Funding models: the role of researchers

12 July 2017

Many policy research centres facing funding constraints are considering how to mobilise their entire organisation to raise funds. They often struggle with a question that we have now put to bed in the field of research communications: should all researchers be responsible for fundraising?

As in communications, the answer is likely to be: yes, but also.

In this article I present a few models that think tanks use and offer some reflection on the pros and cons from each. The models reflect different business models for think tanks. They cannot be defined in isolation of the rest of the organisation and its functions.

Read more about governance and funding for think tanks:

1. Researchers as independent entrepreneurs

In this model, researchers come together often as associates, partners or members of a centre. They do not “work for the think tank” and draw no salary or employment benefits. Consequently, the centre does not impose any financial targets on them.

Each researcher is responsible for “bringing in” funding (and projects) and their salary is entirely variable and dependent on their success.

Other researchers (all of whom are likely to be members of a membership based board) impose an overhead in favour of the think tank. This overhead is used to pay for central costs (including finance, communications and administrative teams) and, in some occasions, a symbolic (or less symbolic) fee for those researchers to take on management roles.

In some cases the overhead is considered a “donation” from the researchers. In others it is a fee that the centre keeps before paying the researchers their income for each project.

  • Main pro: In principle, the centre is flexible to sudden shifts in the funding landscape. It is not responsible for the salaries of its most expensive (and senior) staff so it does not have to worry about raising enough funds to guarantee a minimum income for them.
  • Main con: The model can be rather vicious, depending on the context, towards young researchers (with limited connections and fundraising opportunities), women (who would not necessarily be covered by maternal leave and other benefits -and who are often responsible for care in their home), some more senior researchers (who may no longer be able to keep up with the fundraising rhythm that this model demands), and researchers whose topics of interest are important but not popular with funders.

As a consequence, this model works particularly well when the centre has a formal or informal association with an institution like a university. Researchers may receive a basic income and labour benefits in exchange for a few hours of teaching a week. It may also demand a minimum number of researchers coming together to ensure that most policy issues are covered and that the overhead raised is sufficient to cover core services.

2. Researchers with a small basic plus flexible income

A variation of this model is one in which the overhead (or core-funding) is used to provide researchers with a minimum salary (and benefits).

In the case, individual researchers have a choice: they can be satisfied with the basic salary or they can strive to raise more funds. This gives researchers the chance to explore new topics or issues using the basic salary and then use this to raise new funds at a later stage.

But with a basic salary come more responsibilities (and possibly a larger overhead). Researchers may be asked to take on more active management and coordinating roles. Senior researchers may even be expected to lead teams or departments within the think tank.

The centres will need to consider limiting how much work their researchers can do independently (to avoid the overhead) or establishing varying levels of overhead depending on the type of project and/or size.

  • Main pro: It creates incentives for researchers to raise more funds beyond their basic salary with the certainty that their income (and benefits) won’t fall below a certain level. They may, if they chose to, use their basic income as an investment for larger and longer term initiatives. Another important benefit is that the centre does not have to worry about pay setting up and managing pay scales and possible pay-related incentives.
  • Main con: It requires a significantly larger overhead which is often found in university based think tanks which can draw income from tuition fees. Another important negative effect of this model is that it often creates the could-be uncomfortable situation in which a programme leader or coordinator makes a lot less than a researcher in his/her team.

As a consequence, this model will demand a bit more savvy managerial skills than one would expect. They will them to find the right overhead, determine the most appropriate rules about working independently of the think tank, encourage work that supports the think tank’s mission (rather than just brings in more money for the researchers), etc.

3. Researchers as full-time employees with fixed salaries

The next model involves researchers fully employed by the centre, paid a full-time or part-time fixed salary (and benefits) and expected to abide by the rules of the organisation.

In the model, researchers typically have a fixed salary, which may be linked to performance and may involve bonuses (linked or not to performance).

This model works best with official pay-scales that structure how much each staff member is paid (and why). Many organisations transitioning from variable salaries o fixed salaries will have to address a few outliers and may have to consider special job titles for a few of their most successful researchers.

A pay-scale will also demand that the centre establishes clear career paths and progression criteria for their staff. Younger researchers (and other staff) will inevitably demand this.

Within this model there are a number of variations reflecting who is ultimately responsible for fundraising.

a. Researchers have personal financial targets

In this variation of the model, individual researchers (often from a certain level and up) are given financial targets to meet. These targets take into account the overhead that the organisation needs to raise in order to cover all its central costs (and maybe even contribute towards a reserves fund) but also the researchers’ own personal and team costs. E.g. a researcher with a team of three young research assistants would have to raise funds to cover his/her salary plus the assistants’ salary, plus an overhead for all.

This means that the think tank needs maintain a high ratio of fee earning researchers to non-fee earning staff.

  • Main pro: Researchers become fundraising agents, always on the look out for funding opportunities and projects that may help them meet their targets early on in the year. There is also likely to be a greater involvement of researchers on how the organisation is run; they will quickly realise that the boring subject of governance and management of the think tank has great implications for their own work (and burden).
  • Main con: Personal financial targets place an enormous burden on researchers themselves, especially those who are still working to make a name for themselves or those who happen to work in sectors that may not enjoy great demand from funders. In some cases, this burden can translate into low levels of staff morale.

Employing personal financial targets, therefore, demands that the organisation provides researchers with excellent central services to help them deliver their work and meet their targets. If the organisation is not able to master quality central services it may be unable to keep its researchers happy.

b. Targets are managed at the group or programme level

A better option to the personal financial target is the group or programme level target. In this variation, a team decides how to allocate targets among its staff. Therefore, a senior researcher with strong connections with key funders may be given a higher target to make up for younger researchers in the team who still have to make a name for themselves and would benefit from spending a few months working on internal projects to polish their skills and raise their profiles.

This model also opens the door to a discussion about group or programme level budgets. Rather than funds being allocated across the think tank at the Executive Director’s office (or Senior Management Team) level, in this model, budgets are more appropriately developed at the middle level. A team will have more incentives to meet its targets if it feels it has control over its budget.

  • Main pro: Group targets take account of the capabilities of different researchers and places greater emphasis on the team rather than the individual. They help make longer-term investments.
  • Main con: This model is highly dependent on the capacity of group or programme leaders to lead and line-manage effectively. The allocation of priorities and resources at the team level demands time off research for the team leaders. This time has to be accounted for in the financial targets of the team. But, more importantly, the team leader must be willing to use it to support its team. Another important downside of this model is that it does not encourage collaboration across groups.

Consequently, this model is also strongly associated to performance review proceses (which may or may not be linked to pay) that encourage establishing different objectives for each researcher. To work well middle-level researchers/managers must be given appropriate support and the think tank is likely to require a human resources team.

c. Fundraising is shared between researchers and a central fundraising team or the Executive Director’s office

This variation on the model may demand an an initial greater overhead because there are now additional people whose salaries have to be paid for by researchers’ work; but researchers get some time off fundraising. However, all the cases I have heard of and reviewed from think tanks, NGOs, and other relevant organisations that have hired qualified central fundraising teams suggest that this is an investment that pays-off.

If this model works well then the central fundraising team would focus its attention on high impact projects: long term programmes involving high fees (and overhead) for several researchers and teams, communications and managers, and on strategic issues for the organisation. This leaves researchers free to focus on short to medium term projects concerning their own teams.

  • Main pro: The organisation is able to address two shortfalls of the other models: collective action and loss of income through staff turnover. By focusing on strategic projects that involve researchers from across the organisation and the organisation is no longer dependent on individual researchers capacity to bring in funds.
  • Main con: There may be challenges coordinating priorities between what the organisation fundraises for and what the team or individual researchers commit to. Coordination will be paramount for this model to work.

4. Fundraising is fully managed by a central fundraising team or the Executive Director’s office

This is often the model adopted by think tanks with a strong founder/leader and a young workforce. The model is also associated to organisations where all planning takes place at the senior management level and groups and programmes have little or no say over how the organisation organises its resources.

It works well in a context in which all or most funding contacts are held by the leadership and where funding is readily available.

  • Main pro: This is comfortable model for researchers who only want to focus on doing research. It also works well for think tanks led by a central policy or ideological drive.
  • Main con: This model will struggle to empower researchers to support the organisation when time are tough. It is also a model that may have a limited shelf-life: as long as the leader is on board.

This model may work in cases where the leadership is highly professional and the “office” of the executive director is more important that the individual holding it. A central fundraising team would certainly work well.


These models are not exhaustive. They offer, however, a range of options for policy research centres to consider.

Some centres will have to transition through more that one of these (or variations of them) before finding the most appropriate one.

In deciding which one is most appropriate think tanks can consider the following criteria or questions:

  • Does the think tank want to develop a cohesive and coherent position or does it wish to encourage plurality of views and opinions?
  • Who benefits the most: researchers or the organisation? (noting, of course, that unhappy researchers will not help the organisation in the long-term)
  • Are possible fundraising gains undermined by the cost of running the model?
  • Is the model sustainable in the future -particularly, does it account for future funding and staffing trends?