Funding, think tanks and the private sector series

24 July 2017
SERIES Funding for think tanks part two: the private sector 9 items

Sourcing and managing private funding is becoming more important for think tanks. Some have already developed healthy and long-standing relationships with the private sector, while others are just starting to think about if and how to approach private funders. For many, as traditional funding starts to dwindle attracting private funding is becoming a necessity. But: How to do it? Who to approach?  And, what policies should a think tank have in place to attract and manage private funding?

This is what we at On Think Tanks have been asking ourselves, and why we have embarked in producing a scoping study + on private sector funding. The study aims to explore the institutional arrangements, policies and practices that research centres and think tanks use to safely and effectively approach and manage private sector funding. Through a literature review and interviews with think tanks we will classify and showcase examples of good practice, what to do, what to avoid, how to maintain integrity, etc.

This current series delves into the issues that this study focuses on and will give you an overview of what is to come. But this is an evolving series and, as the study develops, we will be including more content and cases, so be sure to come back and read the new content.

Through several On think Tanks articles and in the series Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding we have argued that

the only way for think tanks in developing countries to ensure their sustainability is to let go of an unhealthy dependency on international funds and tap into domestic funds.
(Erika Perez-Leon, On think tanks and domestic funding: the series)

To ensure sustainability think tanks should actively consider private funding, which can be either domestic or foreign. Think tanks, however, must consider that private funders have a different approach and relationship to knowledge production, so their fundraising (and management) strategies need to shift to attract private funders and ensure a successful relationship.

The scoping study will focus mainly on private funding from the think tanks’ perspective: What are the different types of funders to approach, what do think tanks do to maintain their integrity and independence, and what are the best policies and practices to attract and manage private funding.  We are also seeking to understand the private donors’ perspective:  What are they looking for? How do they fund think tanks? What is asked in return? And, what are the differences among types of private donors? Finally, we will also be considering country, region and thematic considerations: What laws are in place to promote or limit private funding? Do some themes receive more funding than others? Are some regions ahead in working with the private sector?

A starting point for the study was defining private funders. These include private foundations (who also form part of the more traditional funding scenario), crowdsourcing from the general public, philanthropists, corporations, small companies, etc. In all cases, they can also be foreign or local. For organisations, the first question you need to ask (as with any fundraising strategy) is: what do I need money for? And then: who do I want to take money from and in what manner? Each funder (private or not) has their own requirements and follow a specific agenda. Some will work very well with a think tank´s agenda and way of work, while others will not.

A think tank might wonder how to maintain their integrity and independence if funded by the private sector. Generally, these worries should be cared for almost in the same way as when dealing with traditional funders. In the piece,  Independence, dependency, autonomy… is it all about the money?  Enrique Mendizabal asserts:

How can they [a think tank] claim to be independent if they are taking money from corporations? ……it is not [only] who gives you the money but how you get it. If the funds come with a contract -including a logframe, pre-approved questions, branding conditions, etc.- then it would be safe to say that the think tank’s capacity to make its own choices is curtailed. It has limited autonomy, then. But if the funds come with no strings attached, does it matter who provides them? Take the money and run.

However, when dealing with the private sector, who provides the money can be very important. Even if your research was done autonomously and without any meddling from private funders, your results could be seen as biased.  For example, Google funded research has been recently in the public´s opinion and regarded as biased in a report from Campaign for Accountability (CfA).  (This comment is in no way an assertion of Google’s intentions or a validation of the report that claimed this, I am just using the story to  just highlight the point that research funded by private companies can be controversial at some point depending on who funds it). An article by The Guardian (13 July 2017) says:

Over the last decade, Google has funded research papers that appear to support the technology company’s business interests and defend against regulatory challenges such as antitrust and anti-piracy, the US-based Campaign for Accountability (CfA) said in a report.
( You can read a rebuff to this claim here )

 So, how to protect your think tank´s research from being disregarded because it was funded by a specific private sector donor?

  • First, you have to be very clear on your think tank´s research agenda. Clearly state what you stand for, what you are against and which themes you work in and in which you don’t.
  • Then, analyse your environment and identify the types of potential funders (you can also name them explicitly) and categorise them into groups. You can group them in a gradient depending on the kind of involvement you wish to have with them, from “definitely not working with them” to “highly desired partnership”. Then list the limitations and restrictions you have for them, and how you would wish to work with them.
  • After identifying your potential donors, you can bring in your funding needs. Asses how comfortable you are with each potential donor funding each need.
  • You can then set a process for assessing anything that is not covered in this policy. It is also recommended to make this public (publish it online) to increase your transparency.

This categorisation is an easy and helpful way to decide who to accept funds from. It also announces to the public and potential funders who you work with and where you stand. As an example, see this fundraising policy from Association of Health Care Journalists and the Center for Excellence in Health Care Journalism. They clearly outline their potential donors and how they wish to work with them.

As mentioned in other articles, transparency +is a key practice in think tanks and should be practiced by all, but it is even more important when dealing with funds from the private sector. The post Corporate interests and think tanks: an overview of current debates presents the work done by Transparify to answer :

How and why do corporations fund think tanks? How do think tanks manage potential conflicts of interest? How transparent and traceable is corporate funding to think tanks?

Another article in this series also discusses transparency and the answer to the question  Can think tanks ruled by the wealthy be really impartial?, stating:

Many think tanks that refuse to seek out or accept funding from the private sector seem to think so (that they cannot receive private funding and be impartial); they cannot see a win-win situation for all. Other think tanks, who do receive funding from the private sector, prefer to keep this funding secret; they do not think others would understand or believe that they could remain impartial. However, there are ways in which think tanks can limit the influence that power has over their agendas and their work.

As earlier in this article, an option is for think tanks to only receive donations from sources with no conflict of interest and whose missions are aligned with their agendas. Also, at the start of their partnership, both think tank and donor should agree what will be done with the results of the research and who owns what.

When approaching the private sector, a think tank´s fundraising strategies + need to shift a bit, especially when targeting corporations, individuals and philanthropists. In most cases, an organisation will need to go out of their comfort zone and develop novel ways to communicate what they do and what they want. Mobilising domestic private funding is no easy task and, in most cases, you will need to explain what a think tank does and approach companies who have not donated to research before. Also, corporations speak a different language and they are looking for something different out of their donation. Most will need to first be briefed on what a think tank is and what kind of work you do. All this needs to be approached in a different way- you will need to adapt your language, strategies and the usual ways you reach out to your audience.

A good way forward when seeking funding from corporations is discussed in the article Mobilising domestic funding for think tanks in developing countries: a way forward:

(…) think tanks can also seek to latch themselves onto the interests pursued by corporations (and their foundations) domestically by spinning a commercial interest into a legitimate public interest. (e.g. financial inclusion, working with communities and extractives.”

Remember corporations can also give you in kind support. This can be access to their products, the use of a space or marketing services. The options are varied and it is up to your organisation to come with what you need. Just remember to think outside the box: ask for money but also think of what in kind support could look like.

If trying to attract the general public (via crowdfunding, for example) you need to adapt and speak directly to them. Forget about the long reports and try a video or do a gif. Be direct and to the point. Michael Kleiman, in Six things to know about making an effective fundraising video, says :

It [a video] can allow your audience to see what your organisation’s work looks like in action and help them better understand the importance of your work and its impacts on people’s lives.

By showing them what you do, you will make case for your support.

In the post, Rarely discussed yet critically foundational: business models among Indonesian think tanks, Leandro Echt shares how Indonesian Friends of the Earth is approaching fundraising from the community. Leandro also writes about how CIPPEC (an Argentinian think tank) mitigates companies’ influence by directing their support to issues rather than to specific projects. It goes on to share more cases from different organisations.

These are some of the issues that we are focusing on for the scoping study on private funding. We will be sharing more content in this space as it evolves. If you have any comments on private funding for think tanks or would like to participate in the study please email me.