Fund like a “Secret Dragon”: some ideas on how to support think tanks

13 August 2012
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 16 items

Think tank funding comes in many guises: large untied funds offered to think tanks to do whatever they want; short or mid term institutional funding to support certain core investments that project funding does not allow for; funding for projects; etc. Funds, too, are requested and offered. More often than not think tanks find that funds are offered alongside very detailed terms of reference that condition what they can and cannot work on; even if they have been requested by them first.

I have written about the negative effect that shot term ‘consultancy’ type funding has on think tanks: limits their intellectual autonomy, prevents them from developing their own research agenda, prevents them from building up reserves, etc.

What could be a better way? (I have also suggested that it may be best NOT to fund think tanks directly: e.g. by setting up hubsfunding academia to develop a country’s research capacity and supporting the entire system including policymaking bodies, the media, academia, parties, etc.) Two TV shows offer an alternative to the usual ‘call for proposals to research and influence policy’: The Secret Millionaire and Dragons’ Den.

  • The secret millionaire visits some charities, talks to their workers, beneficiaries, and their communities. He or she lives in the area, talks to people at the local pub, the kids at the youth centre, visits them at home, etc. The secret millionaire learns about the ideas that drive these initiatives, thinks about how they fit with their own views of life, consider their own experiences, etc. After lots of reflection (and some TV drama, of course) they offer their money (and often mentoring and advice) to some of the charities and people they met to help them continue with their good work.
  • The dragons sit on a ‘den’ and listen to pitches from wannabe millionaires who come with their ideas and try to sell them to their potential business partners. Good ideas are supported, bad ideas are discarded, and, often, bad ideas with potential are given a chance. While their main concern is if the business will make money, every once in while the dragons invest in interesting initiatives; just for the love of it.

Over the last year I have been asked to review a few think tanks and advice their funders on how best to support them. My approach has been to consider a bit of both shows. (Not that I had them in mind; I mean that now I realise that the shows are good metaphors for the approach I’ve taken). I am clearly not the funder and it was impossible to work incognito but I did manage to spend quite a bit of time talking with the think tanks’ staff and their stakeholders. In these conversations I gained a great deal of knowledge of the day to day lives, the culture, of these centres (not everything that is not ‘right’ can be explained by inefficiency; in fact often what we may see as a ‘poor decision’ may be the best decision possible under the circumstances) and, through dialogue with them, lots of interesting recommendations emerged.

Most importantly, these visits and conversations allowed me to identify key ideas, products, or initiatives that the centres have developed over the years and that could be supported (much as the dragons would do).

So here is what I suggest:

  1. Define what a think tank is and is not (for the funder -this may change depending on the funder and the context). It makes no sense to try to fit an organisation into a funding mechanism that is not designed for them.
  2. ‘Call for expressions of interests’ in which prospective grantees submit applications outlining their value proposition (what they offer society). Ideally, the think tanks should outline what they do already rather than what they’d do IF they had the money.
  3. Look for initiative: short-listed candidates should not just ‘stand’ there asking for money but should instead put forward an idea, an initiative, or product/service that other funders could rally around.
  4. Visit the short-listed candidates, spend some time with them and their stakeholders, find out about the think tanks’ functions, their governance, management, resources, research and communication capacities, strengths and weaknesses, opportunities and threats, etc. But most importantly, find out about its values and organisational culture. Don’t spend too much time with the directors and board members alone; instead hang out with the junior researchers, the administrative staff, and any one who tends to be left out of typical country visits. When I say visit, I mean visit. Spend time there. If you are going to hand out a few hundred thousand dollars in institutional funding you should do more than just a few days here and there.
  5. Based on this consider how your funding and support (not all support needs to be in cash) can help them to deliver their mandate and build on their strengths while addressing their weaknesses. This sounds terribly cliché but it’s actually rather common sense. If they are strong on academic research but struggling to communicate why not start with academic communications and then move slowly to new audiences and approaches?
  6. Consider how your support will help them to build up their reserves and leverage domestic funds.
  7. Negotiate like a dragon. Don’t just hand over the money. Check how much things cost. Compare with other organisations in the country and the region. Establish minimum standards in quality and quantity of outputs for the centres’ capacity. Take particular care in avoiding distortions on the labour market for experts (researchers) in the country (e.g. if your think tanks need to poach from government agencies or universities by paying salaries way above levels that could be sustainable in the future).
  8. Get their boards on board. The boards are ultimately responsible for the think tanks. As a funder you need another layer of accountability to ensure the think tank delivers on its promises.
  9. Then visit them frequently and review their progress and your support towards them. Don’t evaluate them. Evaluate yourselves, maybe, but not the think tanks. I do not think this is appropriate. But do review the organisations’ progress with the view to making recommendations for their development and your support.
  10. Try, as hard as you can, to leverage domestic institutional or long term funding from the local private and public sectors. Help make the case for think tanks just as it has been made in developed countries.

Just so it’s clear, do not:

  1. Rely on impersonal calls for proposals and whatever the think tanks themselves claim in their efforts to raise funds;
  2. Fund think tanks without big ideas, initiatives or stand alone products or services (but not consultancy services that depend on demand);
  3. Rely on impersonal evaluations by consultants and organisations that will not have the time to inquire about the think tanks’ history and culture and attempt to get a good grip on the complexities of their contexts and circumstances;
  4. Demand that think tanks diversify their funding if it leads to them being even more dependent on international cooperation and short term contracts;
  5. Allow your funds to distort the local labour market for experts and research -watch out that your funding does not make the think tanks unsustainable.