Mobilising domestic funding for think tanks in developing countries: a way forward

16 March 2017
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 15 items

One of the topics that concerned the participants of the First On Think Tanks Conference in February 2017 was think tanks financial sustainability.

One of the challenge sessions held focused on the question of how to mobilise domestic funding (from a range of sources) to compensate for the rapid (in some regions) loss of foreign funding.+

The discussion led to a number of posible approaches and actions that think tanks and their current funders could take. And from these emerged a number of implications for the wider effort of addressing the pressing issue of think tanks’ financial sustainability.

For more about supporting and funding think tanks visit our thematic pages

In this post I report on the discussions held during the session. + I offer some advice going forward at the end.

What could think tanks do?

Think tanks are ultimately responsible for their financial sustainability. What can they do to about it? Among the many actions think tanks can take, the following were considered by the participants:

Find the money

A consensus among those present at the OTT Conference was that think tanks need to use their research skills to quantify the domestic resource as a first step to engage in a conversation with current and future funders.

In Peru, for instance, there are millions of USD available for research from taxes levied on the extractive industries which are returned to the regions where the activity takes place. There are more funds in a tax mechanism called “public works or services for taxes” through which companies can avoid paying taxes if they build a school, maintain a motorway or, for instance, equip a university lab or fund skills development. There are even more funds in corporate social responsibility projects that go towards “making up for mistakes” or patching up the relationship with local communities or other sort-to-medium term interventions. There are sufficient funds to support at least 5 (USD5 million per think tank for 5 years) new (very well resourced) think tanks outside of the capital, Lima, and even benefit traditional think tanks through partnerships and through direct support. If only a small portion of all of these resources were allocated to evaluating and informing public policy…

In India, corporations must dedicate 2% to Corporate Social Responsibility. This so called 2% Bill is an opportunity for think tanks. They must know where these funds are.

Think tanks should also pay greater attention to the policy frameworks that make it harder (or less attractive) for individuals, corporations and the State to fund policy research. If the tax incentives are all wrong, if procurement law does not make it possible for government to offer research grants to non-university based research, if online payments carry too high a commission, etc. then maybe think tanks number one priority should be to study how to change this.


As funding becomes harder to get and the usual funders of think tanks begin to reduce their budgets or altogether leave, individual think tanks face a difficult choice: Do they try to gain an advantage over others to get as big a share of whatever is left or do their partner with other think tanks to ensure that these funds are shared more effectively supporting the sector as a whole?

Collaboration, too, is an option when it comes to seeking out new funders. Think tanks would be advised to develop a critical mass of organisations to help “make a case” for the support they seek from new funders. They should remember that they also compete with organisations with a clearer story of impact than them.

Finding a way to increase the pool of funding for all (including for their competition) is a good way forward. Even the strongest think tanks today are under threat. Their business models have worked so far when funding was widely available. It is time to re-think those, too.

Collaboration may include other types of organisations, too. Universities (specially public universities where funding may be more easily available but capacity to do research is scarce), civil society organisations and grassroots (which may help broaden their constituency and confer them a value and legitimacy that will be of great importance in a world in which elites are under constant scrutiny), activists, the media, etc.

Make a better case

Think tanks need to make a better case for support. Existing ones, particularly those who have enjoyed a strong and a long term relationship with a few foreign funders, have rarely had to reach out to funders in their countries: foundations, corporations, individuals and government. They may know them (government may in fact value their research and advice) but they probably do not fully understand what is it that they do -and how.

Few think tanks have, in the past, paid any attention to the “general public”. And time and time again they have been advised to focus their communication efforts on “key stakeholders”, influential policy actors, etc. As a consequence, the public, even the informed public (even their friends and family), would find it hard to explain what a think tank is and what it does -let alone why they should be supported. Without them, however, think tanks will find it hard to convince new funders to support them: individuals, foundations and corporations, wealthy or not, will want to know, and understand, what it is that they are funding.

It goes without saying that think tanks need to think about new ways to make their case. Producing and publishing great academic papers and sharp policy recommendations won’t necessarily do it for this broader public. Visualisations and Film (not just the medium but also the way film is produced -they way a script is developed, for instance) may offer a way forward for think tanks keen to make their contributions to society clear to all.

Link-up to fundable agendas

What makes a research agenda more attractive to funders? It should be current, address the concerns and interests of funders, it ought to promise impact (of some sort), visibility (of the research, sure, but sometimes of the funder, too), offer all involved a win-win situation, etc.

Participants at the OTT Conference agreed that think tanks need to make a greater effort to connect their research agendas to ongoing national and international agendas as a way of making themselves more attractive to funders who are interested in supporting them (the agendas, not the think tanks).

Agenda 2030 is a good option for think tanks interested in finding new foreign funders or make themselves more attractive to their own governments (who are likely to have signed up to deliver report-after-report on the SDGs). But 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. For instance:

  • Banks and insurance companies want to increase their reach – think tanks could study financial inclusion and pursue policy recommendations to help more people benefit from financial services.
  • The extractive industry is increasingly concerned about the conflicts they face with local communities – think tanks could study experiences from across the world as well as efforts to prevent and respond to them.
  • Travel operators and the hotel industry are worried about a slowdown in growth and even a reduction in visitors to the country – think tanks could study the causes of the slowdown, explore new business models for sustainable tourism, means of adding value to the existing supply, improve the regulatory framework to make tourism more profitable for more people even with declining numbers, study the long term impact of these fluctuations, etc.

Reaching out

A better message about themselves, a more attractive research agenda and the right channel won’t be enough if there isn’t a real effort to reach out to new audiences. This does not need to involve anything fancy or complicated. How many think tanks invite prospective funders to their events? They prefer to count the number of ministers at the table. How many make an effort to welcome people outside their academic and policy networks? They rather have a conversation between peers.

These efforts will not yield immediate returns but as these new constituencies grow and become fonder of the think tank the may turn into supporters (for instance through subscriptions to the centre’s services) or attract institutional funders interested in them (a think tank with a large and active network of followers among young people is likely to entice funding from corporations and foundations interested in them and what they need or want).

As the think tank’s audience grows so will its constituency, its influence and opportunities to bring up the option of membership programmes or fellowships which can be an excellent source of funding. The RSA offers an proven model for this.

Get it done

There is a lot of talk about new fundraising efforts from think tanks -particularly those whose traditional funders have made it very clear that they will not be able to continue supporting them. While efforts to think through ways to help them are under way think tanks must begin to work on their own strategies.

There are many actions that think tanks could be taking, now, to address this funding challenge. None of these need a grand strategy or skills beyond their reach:

  • “Support us if you want”: add a “support us” page or button to your website or newsletters. It can be linked to your bank account, Paypal or to an email directly to your accounts department.
  • Ask for money -any amount of money: this can be very hard for researchers but asking for money is the first step towards getting money. Asking for money is also a way of reaching out and spreading the word. It forces organisations to think about their message -is it clear? does it have the effect we want to it have? does it make sense -even to us?
  • Ask for money in a more formal way: annual letters from the director to former and current funders, policy audiences, attendees to events, staff and alumni (if the centre has a capacity building programme) outlining the think tank’s work over the previous year, its successes and how it aims to tackle the country’s pressing problems over the the following year are surprisingly effective tools to raise funds (or, at least, reach out and spread the word). It can be cheap, too, a nicely worded and laid-out email will do (no PDFs!).
  • Fundraising event: this is a slightly more elaborate version of the letter but all it takes is a set of skills that most think tanks have. A breakfast meeting to present a project or a work plan and ask for support or an annual dinner or gala to celebrate the think tank’s work with its “influential” friends are two options at opposite sides of the budget. Again, they may not yield immediate results but could gradually develop a strong funding base for the think tank.
  • Ask your funders to introduce you to new funders: If your current funder won’t support your future work maybe they can forward your ideas to other funders who will. Foreign foundations, bilateral government agencies and the international financial institutions that typically fund policy research in developing countries have very good contacts with government, the private sector and local foundations. Why not ask for an introduction?

There are other actions that think tanks could take of course. Some are easy and others difficult. But in the end, think tanks must want to do it. And, as the participants of the OTT Conference agreed, lose their fear of rejection. It will happen. More often than not.

In-kind support

Money isn’t everything. Think tanks can seek-out other kinds of support; which may be easier to raise in the short-run:

  • Data: data, especially data held in private hands, is incredibly expensive to get. Governments and corporations have truck-loads of data which they often do not know how to use fully. Think tanks can step in and lend a hand -or they can find other ways to use it with the public interest in mind. Data from mobile phone users can help telecommunication companies sell more advertising but researchers could find ways to use it to improve public service targeting and budget allocation.
  • Space: the concept of “philanthropy of space” is new but an attractive one. There is always empty space in universities, hotels, corporations, foundations, private clubs, etc. which think tanks can use to hold public events, teams meetings and even as office space.
  • Pro-bono support: faced with complex challenges (for instance how to raise funds from new funders – but, also, policy challenges) think tanks can reach out experienced policymakers, researchers from other centres or universities (at home or abroad), business leaders, etc. and seek their advice. Pro-bono work is a very popular way for law-firms and large corporate-consultancies to carryout corporate social responsibility. (This website is the result of pro-bono work.)

What could current think tank funders do?

On the other hand, it would be short-sighted for current funders of think tanks to pay little attention to their long term financial sustainability. This is particularly true of funders whose support focuses on building think tanks’ capacity. What could they do to protect their investments?

Start and facilitate a discussion: Outcome Mapping Style

This is not a challenge that will be met with unilateral interventions. There isn’t a magic bullet project that will sort it all out. To maximise the financial sustainability of think tanks and policy research in developing countries there are an awful lot of people and organisations who need to change their behaviours significantly.

Outcome Mapping (OM) provides a useful tool to facilitate a conversation between think tanks, their stakeholders, their current funders and future funders. OM focuses on identifying and supporting the behaviour changes of key actors (people and organisations) as a means to achieving impact. In its original form, it emphasises the need to recognise that each participant has to define their pathways of change in relation to those of others in the system. It is all done in cooperation. Then, change is no longer unilateral (expected of the think tanks, for instance) but a common experience (think tanks change, funders change, etc.) and supportive.

There is no fundamental reason why a think tank (or a network of think tanks) could not facilitate this but it may be easier for a funder (or a network of funders) to take the lead. (Or, if we get the time, maybe On Think Tanks will give it a go).

Peer-to-peer support

This idea has been informally discussed for a long time. If domestic philanthropists won’t pay much attention to think tanks and policy research then maybe their peers (and possibly their seniors) in developed countries could help convince them to part with their money and support think tanks. Bill Gates helped to get Carlos Slim to fund research in Mexico. He could do it elsewhere, too.

Foundations could approach foundations, bilateral government agencies could approach the government, etc.

It may be a challenge to tackle all countries in a single action but the Gates, Buffets and Soros of the world do host, from time to time, dinners and events to convince others of the benefits of donating their money -some of it to research. Individual think tank funders could help identify research philanthropists in the making and get them onto the guest lists. They could also take advantage of their grantees own annual events or anniversary celebrations to encourage some of these meetings.

Fund through domestic vehicles

Foreign funders could increase the domestic resources available if they were to establish local research funds to act as funding vehicles for their support. They could also use existing organisations to act as re-granters.

A local research fund would require a local and trustworthy board. The fund could be set up to accept and encourage others to use it, too. It could become a vehicle for the foreign funders to encourage their peers to channel their own funds domestically and entice local foundations to fund research.

Some countries already have research councils (mostly focusing on the hard sciences, though) so the basic infrastructure is present. IDRC, for instance, supports the Science Granting Councils Initiative in Sub-Saharan Africa.

Help find the money

Although this is primarily think tanks’ responsibility funders may be in a better position to identify or at the very least fund efforts to identify domestic resources in the countries they are working in. It would be in their best interest, too. As they begin discussions about long term sustainability with their grantees, they can do so with evidence to back up their encouragement to seek out new sources of funds.

Challenge the business model

Few think tanks will do this on their own. Those for whom things are working alright have little incentives to take a break and re-think their business model. If it is not broken, why fix it? And those whose business models are doomed to fail (but are probably not aware of it now), are unlikely to have the breathing space to re-think them.

Funders will have to step in to force or allow a re-think. There is an excellent study by Nesta on decommissioning public programmes that is relevant for this discussion: The Art of Exit talks about finding intelligent ways to use the decommissioning or closure of a programme to think about the next step. But it also points out at the need to start thinking about decommissioning well before things are no longer working: will they work in the future?

Here funders must consider, too, how their own funding may be locking their grantees into impossible situations. Are we keeping costs at a level which will be impossible to maintain in the local market of expertise? Are we allowing the think tank to accumulate reserves to deal with future shocks? Have we created disincentives towards rapid reform by promising long term funding?

There are many more things funders could do, see: what could foreign funders do to mobilise domestic resources? 

Work together: 5 recommendations

Mobilising domestic funding will take more than a single intervention and it will require a concerted and collaborative effort. Here are 5 recommendations to take away:

  1. Commit to it: All (aid) foreign think tank and policy research funders who would like to see their grantees raise domestic funding should make it their mission to achieve this. Make this a measure of their success. Think tanks, too, must make a commitment to dramatically reduce the share of foreign funding they receive. Absolute funding transparency will be a good first step towards this. How to do it? Add this to your missions and M&E plans.
  2. Get started: Focusing on a sub-region or country, coalitions of think tanks and funders should begin an OM facilitated processes to develop and implement a strategy focused on all parties’ behavioural change. How to do it? The Outcome Mapping Learning Community has all the resources one needs for this or get in touch with OTT.
  3. Open your books: Transparency is a ally. It will help think tanks and their current funders identify low-hanging fruits and make strategic choices. It will be the first thing new funders will want to know about, too. How to do it? Transparify offers advice on how to get 5 stars.
  4. Invest in developing your case: This will be harder and will demand some outside help. Think tanks need to reach out to their stakholders and even a broader audience to truly understand who they are seen by the rest. Perceptions matter and these need to be incorporated into the development of a scrip. Then, try video, it is an effective tool to tell this kind of story. How to do it? Have a look at the OTT TV films of think tanks as inspiration or get in touch with OTT.
  5. Ask for money: There is no need to wait for the strategy, in fact. The first significant behavioural change that will be required is this: ask for money -and ask again. It won’t yield immediate effects but it will get your message out there, help develop new networks and, maybe, find your future funders. How to do it? Ask. Start with a couple of friends; ask them to introduce you to a friend of theirs.