Life after core funding

26 November 2014
SERIES Life after core funding 4 items

[Editor’s note: This is the third post in a serieson core funding written by a new contributor to On Think Tanks, Gjergji Vurmo, Programme Director at the Institute for Democracy and Mediation (IDM) in Albania. This post could be read alongside a reflection on organisational development in Latin America.]

What has changed from the time IDM received core and institutional support? Less than a year without such funding may not be long enough to draw conclusions, however, we had seen this coming much earlier so “life after core funding” did not catch us by surprise.

This is not to say that all has gone exactly as planned but, luckily, this relates mostly to the external environment. Think tanks in the region operate in a complex policy, donor and, more broadly, civil society milieu.

What counts in such circumstances is not a plan for any possible unexpected challenge, but your ability and capacities to develop a “timely response” to those challenges.

Further to such capability that is now delivering beyond the Think Tank Fund’s support let’s see how is life (after core funding) on some of the trickiest aspects for think tanks.

A typical think tank?

On most of our thematic areas, IDM operates as a typical think tank. However, “think-and-do-tanks” are not an unknown phenomenon these days, so on some of our areas of work we decided not to transform entirely. This is partially owed to our previous work and the “do-tank” approach we have long applied on certain issues. The absence of donors who would support typical think tank work has played a role, but it has never been decisive.

To illustrate this let us take security issues – a traditional focus area since our establishment – which remains central at IDM despite the lack of donors supporting think tanks to carry out policy research on Albania’s security sector.

While reinforcing the think tank profile of our security portfolio did not bring more national projects, it did bring regional ones. With a broader perspective of experiences and knowledge, our continued involvement in national policy processes and research on security affairs is still a reality (perhaps even with a higher profile) despite the lack of funds.

Another effect of building our think tank resources relates to the services one can offer with such niche capabilities. Looking at some examples in the Western Balkans region, we went through an internal debate on whether IDM should set up a consultancy firm that could generate income for our policy research agenda. The main reason why we decided to engage (though more carefully) in such service provision without branding it as an IDM consultancy was to protect our policy agenda and the need to stay free from a market-oriented style of work. True, this means fewer resources for non-donor-dependent research or core expenses, but it also means no conflict of interests in policy debates.

(Costs of) Development & governance

This relates mostly to the hidden potential within a not-for-profit, operationalising its resources – its team, board, and associates – and engaging them in specific aspects of the think tank’s practice at no additional costs to the organisation.

IDM is currently implementing its third midterm plan on which both the team and the board share ownership. While clear responsibilities have been assigned to each team member, the overall management and organizational development is entrusted to a five-member Executive Management Team, involving the Executive Director, and Program and Directors of all three departments (one of them being the Research Director). This body is also in charge of other managerial aspects too such as internal coordination, personnel, fundraising decisions, etc.

Additionally, IDM’s networks of associates established under each program area/department have proven an important and, again, no-cost asset. Our associate experts and external researchers are engaged in various projects on a part time basis. Although this relationship develops along the lines of a short-term expertise (STE) we do not target consultants. Rather, we look at engaging practitioners, experts and researchers with deeper (rather than a private consultancy’s) interests in their respective areas. Such interest is essential to develop a sustained associate status which provides us with valuable feedback and input on our programmatic development even beyond the terms of STE contracts.

Staff retention…Is it fair?

In my last post’s conclusions I touched upon this issue albeit very briefly. Staff retention is always present when discussing think tanks’ sustainability and development models. However, I believe that our expectations on this matter go a bit too far.

First of all, we have to make a distinction between think tanks that have chosen to build a team and those that bet their institution on a few already made stars. For the latter, losing their star researchers or directors may be shocking.

For those who decided to build up a team of thinktankers, the question should not be “retention” but rather “development”.

What is important for such a think tank is not to “keep a team member at any cost”. Such expectation at a certain moment may prove unfair either for your think tank or for the particular team member. Is it fair to stop a great researcher on his/her career path outside your think tank? Can you (as a think tank) afford the competition of the private sector or even politics?

Against these questions, I believe that team development is what we should aim for.

The main question here is finding a model that allows your colleagues to grow professionally, to leave a mark in your organisation and to invest his/her knowledge and capacities in guiding your junior thinktankers before they leave.

What I am particularly proud of IDM in this regard is not simply the average number of years our former colleagues have spent with us, but rather, the fact that almost all of them have left to pursue career objectives in other sectors where we obviously couldn’t compete (e.g. government or donors). It’s true, IDM would have been happier to keep them onboard. Besides, the transition has not always been easy. However, being part of a continuous capacity development process centering on teams rather than stars, the change has never been dramatic.

And in any case, this is a core function of think tanks, too. To help develop the next generations of policy makers, politicians, and even business leaders.

Some other elements helped us develop such an approach. To begin with, we have implemented hiring practices which are open and competitive. Most importantly, we are not hiring staff to implement our agenda but team members to further develop it. Yet this would be just a meaningless statement if it was not linked with an adequate governance and management model. Inviting your colleagues to take ownership and identify themselves with the think tank’s agenda relies on a more open management model for the organization: a model where important decisions are taken by a group of thinktankers that are perfectly comfortable to talk about “our” and not “my” organization.

Donor-driven, donor-dependent, and the learning process

Do we still rely on donors and projects? Yes, mostly.

Is our agenda totally donor-driven and project-based? Absolutely not!

Think tanks are not simply in the “ideas business”. After all, so are consultancies. What makes the difference is an agenda on policy change.

IDM program areas are composed of values we believe in and objectives we strive to attain, based on acquired knowledge, experience and capabilities. While we share values and objectives with many donors, we are sometimes at odds when it comes to certain priorities. This doesn’t mean we should abandon them just because there is no funding.

Can we afford that?Can a think tank afford to be at odds with its donors?

To a certain extent your funding structure and donor diversification is important. However, the question here is deeply about the agenda and continuous exchange process, rather than about “confronting” donors you disagree with or agree with just for the sake of funding. For instance, what if your only (or biggest) donor, one you’ve always agreed with, decides one day to leave the country? Developing another agenda based on the funding priorities of the next donor in line would probably be a bad idea.

Think tanks that resist donor-driven temptations in developing their programmatic priorities can actually afford to try to influence donors’ agenda. In principle, it shouldn’t be a big burden for a think tank to use its existing expertise for a policy brief or engage in a media debate on specific policy issues based on its existing knowledge. Writing about my experience with core funding on this blog and sharing our perspective on “DOs and DON’Ts” for both, our peers and donors hasn’t taken more than a weekend. And doing so, may draw attention of others to our work. Similarly, actively participating in donor roundtables and policy-makers debates (NOT funded by your budget) may well increase the chances of more donors grasping your ideas.

Of course this won’t work every time. “Accidents” may still happen and you may have to make difficult decisions to stay true to your philosophy, values, priorities and previous work. But, think tanks are not infallible; they can make mistakes, too.

In a process of exchanges and attempts to change behaviors, every participating actor can learn, including think tanks. IDM too has been able to learn and its understanding on certain policy issues has evolved thanks to such processes. Ultimately, this has served to advance our agenda and programmatic priorities on policy change.

Can one afford to disregard this opportunity?