Five lessons from working for a leading European think tank

11 August 2021

A recent career change has triggered a reflection on over five years working for a leading European think tank. From my personal experience, here I share five of the most important characteristics and benefits of embarking on a career in one of these specialist entities. 

1. Multi-level stakeholder engagement is a must

If think tanks are looking at issues with the potential to reshape and reinvent societies, you would expect them to take into account the communities around them. One of the things that struck me the most working in think tanks was that this still isn’t always the case. 

Grassroots stakeholder engagement could help think tanks to become more diverse and inclusive organisations, distancing themselves from the notion of ‘elite’ organisations and learning from previous practices that encouraged this idea.

In the past few years, I have seen serious efforts in this regard in Europe. Think tanks are using data, polling and surveys to better understand citizens’ concerns and find ways of connecting people and policies. This not only might increase the impact that think tanks have on society, but also improve public interest in foreign policy debates. 

2. Think tank transparency and accountability is an ethical imperative and essential for gaining respect in the sector

Think tank transparency and accountability was one of the areas in which I put a lot of emphasis during my time working for a think tank. 

And the responsibility rests with the think tanks. They should carry out due diligence on their donors and be ready to walk out when the funding’s origins or intentions are not transparent. This is a way of showing an organisation’s strength. Funding should not dictate the think tank’s line of work and independence is the most valuable principle to follow. 

Diversifying your donor base is one of the best options to avoid tricky funding situations and decisions. It is true that a diverse pool of donors will require different approaches, time and management skills (and not only from fundraisers, also from leadership and researchers alike). However, in my experience, the benefits of having a diverse pool of donors tend to outweigh the burden of increased expenditure. 

3. The need to multitask, plan and adapt is real

One of the things I most enjoyed during my time working for a think tank, was the vast amount of insightful and fresh ideas that floated around any given conversation or meeting. It can feel a bit overwhelming at first – especially  if you are responsible for finding partners and funders to turn these ideas into tangible and impactful projects. 

This requires a level of structure and planning, even if it sometimes all goes out of the window. See for example anyone’s work on Iran following the assassination of Iranian major general Qasem Soleimani in early January 2020. Or, less than three months later, the global pandemic. 

To succeed, you need to be able to have a quick turn-around on ideas and projects. So, when you read ‘ability to work on multiple things at the same time’ in a think tank job description, rest assured that will be the case. Working with top-notch researchers and very smart colleagues will turn some of the stress into excitement. 

4. Flexibility in funding is vital for think-tanks to stay relevant and ahead of the curve

It is important to note that the most innovative ideas come with a price tag. Giving think tanks the space to think and be creative is the only way to achieve innovative policies that tackle the important challenges facing the world today. 

There will be many elements that shape the policy recommendations on any given subject, but funding should not be one of them. Whilst some funders, mostly foundations, are acknowledging the need for organisations to receive unrestricted grants, others are still following rigid project models that leave little space for flexibility. 

For the sake of honesty, both fundraisers and donors should have open and transparent conversations about the need for reasonable overheads on every grant.

5. Difference in opinion and diversity of perspective in a think tank is a good thing

Working for a think tank with several offices across Europe, you very quickly see the many differences in perspectives that need to be addressed, but that also strengthen any debate. 

After all, it is the purpose of a think tank to promote better informed decisions. And with that goal in mind, you will, and should, have experts with very different views, shaped by diverse backgrounds, experience and geographical location. 

As much as we all like to believe that our organisations are fully independent entities and free from external influence, we must work hard every day to protect that key value and remain as humble, inclusive and open-minded as possible. 

One of the weaknesses of endemic think tanks that I see is that they have biases and agendas. Arguably this is no longer a think tank but a lobbying organisation. We should be striving to adhere to the traditional think tank model or informing policy problems with innovative evidence, and truly try to obtain a fresh perspective on a given issue.

One last bonus lesson: do not, under any circumstance, try to explain to your grandparents what you do! They will not understand and will tell people you work somewhere else!