Five most-discussed topics at the School for Thinktankers 2023

21 April 2023

The School for Thinktankers recently concluded its eighth School. As in every other School, I came out feeling energised and with a wealth of ideas for moving forward and engaging with an exceptional group of participants. 

It would take hours to recount all the great discussions that we had. Instead, I’ll highlight and reflect on five fascinating conversations that emerged.

1. Think tanks’ ever-evolving definitions and functions 

Defining what a think tank is and what it does is always challenging, as the label applies to organisations with diverse characteristics and functions. The 2023 School reflected this. The participants came from over 12 different countries and had diverse backgrounds. And they all had a different idea of what a think tank is and what it does. 

The definitions and key functions of think tanks have been discussed in past articles. So, here, I’m highlighting the ever-evolving nature of the functions and definitions of think tanks. 

Every year we see an increase in advocacy-oriented organisations. We also see those with a clear change agenda – something less common before the rise of the think-and-do-tank model.

Strategic convening is another key activity, but the extent of its importance isn’t always highlighted in discussions. During this School, trainers and participants discussed how critical this function is – particularly in creating spaces where the political conversation isn’t progressing.

One of the difficulties of this function is demonstrating impact. Due to the nature of convening activities, neither the direct impact nor the participants’ names can be shared.

The trainers also highlighted the importance of building good relationships with decision-makers. Think tanks have much to offer them – like offering our time and expertise to help resolve the issues they’re grappling with. 

2. Showing your worth: the challenges of identifying and tracking impact 

The impact of think tanks was another recurring topic of discussion. Think tanks don’t tend to have a clearly defined agenda for change – unlike advocacy organisations. But if we can’t change the world for the better, what’s the point of think tanks? 

Often, the most impact we can claim is, “I think I got into someone’s head.” And that is a measure of success! Think tanks should help to inform decision-making, not dictate.

Another difficulty of showing impact is that sometimes it happens behind closed doors. This isn’t because of a lack of transparency, but because the nature of the advice needs confidentiality.

The difficulty of measurement isn’t an excuse to avoid it, just to contextualise it. 

We discussed many indicators for measuring impact: event attendance, publication metrics, citations in scholarly and policy documents, and recommendations by policy-makers. But, quoting a trainer, “at best these are proxies, at worst they are misleading.”

Influence is a substantive and systemic effort. Influence isn’t exerted by a single organisation – many people and forces play a role in any impact. Thus, we need common goals and collaborations.

3. Working together

One participant asked the various trainers and participants in each session: Do think tanks work together? Each time they asked the question, the trainers and participants answered ‘yes’. But their ideas about how were varied. 

Working together can take many forms – e.g., coalitions, joint advocacy and networks. Some goals require a more systemic effort. But this raises questions about the resources needed to undertake and manage the collaboration.

Last year’s OTT Conference was on think tanks and partnerships for change, and it persists as an important and relevant issue.

4. Communications: being where the conversations happen

It doesn’t matter how brilliant a piece of research or a policy recommendation is if it goes unnoticed – so communications need to be well-placed. 

More effort and resources are being given to communications, but resources are still scarce. So, think tanks need to choose where they want to engage and how they should do this: traditional media or social media? If social media, what platform? TikTok? Instagram? LinkedIn? 

To answer this, we need to revisit the impact that we want to achieve. We need to ask the following questions: Where should think tanks be? Where are the conversations happening? Who do we need to reach? 

But we also need to grapple with the following questions: Should we join TikTok to engage with younger generations? How do we maintain an active (and honest) conversation on LinkedIn? How do we manage media relationships? 

But the big takeaway here is to always remember fundamental communications advice: define your objectives, map your audiences and manage your resources.

5. Influence inequality

Influence inequality was an interesting reflection that emerged from this School, and I’m now seeing it reflected in other conversations. 

It relates to the fact that some organisations have more resources and prestige, which results in more influence. It also relates to the existing lack of diversity in think tanks and the claim that it’s a space for privileged members of a country.

But is this new? Or is it something that we’re just reflecting on now? I think it’s always been, but that the issue’s become more prominent as the sector’s grown and become more diverse.

How can we ensure that diverse voices are heard? What can funders do? It’s not just a matter of funding and supporting all organisations to ensure equal access. But what, then?

We didn’t devise any definite answers to these questions during our discussion but it’s a conversation that we’ll keep having. And the School for Thinktankers 2023 provided an engaging and thought-provoking space to reflect on them and on the think tank sector in general. 

Join us for the next School to continue the conversation.