oil union). Moreover, Colombia’s energy sector is highly polarised, partly because of the debate around the environmental and community impact of the oil activity.

Therefore, the funding scheme and the governance arrangements needed to be carefully designed to tackle these challenges. To this end, we embarked on a project that included consultation with key stakeholders in the energy sector. We discussed these challenges and critical decisions with the Institute’s team, its temporary Board of Directors (and potential new members), academics, private entrepreneurs and policymakers in the field. These perspectives informed OTT’s recommendations, along with our knowledge of other think tanks in different contexts that have addressed similar challenges.

Regarding the institutional model and governance scheme, OTT focused its advice on critical decisions that would help the Institute safeguard its credibility and legitimacy (two fundamental pillars to achieve influence in policy and intellectual debates). The two main strategies suggested by OTT were the renewal of the temporary Board of Directors (mainly comprising representatives of the founding institutions) to be as plural as possible, and the consolidation of an Advisory Group that had an outstanding trajectory and demonstrated diversity. In particular, we recommended:

  • Avoid shared members between the Assembly (composed by the founders) and the Board, or limit it to only one, which could be the President of the Board.
  • Diversify the composition of the Board, in order to achieve greater plurality and gather a balance of expertise that can give support to the Institute’s work (thematic, methodological, communications, management and finance, and policy).
  • Promote a more plural composition of the Advisory Group, especially in the area of gender, but also incorporating representatives of the relevant regions and civil society organisations.

Regarding funding, the initial endowment provided by the founders was an important asset. However, independence can reflect the diverse support that a think tank can achieve. In this regard, our advice was:

  • While new private sector support could be welcomed (for instance, by inviting private companies or their representatives to be associates of the Assembly), it would be important to develop a fundraising strategy that benefits from the extended linkages of the founding members, future members of the Board, new members of the Assembly and the Advisory Group.
  • Although the Colombian philanthropic culture is still limited, OTT’s assessment suggested that it would be strategic to approach the private sector and interest them in the work of the institute.
  • A strategy of approaching government agencies related to the energy sector should be initiated.
  • OTT discouraged an initial idea to set up a cycle of paid high-level dialogues. Charging for participation would be against the Institute’s goal of contributing to plural debate and would discourage, or prevent, stakeholders with limited resources from engaging in the conversation.
  • The proposed funding model should be underpinned by a very transparent policy that encourages the institute to make available its funding sources.

In addition to these key recommendations related to the governance scheme and the funding model, OTT also advised on the importance of hiring a director who is known within the energy policy community (but without explicit partisan links, or seen as a private sector advocate). OTT further advised not to include in the Institute’s mission and values a concern for the strengthening of the energy sector per se, but rather as a means for the development of the country and its citizens.

This project is another in OTT’s portfolio of support to setting up think tanks in developing countries (see a previous reflection of a similar enterprise in Timor-Leste). It’s important to remember that ‘context matters’, and so the advice and strategies to overcome similar challenges (like independence and sustainability) will vary depending on the environment in which a think tank operates, as well as its goals. However, our experience in Colombia and the lessons we have shared intend to inspire other policy and research entrepreneurs that want to set up institutions to contribute to more evidence-informed policy decisions and debates, as well as provide the OTT team with relevant experience to continue to support these efforts worldwide.