The first think tank state of the sector report

26 November 2020

The Open Think Tank Directory was born to overcome the lack of centralised and publicly available information about think tanks and other policy research organisations. But it serves other (possibly more important) purposes too. Its public and open nature helps promote and increase sector transparency. It helps facilitate connections between think tanks, donors, the public and other evidence-informed policy stakeholders. And it helps us to make sense of a diverse and ever-changing sector.+

Today, four years after the idea was born, we’re publishing our first think tank state of the sector report, based on analysis of 2019+data of 2,802 active think tanks from the Open Think Tank Directory.+

Download the report

The findings (representative at the sample level) provide a compelling overview of the sector and interesting indications of existing trends. The data helps us to answer questions that previously we had no way of answering – like what are the most common topics think tanks work on? What’s the average age, or the median staff size or annual turnover of a think tank? How many female versus male think tank founders and leaders are there? How does all this vary between regions and business models?

In the 2019 report we start with an overview of the data and the level of completeness of each variable. We then provide an analysis of each key selected variable,+compared with each other, including: regional breakdown, topics of focus, date founded, gender of founder, gender of leaders, business models, social media, staff, publications, turnover, and an analysis of descriptions and straplines. We close with some key conclusions and ideas to further develop the database.

We invite you to explore the full report and the full database used for the report. In this post we share a few findings.

The average number of think tanks per country in the database is 19, but there is great variability between regions and countries.

Organisations today labelled as think tanks began to appear in the 1800s. The last century saw an explosion of think tanks worldwide, especially from the 1940s onward and peaking around the 2000s. The last decade has seen a slow decline in the number of new think tanks across all regions. Today’s think tanks come in all forms, structures and sizes, but they are everywhere.

Most think tanks focus on up to three topics, the most prominent ones being social policy, trade/ economics/finance, governance/ transparency and environment/ natural resources/energy.

Unsurprisingly, regionally certain issues have more prevalence than others – for example food/agriculture is a high priority for African think tanks (44%) but is rarely the focus for think tanks in Europe or Western & Central Asia. 

The majority of think tanks in the database are non-profit organisations (65%), followed by university institutes/centres (15%), government organisations (10%), for-profit organisations (5%) and a small group of other types (2%).

Government organisations don’t account for a large percentage of the sample, but they had by far the highest turnover and staffing levels. Although I have to point out that 54% of the government organisations in the database are found in Eastern Asia – and in particular China, where the percentage of government think tanks is 74% – and so this finding is not necessarily indicative of government think tanks more broadly, but more specifically of government organisations in China.

The median number of staff is 20, and on average 44% of think tank staff are women.

 We found differences in staff numbers between regions. For example, there are no organisations with more than 600 staff members in Africa, Oceania, Western & Central Asia, and Southern & South-Eastern Europe.

The median turnover for think tanks is USD 1,455,803. We used the median as an indicator as there was great variability in the data. The think tank sector is bigger (based on staff and turnover) in the USA & Canada, Western & Northern Europe, and Eastern Asia.

While were also notable differences in turnover between regions, this was also the variable with the least amount of data (just 8% of organisations included this information). Most organisations still choose not to share their turnover in an accessible way!

Older organisations tend to have more staff, more social media followers and more turnover.

This result, although not surprising, is nonetheless interesting. Older organisations have had time to establish themselves, establish a brand, work on their credibility, secure funding and grow. While newly founded ones are still in this process, and many might even not stand the test and eventually close.

Male-led and male-founded think tanks have nearly double the number of staff, more social media followers and more turnover.

Throughout the report, and across almost all variables, comparing think tanks by gender of the founder and the leader uncovers vast differences between think tanks.

Across regions, most think tanks have been founded (58%) and led (76%) by men. The percentage of all-male-founded think tanks has slowly decreased year by year, giving way to some all-female founded think tanks, but mostly to some co-founded male and female think tanks.

Still, between 2010-2019 almost 47% of think tanks were founded by men alone, just 8% by women alone, and 18% co-founded by men and women (the rest didn’t disclose specific names).

The trend for male-founded and led think tanks to be bigger (in terms of staff, turnover and social media followers) is consistent with few variations between regions. There are no female-only-led think tanks with a turnover above USD 100 million, and most female-led think tanks have a turnover of less than USD 500 thousand.

However, organisations with female founders and/or leaders have a higher percentage of female staff, indicating a clear relationship between women in power and more gender equality within the organisation. More analysis on the roles of women within organisations is needed to further understand this relationship, but it’s clear that a relationship exists.

Help us to grow and analyse the Open Think Tank Directory

We hope that this report provides thinktankers a rich and useful overview of the global think tank sector.

We will continue to update the Open Think Tank Database yearly and produce an annual report. Each year we will aim to accrue more data, more variables, and aim to answer more of the why questions behind our findings.

To do this, we need more organisations within the evidence-informed policy world to upload their information to the directory. And we will need the support of our network and collaborators in the data analysis.

If you are interested in collaborating in future editions of the report please write to us!