How to employ, retain and motivate staff

18 May 2012

I would like to make some comments related to the point of how attract, retain and motivate think tanks’ staff, one of the major issues regarding the complex world of directors leading institutes that seek to influence public policies. In 2011, CIPPEC created and started to coordinate the on-line platform Executive Directors of Latin America (DEAL), a community of practice that brings together Directors from some of the most prominent policy research institutes in Latin America interested in improving the impact of policy research. Within DEAL, CIPPEC and Enrique, jointly with the Directors and staff of different think tanks, reflected on the most common dilemmas regarding staffing and some strategies to face them.

The causes of the challenges related to staffing that think tanks face vary depending on the context of each country, but could be grouped in two: challenges of the external environment and internal or organisational challenges. Enrique has mentioned some of them, but I can add others. Some challenges of the context are: limited supply of qualified researchers in the market, little knowledge of think tanks and little interest in working in organisations that are neither academic nor government or party, lack of a ‘career path’ involving think tanks (in part, the lack of culture of think tanks and interest in working on them has to do with the informality of the political system and the professional environment that rewards personal relationships seeking positions of power).

Some internal or organisational challenges are: lack of human capital strategy (few think tanks know which is the most appropriate team for them; which is the right equilibrium between generalists and specialists, support human resources versus those who do the projects, the relationship between seniors and juniors, communicators and researchers, etc.?), professional development opportunities are limited, the remuneration (monetary and non monetary) is not competitive enough, lack of a capacity building strategy for the staff, difficulties providing good financial incentives (how to develop a policy of salaries, awards and promotions when the organisation is mostly funded by projects?), complexity of the management of non-monetary incentives (how to distribute these incentives? who implement and control them? how to ensure equity when distributing them?)

In order to address these challenges, we have identified some strategies developed by think tanks and some suggestions from the literature:

  • When seeking to identify qualified researchers, think tanks can collaborate with universities (agreements with universities to detect and interview students, think tanks trainings’ for students, contracts to get discounts or scholarships for think tanks’ staff when applying for a master, etc).
  • As Enrique commented in many opportunities, another option is to contract globally, identifying qualified researchers in other countries. Moreover, a think tank can have visiting fellows: national or international researchers leaving abroad that stay some periods in the organisation working on a topic that is interesting for both parts
  • Regarding contracting strategies, the best option, but not always possible, is to have a staff with formal contracts. In a market characterised by high levels of informality, finding a civil society organisation in which to enjoy some stability is attractive to researchers, especially for younger ones.
  • Undoubtedly, salary is the key incentive for the staff. In order to ensure competitive salaries, CIPPEC developed annual market surveys including public sector, private sector, other civil society organisations, and academia.
  • Think tanks can also provide their staff with some additional benefits, such as enabling researchers to complement their work in the institute with other activities (teaching, consultancies, etc), flexibility in their research agenda and autonomy in decision making, flexibility of timetables, and the freedom to work from home.
  • Also, think tanks can provide researchers with a ‘supporting system’ for improving the quality of work: for example, while responsibility in obtaining funds is shared between the institute and the programmes’ teams, CIPPEC, through the Institutional Development area, actively supports the search for funding for projects that programmes (and researchers) desire to carry want.
  • For researchers used to develop individual consultants, the fact of having a trained team is a great support that allows them to handle several projects simultaneously. CIPPEC also gives support to enhance the image and exposure of senior researchers: there is a proactive communication team seeking to publish articles of researchers in the most read newspapers of the country, and searching for interviews or appearances in the media.
  • Think tanks can also attempt to ‘advertise’ themselves more effectively. As Enrique said, another great opportunity that think tanks can offer prospective researchers is the possibility to access the policy arena: working in an organisation whose work is recognised in the world of decision makers gives them the opportunity to be in constant interaction with policy makers. Eventually, this access to the policy world can be used as a platform for access to public sector positions.
  • When trying to motivate the staff, a common strategy is to recognise great performances with a certain amount of money (bonus or a prize for publications) or support for presentations in conferences (paying for travel and accommodation, for example). Also, think tanks can support staff’s studies (signing letters of recommendation) or support their participation in different kinds of trainings (from policy or organisational trainings to the learning of another language).
  • Finally, for junior researchers getting close to policy actors is a valuable benefit of working in think tanks. Mentoring programs are also a great incentive for them: some institutes encourage young researchers to work with one or more senior researchers, so they can learn in-depth about various policy issues, receive support in regard to skills, techniques, research methodologies, and inspiration and advice about their professional careers.

So these are some common dilemmas and strategies that think tanks face and develop when seeking to attract, retain and motivate the staff. I hope they help others to reflect on their current practices.