Factors to consider when collaborating with other think tanks

7 April 2014

[Editor’s note: This post was first written for the On Think Tanks Exchange. It will be followed, over the next few weeks, by similar posts on the experiences of other participants. Find more about them: exchange.onthinktanks.org]

One of the objectives of the The Exchange is to understand why policy research institutes do or do not collaborate, and what determines the success of the collaborations that do take place.

After discussing with colleagues from different think tanks around the world, we were able to identify external and internal factors affecting collaboration between our organizations. Moreover, we identified some features related to the type collaboration that should also be considered.

Internal factors

Size of the organization. I find this issue very important, specially when working with peer organizations supporting the on an organizational issue. CIPPEC typically works with other think tanks to support them in the development of a capacity that could improve their work. The design and implementation of a Monitoring and Evaluation system or of a fund-raising strategy are two common types of supports, and CIPPEC is usually requested by other organizations because of its experience or institutional engineering. In this type of projects, I have always considered the scale and the structure of the organization as an important issue to the success of the objectives. For instance, it is very difficult for an organization without an area or even a person working on raising funds, to assimilate the idea of a four-people team only dedicated to raising funds, segmenting their work by type of source (individuals, private sector, State, international cooperation, among others). I’m not saying that different sizes will led to a failure collaboration, but rather that we should pay attention to this, specially when we are supposed to be working with peers.

Bambang, Leandro, Riko and Irina

Organisational culture. Culture might refer to a broad set of features: openness to other institutions,  competition versus cooperation, the degree of cooperation and collaboration between different individuals and groups within the think tank. It also refers to organizational decision making processes enabling or hindering collaborations.

External factors

Context (political, social and economic). National context has a direct impact in think tanks’ work, and it also affects collaboration. For instance, elections use to attract a big part of the attention of an organisation, diverting efforts from other projects. Moreover, social or military crisis have a direct impact on organizations’ work and might difficult collaboration at least until things are partially solved. 

Available funds. Collaboration is sometimes challenged by the fact that available resources for think tanks or research are usually scarce. Moreoverinternational calls for proposals usually do not encourage collaboration between organizations.

Official regulations. Countries’ rules regarding donations or contracts with foreign partners, can challenge collaborations to the point that working with others becomes increasingly bureaucratic at the administrative level. 

Features of the collaboration

Trust. Confidence between organizations may have to do with the history of the relationship between the parts (whether or not they have worked together in the past, and which were the results of that experience), with the reputation of parties, or with organizational cultures. Trust is very important, specially when collaboration implies sharing contacts, information regarding donors or know-how.  

Objective of collaboration. Collaboration may have many different objectives: undertaking research, influencing policy, learning from each other or together, among others. As an example, at CIPPEC, alliances with Argentinean think tanks and civil society organizations usually take place when facing a controversial national policy issue. In these cases, barriers to collaboration are related to the organizations’ influence strategies. Typically, advocacy organizations are more radical in their actions, and do not consider potential relational costs with policy agencies. On the contrary, policy research organizations, which usually seek to build more collaborative links with the political system, are not willing to challenge their reputation on an advocacy campaign. However, in these cases, what is important and can affect the type of collaboration is the characteristic of the campaign: the sensibility to society or government, if the organization has a clear domain of the issue, the visibility of the campaign, etc. Another important issue to consider is that a public campaign might affect some internal policy teams while not affect others; for instance, your organization could develop a campaign to increase the transparency of subsidies to poor population, and this might have affect the relationship that a team working on social protection issue has with the Ministry in charge of assigning those subsidies.

Term and size of the collaboration. Long term collaborations are favorable to build trust between parties. However, they can become very transactional both in terms of decision making and administrative and budgetary issues. On another note, whether the collaboration is taking place between two organizations or a consortium of think tanks will affect the process. For instance, global consortiums usually imply complex governance structures. Regular virtual meetings and the need to validate almost each decision with the whole consortium make this kind of projects very costly at the transactional level.

Top level support. Is collaboration supported by leaders in the organization? Moreover, is it an informal collaboration or is there a formal contractual commitment that could be claimed by any of the parties?  

Logistical aspects. Are we talking about a virtual relationship or does it include face to face meetings? Which are communications tools and channels? What about administrative support in each party?

Taking into account these factors when planning collaborative projects will help think tanks to understand the potential success of the relationship or identify key challenges for it (but, should we define first what a succesful collaboration is?).