How is COVID-19 affecting think tanks? Silver linings and building back

17 June 2020

Think tanks are no strangers to volatility, uncertainty and disruption. The COVID-19 crisis presents significant challenges to a sector that is already struggling with funding shortages, credibility and relevance.

But there are reasons to be optimistic. A crisis has a way of catalysing change that may not otherwise happen, or that would take years if not decades to achieve under everyday circumstances. During times of duress, resilience can thrive and people and organisations can be transformed to build back better.

Because of their familiarity with adversity, think tanks have a solid foundation and understanding of what is required to survive during turbulent times. In some ways, many would say that think tanks are well conditioned to face the uncertainty that COVID-19 has surfaced; they have always needed to be flexible, adapting to donor interests while respecting their own mandates.

In recent years, many think tanks have ventured out of their comfort zones to explore new activities, new partnerships and new approaches to differentiate themselves and find new paths to influence policy and practice.

As described in TTI Insights: Exploring Think Tank Funding Models, many have strengthened relationships with donors built on credibility, integrity and trust. Through these relationships, some think tanks have been able to negotiate with funders more favorable contract terms and conditions, including more generous overheads costs.  Additionally, think tanks have been able to leverage their strengths in financial and managerial capacity to negotiate with their funders.

Over the past decade, those that have been successful have found creative ways to innovate and stay relevant, and to find opportunities even amidst challenging times. It will be these foundational principles that will enable think tanks to navigate these choppy waters, as they continue to learn in real-time about what is required to respond and adapt to disruption on a global, national and local scale.

In an effort to get a pulse on how think tanks across the globe are faring during the COVID-19 crisis, On Think Tanks (OTT) recently launched a survey.

Data from the survey shows that many are facing immediate disruptions to funding with expenses exceeding income; loss of direction of their research agenda; lost visibility in the policy space; most are having to re-design research methods to adjust to mobility limitations; staff are stressed, anxious and isolated, and facing challenges adjusting to remote working arrangements; and many have reported a closing of civic spaces as a side effect of government policies to combat the virus.

While the crisis has brought many challenges, some policy research organisations have identified emerging opportunities, and some have been able to take advantage of a sudden interest for expert advice – for instance, on the effect that COVID-19 will have on the economy.

Many have identified silver linings related to the move to virtual platforms, including the digitisation of dissemination and engagement strategies that have enabled them to amplify their voice, and opportunities to convene global experts online and to be heard in policy spaces. Think tanks that have tried to adapt, be flexible and pursue innovative approaches are finding ways to stay relevant.

In terms of significant, lasting challenges that think tanks foresee in the medium to long term, many worry that their funding will dry out over the next year as donors pull back on existing commitments and redirect investment to COVID-19 recovery.  The looming global recession will likely result in a drop in governments’ social spending so think tanks may need to pivot and re-think their value propositions and overall research agendas.

In the coming weeks, OTT will launch a series on re-thinking think tank business models that will take a deeper look at what lessons think tanks can draw upon from the past in order to help inform their strategies for navigating the financial uncertainty and recovery phase of this crisis.

Through reflection on these issues, and sharing what think tanks are learning during the COVID-19 response and recovery process, we hope to contribute to the knowledge and shared experiences that may help think tanks prepare for future external shocks.

Follow up COVID-19 surveys will explore think tank strategies in the following areas:

  • Governance, leadership and management structures
  • Financial sustainability
  • Research agendas and their ability to deliver their strategies and projects
  • Communication strategies and outcomes
  • The wellbeing of staff and close stakeholders
  • The evidence-informed policy field more broadly
  • The political, economic and social contexts think tanks operate in

While think tanks have faced challenges throughout history, today and the coming months present an opportunity to harness the silver linings that have emerged throughout the current crisis to inform future strategies, build back better and be better prepared to weather the next big challenge.

Download the report.