For think tanks, big is not always better

3 February 2014
SERIES The CGD model for think tanks 6 items

Nor is it always a true reflection of success.

This is another lesson/recommendation of CGD’s excellent essay on lessons from a think and do tank. The Aid Industry is a funny place. The largest think tanks in the UK are Aid think tanks. Unlike other think tanks focused on more ‘domestic policy issues’ these think tanks are not subject to the ebb and flow that the political cycle imposes on think tanks, parties, and other political organisations. Think tanks in the Aid Industry in the UK grow, grow, and grow.

This growth strategy is necessary to keep up with growing overheads but is also encouraged by a growing Aid budged. Saying “no” to new funds can be harder than you think. The problem, of course, is that more projects and people mean more admin costs and pressures on the organisation’s resources. More projects and people generate more costs that need to be covered and what better way of covering them than getting more projects; which need more people; etc.

Many think tanks in developing countries, especially where Aid funds are still readily available, have adopted a similar strategy.

Popularity rankings, too, are guilty of equating size to success. The chances that a large outfit, working across every possible policy issue, is known to many people are larger than for those that focus on just a few  -even if they are the best at those.

Lawrence MacDonald and Todd Moss provide an alternative to the growth model (consider that CGD is a medium size think tank in a county known for its very large organisations):

9. Resist the growth inertia

Pressures to grow are tremendous. The universe of good ideas and smart people wanting to work at a think tank is nearly infinite. Working on development, where everything seems to be “important,” the potential areas of new research are nearly limitless. The optimal size for a think tank, of course, depends on the organization’s mission and business model. For CGD, our size is a deliberate balance of two objectives. We believe we need to be large enough to have a critical mass of senior in-house staff members to cover the breadth of issues and to enable organic interactions (via seminars and over the water cooler) that generate new ideas. At the same time, we want to stay small enough to maintain a family-like culture where everyone knows everyone else, our fundraising and administrative burdens can be kept light, and our research agenda is manageable enough for the president to be well informed about progress in all major areas of CGD’s work.

The answer we’ve arrived at for CGD is about 18 senior researchers, 60–70 total employees, and a $12 million annual budget. We have been roughly at this level for the past five years, and we do not expect to grow much larger over the next decade. When we do expand, we try to leverage temporary visiting staff members or nonresident affiliations. Our purchase of a new headquarters has been guided by this approach. Although our new home at 2055 L Street NW, Washington, DC, represents an increase in our floor space by half, to 33,000 square feet, most of the additional space is for a new conference center, multimedia recording studio, and common areas. We aren’t much bigger in terms of the number of offices (about 30) or open-space workstations (40). By buying a home with space for about the same number of people as we have now, we have imposed a binding constraint that we expect will help us stick to our declared intention to stay small.

Pressure to expand the agenda is also constant. There’s always another good idea, another brilliant person to hire, another issue that we haven’t addressed. In our first couple of years, we focused on low-income country debt and aid effectiveness, trade, reform challenges at the World Bank and the structure of the then-new Global Fund, and US foreign assistance—all areas in which we continue to be active. Early on, our president commissioned research on international migration and climate change, and the resulting CGD books have provided an intellectual foundation for our current work in these important areas. More recently we’ve been convinced, through conversations among staff members and with policymakers, that CGD can make meaningful contributions in such areas as transparency, illicit financial flows, natural resource management, global inequality, and global governance—not to mention a major rethink of education at the global level.

The list of other issues we could work on is huge: water and sanitation, security and conflict, youth, culture and religion, and much more. But in each of these areas, we’ve either concluded that we lack a comparative advantage or experimented and struggled to find a niche. We may yet develop new research and policy ideas in one of these areas—gender is currently a top contender under active discussion—but we recognize that given our decision to stay small, this choice will entail confronting tough tradeoffs.