Life after leading a think tank: how funders can support the transition

28 April 2023
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

Founding and leading a think tank is a demanding and often thankless job. It requires a unique blend of skills: strategic vision, fundraising, management, and research. 

I’ve met many think tank leaders. I’m humbled by their passion for ideas and their efforts to shape public debate and advance the public good. 

Yet, they often face a range of challenges and concerns as the end of their tenure approaches. 

It’s rare that these are openly discussed with their funders – the very people and organisations that could help! But funders should take an interest in addressing these challenges because they affect the sustainability of the organisations they support.

Options for some leaders after they leave their think tanks

Think tank directors have many options in countries with large and dynamic policy research ecosystems. 

They spend time in government, academia, and in the private sector. They also commonly move between think tanks (often within the same country and sector). E.g., Bronwen Maddox left the Institute for Government to lead Chatham House.

Below are some examples of the paths pursued by former think tank directors in such countries.

Julia Unwin: Unwin is the former Director of the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. She left this role in 2016. She then took on many different roles: Chair of the independent inquiry into the future of civil society in England; independent, non-executive Director at Mears Group Plc; non-executive Director at Yorkshire Water; and non-executive Director of the Financial Reporting Council. 

Alison Evans: Evans is the former Director of ODI. After leaving, Evans worked as the Chief Commissioner of the UK’s Independent Commission for Aid Impact, overseeing independent evaluations of UK aid programmes.

Nick Pearce: Pearce is the former Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research. After leaving here, Pearce became the head of the Prime Minister’s Policy Unit and then the founding Director of the Institute for Policy Research at the University of Bath, where he continues to lead research and engage with policymakers.

Not everyone has the same opportunities 

In some countries, the think tank, academic and policy sectors are smaller and less dynamic. 

Here, think tank director may have limited options after leading a think tank. And few of these options will pay well enough, be as interesting, or give them the same level of prestige. 

Those who find suitable alternatives often take big risks. E.g., the founder–director of Faro, Ecuador, Orazio Bellettini, left to pursue a new career in social entrepreneurship in his home city. And at least three of CIPPEC’s former directors moved into politics. Those were huge gambles! 

Others opt to leave their countries and take on jobs in international non-governmental organisations, multilateral organisations, or foundations. Although great for them and their new organisations’ missions, it’s unfortunate for their communities as they lose their greatest minds. For instance, Ana Patricia Muñoz left Faro to lead the International Budget Partnership, Savior Mwambwa left Zambia’s CTPD to join first Tax Justice Network- Africa and then the Open Society Foundations, and Priyanthi Fernando became the leader of an international women’s human rights organisation after having led CEPA in Sri Lanka. 

But for many leader, these opportunities aren’t available or aren’t a viable option. They may have families they can’t uproot. They may live in countries in which working for the government or joining politics isn’t secure. Or they may not want to change sectors.

Also, a think tank may have been a director’s life’s work – especially if they are also its founder. They’ll have poured their energy, time, and resources into building an institution they believe in. 

The thought of stepping away from this can be daunting. They may worry about what will happen to the institution once they leave. Will their legacy be preserved? Will their vision for the future be realised?

Many directors may also worry about their own financial security. Leading a think tank or research centre can be well-paid – especially in countries where good think tanks are scarse. Thus, after leaving their leadership role, they may struggle to find a job that pays just as well, leaving them with few options.

I understand these worries. I empathise. 

Cost of not leaving when the time is right

It’s important to recognise that directors play a fundamental role in building and shaping think tanks. It’s also important to consider the challenges and worries they face at the end of their tenure – which is not the same as the end of their careers.

Yet, if they stay in their leadership roles for too long their organisations may suffer, so carefully managed leadership transitions are important. Below are six potential consequences of leaders staying for too long. 

1. Stagnation 

Directors may become resistant to change, leading to stagnation within the organisation. This can make it difficult for think tanks to adapt to new challenges, innovate, stay relevant, and remain competitive. 

As one founder–director in Belgrade confessed, “I have stayed for too long. I have now run out of ideas.”

2. Burnout 

Leading a think tank can be demanding and stressful, so directors may experience burnout if they stay for too long. This can lead to decreased productivity, lower morale, and higher turnover rates among staff. 

3. Succession planning 

It can be challenging to develop a succession plan and to identify a suitable replacement if a director stays for too long. This can leave their organisation vulnerable if they suddenly leave.

4. Decreased funding

Donors and supporters may become less enthusiastic about supporting an organisation that’s overly reliant on its director. This can lead to decreased funding and a decline in the organisation’s overall financial health. 

5. Discouraging new talent 

If the organisation has a reputation for being stagnant or resistant to change, it may struggle to attract the best and brightest talent. This can impact the quality of its research and the effectiveness of its advocacy efforts.

6. High turnover 

When new employees feel they have limited opportunities to grow and develop professionally, they can become frustrated and disillusioned. This can lead to increased turnover rates and a loss of institutional knowledge.

How funders can help directors who decide to move on

So, how can funders support directors, their think tanks, and their broader policy research ecosystems if they decide to move on? Offer a pension scheme? Well, maybe. But we can be more creative and practical than that!

Here are some actions that funders could take/options they could offer: 

1. Work with the directors

Directors must be active participants in the transition discussions.  

I’ve worked with several directors who’ve asked me to keep their plans to leave quiet. They were worried that funding may be withheld if their intention was known.

I understand the concern. But my advice has always been to engage with funders and even ask them for help – by seeking support earlier they’ll have more time to plan. Because, more often than not, funders are talking about this behind their backs. 

Some funders will even offer organisational effectiveness grants to support executive director transitions. Start the conversation early. 

2. Work with boards and senior managers

Think tank’s governing bodies need to be aware of the risks and the need to plan for orderly transitions. But they may need the capacity and support to achieve this.

When boards and senior managers start discussing this behind a director’s back, it’s too late for an orderly transition process.

Although they usually know when it’s time for a change, they’re often just as guilty as directors in not preparing early for transitions. 

They need to decide when and how transitions should take place. Laying this responsibility entirely on the director is unfair – maybe even selfish and given that directors often have their plates full this only prolongues the process. 

Senior managers can create space for a director to prepare for an easy transition as many key roles are delegated to them. This should give them the time to focus on the organisation’s future – and their own. 

Support from funders could make a big difference to their capacity to engage in this process.

3. Transition grants 

The German government offers transition grants to graduates returning home from university to help them reconnect with the local market and take on new opportunities.

These grants could help former directors use their knowledge and connections to build new projects or initiatives – e.g., establish a new network of think tanks to address a common agenda or develop a new research programme within their organisation.

4. Academic fellowships/chairs 

Funders could provide academic fellowships in a university – local if possible. This could allow the former directors to undertake research, write a book, or teach and mentor the next generation of think tank leaders. It may also offer them a transitory space to reflect on their future and carefully re-invent themselves. 

E.g., programmes like IDRC’s chairs on forced displacement in the Global South could accommodate former executive directors to build new bodies of work. 

5. Retraining opportunities 

Funders could support founders–directors to retrain, helping them gain new skills for life beyond their think tanks. 

E.g., consulting can be a potentially rewarding career option for senior researchers. But consulting and thinktanking are not the same, so some training would help with this transition. 

6. Board or advisory roles in programmes/portfolios 

Many funders use (or could use) the experience of former think tank directors to offer advice in the design and delivery of their programmes/portfolios. 

This could offer former directors a good basic income and the opportunity to network/gain visibility. We see the same names pop-up in advisory boards all the time. A small effort to reach out to new players would go along way towards supporting the think tank sector as a whole. 

Crucially, it could also enable them to make a meaningful contribution to the fields and communities they’ve worked to support by informing funders’ practices. 

7. Leadership opportunities in new organisations or programmes

Funders create new organisations all the time – e.g., The International Growth Centre and 3ie

These international bodies present a perfect opportunity for former think tank founder–directors. They’ve certainly got the management experience! 

8. PR support/services

Although hard, being the director of a think tank has several advantages – like often being the focus of entire communication teams. 

They’ve got a platform: they’re first in line to write op-eds in national media, they get to launch new books and reports, and their social media accounts are proactively promoted.  

Could funders fund an initiative that actively offers former directors the opportunity to promote their work? Maybe a network of think tanks like Southern Voice could continue to support its members former leaders by offering them a platform for their work.

9. Mentorship programmes 

Throughout the years, some of On Think Tanks’ most prolific contributors have been former think tank directors. Whenever we ask them to offer support and advice to current and future think tank leaders, they’re very keen to get involved!

Funders spend hundreds of thousands hiring consulting firms and consultants to build the capacity of their grantees. 

Although we benefit from this, I bet a mentorship programme (which we are developing) would deliver additional value for money!