Developing a think tank: first hand experience with core funding

29 October 2014
SERIES Life after core funding 4 items

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

The other posts in the series include:

An interview with Politics and Ideas on funding models for think tanks a few weeks ago touched upon the issue of institutional development grants. These grants are widely seen as a golden opportunity for think tanks in the Western Balkans (WB), a region where the funding and policy environments do not really enable one to develop as a think tank should. Therefore, the emergence of the Open Society Think Tank Fund (TTF) in 2005 and its Core and Institutional Support (now, Organizational Development) Program brought greater awareness to the need to develop think tanks. It also led to more civil society organizations (CSOs) in the region wanting to transform themselves into think tanks. The Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) was one of those organisations. It was granted a TTF core grant in order to transform itself from a small CSO focusing on 3 key areas, mainly at national level, into a multi-thematic organization with a strong (although not strictly) think tank profile and presence in the Western Balkan region.

Unlike many other donors, applying to TTF does not involve completing lengthy “application forms” or “hiring consultants” (in fact, the current TTF Organizational Development program does not even have an application form). Rather, it’s about a process of identifying the present and the future of your organization.

Therefore, instead of “tips on how to write a successful TTF application”, the purpose of this piece is limited to better “understanding this process”.

It’s not just another project application

One of the main problems with civil society in the Wester Balkans is that most of the funding offer lasts up to a year and is project based. This has a direct effect on CSOs financial viability and forces CSO managers to think about funding the next projects before wrapping up advocacy efforts for the current ones. Therefore, the opportunity for a core grant seemed “too good to be true” for many colleagues with whom I’ve discussed the TTF program. Understandably, overcoming dominant “project thinking” was the initial challenge.

In fact, this was precisely my first mistake in 2006 when I approached TTF, at that time on behalf of another organization I was working for, with a concept note for core support. What I originally saw in TTF’s Call for Applications was an opportunity for a three-year fund to support specific program areas of the organization. What I failed to see is exactly the latter: the organization; and where we wanted it to go.

Of course we were kindly “advised” that boosting our favorite or most needy program area was not the point of the TTF program. Rather, it was about developing the whole organisation. In TT’s own words: develop the organisation “as an independent policy center that embraces inclusive policy change via analysis, advocacy, and engagement with a wide range of stakeholders”. And this is a challenging task for any “think tank-wannabe” and its program manager.

It’s not a “one wo/man” job

CSOs in the region have for long been identified with their founders or directors. In fact, some of them still are. In Albania, this can be partly explained by the fact that over the past two decades CSOs have developed mainly as a one-man-show, with a small and unstable team. Yet, shrinking donor funding in the recent years has raised the need to break away from this habit and many CSO leaders have seized this opportunity to the benefit of their organizations. However, changing the managerial culture is still “in the making” and this is particularly visible when we “talk about organizational development”.

One thing I learnt during my second (and IDM’s first) experience with the Think Tank Fund is that your organization’s development is too important and also too big of a challenge to be entrusted to a single man or woman. It needs to have on board everyone in the organization and even those closely associated with it. Of course, in the end, it will be just few people who will actually write and review the application, but ideas must come from everyone.

The key ingredient in this process is “participation” of your team members and any other partners that have a stake in the development of the organization – your board, the associates you cooperate with, and also “outsiders” with relevant experience in your areas of work.

(If you still believe that best ideas come from managers only, perhaps the next tip will change your mind.)

Take a breath…it’s not about daily concerns. It’s even “worse”

The range of issues you will likely discuss while preparing an application for institutional development funds for the TTF or any other funder is quite broad, stretching from purely administrative and internal coordination matters, to governance, communications, fundraising, program and capacity development, policy environment, advocacy and influence, etc. But the main questions you’ll be answering will not about your routine activities. Rather, you need to focus on your vision for the future and the roadmap to building your organization into a think tank that is able to deliver –from an organizational and programmatic perspectives.

Such a processes take time (you won’t be able to work out a roadmap over a meeting or two) and a certain level of separation from your daily concerns (with all due respect to donor deadlines). Hence my advice is to organise a retreat with your team or to find another way to have a “fun-day at the office” to think about the various aspects of the organisation that you wish to work on.

I suggest you use the metaphor of a home. The organisation is like a house. You should encourage everyone to share what they think about “this house” (their house) and its surroundings; what’s good and bad in it; how they want it to be in the future; which “room” they would prefer; and how would they transform the organization into a think tank.

However, bear in mind that this is not a discussion about décor. Your purpose is not to build a likeable of fashionable “house”, but an outfitted “home” with strong foundations. And while doing that, try to be realistic.

Don’t fool yourself; or the donor

One of the questions that naturally emerges while discussing institutional support applications is: How honest should we be?

Would our application look bad if we say that we have no communication strategy? Or that we don’t know how to use our research data for advocacy purposes?

This is my favorite part of the process because it means that if the brainstorming has reached this far then we are about to agree that what matters most is not the application itself, but the organisational development of our think tank. Unfortunately, this is also the moment when some of us are likely to give up on the process. Fortunately, others may give up on the application, but not on the process.

My feeling is that donors engaging in institutional development programs usually have a clear understanding of both the environment and players. While the main target of such programs are the players (think tanks), the expected outcomes relate to impacting processes and the environment. Hence, understanding the needs, priorities, challenges and the very potential of players is of paramount importance. Yet, this doesn’t mean that TTF, for example, would engage with just anyone that has needs and ideas, but no potential to develop capacities and deliver as think tank.

The TTF application process and sound organisational development efforts do not allow “shortcuts” so it’s better to be realistic of who you are and what you can achieve. Letting the donor know that you can manage research but are still lost when it comes to policy advocacy will only help you get there. You should not worry if you do not yet have a communication strategy. That’s not a sin either, as long as you have something to communicate. This needs to be coupled with a realistic plan to strengthen or develop your organisation into and of the changes you wish to bring about in your environment.

Last but not least, while think tanks aim at being the frontrunners when it comes to encouraging policy change, a “lone runner” will not go far. Understanding your environment, its dynamics and as well as other players is equally important. Therefore, you make sure you have a realistic picture of these elements and a feasible plan of how you as a think tank will be able to interact with others and fit in the broader think tank and policy community.

…after you get the grant

I suppose we all know TTF is not an easy donor to get onboard so many would say that implementing the approved grant can’t possibly be much harder.

I think tank it can get quite hard if during the implementation you lose sight of one fundamental element: that TTF support is not there to stay forever. So, you must make sure that your think tank develops as an organization that is ready to remain operational regardless of TTF.