June 21, 2017


On think tanks and domestic funding: the series

During discussions amongst attendants of the On Think Tanks Conference in February 2017, funding and sustainability arose as two of the main challenges facing think tanks, the latter a direct result of the former. Both of these challenges are most felt by think tanks in developing countries, where they tend to operate on “survival mode,” securing funds for the present and immediate future, without a long-term funding model. This is not always the result of unsuccessful governance and/or budget managing, often thinking “long-term” is just unrealistic for an organisation.

Funding is one of the five core themes at OTT. Through the years, we have produced a wealth of material on the topic including resources, advice, tools and capacity building opportunities.

Join the short course: Re-thinking funding models. Starts August 22.

This series includes 12 posts on domestic funding, including advice for both thinktankers and funders. In the next few months, we will publish 3 more series on funding:

  • Funding, think tanks and the private sector
  • Philanthropy as a new source of funding
  • What think tank leaders have to say (a selection from the OTT interviews)

OTT’s founder and director, Enrique Mendizabal, has produced a lot of content on funding based on his experience and discussions with other think tank experts throughout his career. His relationship with funders and thinktankers alike have given him a global picture of the funding scenario. His advice could not be clearer: the only way for think tanks in developing countries to ensure their sustainability is to let go of an unhealthy dependency on international funds and tap into domestic funds.

Foreign funding is risky because it is likely to diminish as the countries develop. And this can leave think tanks in a more vulnerable situation than it found them in.

The post Independence, dependency, autonomy… is it all about the money?, discusses the importance of maintaining a realistic view on independence- when are think tanks truly independent from their donors, regardless of where their funds come from?

If the influence of international donors is palpable among international development think tanks (based in the north) then the influence on think tanks in many developing countries is absolute.

Back in 2011, Enrique ventured some ideas to the then new head of the Think Tank Initiative (TTI). Amongst them was the urge to encourage grantees to seek alternative funding rather than tailor their fundraising activities solely to international funders. Not only is this a risky gamble for their sustainability, but it also puts into question the quality of the work they produce:

There are serious problems with relying on international funds for research. First, researchers end up paying more attention to what donors are interested in than what their countries need. Second, they are quick to adopt discourses and processes that often lack relevance for contexts. And finally, to list only three, they become dependent on political (and funding) cycles on which they have no influence what so ever.

The post suggests a few solutions to the issue, including leveraging domestic funds and expanding the community of grantees.

So, how can domestic funders be approached? Think tanks need the support of local funders- they must seek local philanthropy and investment in research. To be successful at this, they have to re-think their approach, their governance structures, and their offer. They need to learn to speak the language of business to get funders on board.

In the long run, foreign funders will go; but domestic funders won’t. They will always be there.

Attaining domestic funds is not an easy task. Clara Richards talked to Sandra Polonia Ríos, director of the Centro de Estudos de Integração e Desenvolvimento (CINDES), on Brazilian funding models and the challenges they face. Some think tanks in Brazil receive a degree of support from domestic funders but most still face a challenge of sustainability, particularly independent think tanks which usually don’t have core funding.

Why is it important to promote domestic funding?

Foreign funding is unreliable and think tanks have little control or influence over it. Funding decisions at bilateral agencies are the consequence of political processes that take part well beyond the sphere of influence of the funds’ recipients. Indian think tanks have no say over how much DFID allocated for them; this is decided by British politicians and the British electorate –and, often, the media.

Relying on foreign funding has other implications for think tanks. The money they receive usually has strings attached and with their existence dependant on these foreign funds, there is not much they can do about it. In Undue influence: what is it, how is it exerted, and how to address it in the future?, we find a description of the mechanisms used by foreign funders to fund think tanks, and the dangers these pose for creating quality research locally. The post Scenarios for the future of think tank support initiatives includes a range of scenarios for funders with an “exit strategy” (and they should have one):

(…) Funders need to be more explicit about this. They should, first of all, say that they expect the think tanks to graduate from their support and, secondly, commit themselves to a future in which funding is not forever.

During the OTT Conference, we discussed at length the challenge of sustainability facing think tanks in developing countries and how this can be addressed by mobilising domestic funding. Here are five recommendations for funders wanting to help their grantees achieve sustainable funding:

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Open your books: Transparency is a ally.
  • Invest in developing your case: This will be harder and will demand some outside help. Think tanks need to reach out to their stakeholders and even a broader audience to truly understand who they are seen by the rest.
  • 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.

I’d like to wrap up this first series with advice for both thinktankers and funders. Jeremy Avins offers fundraising advice, advocating for strong strategic planning to make fundraising easier and more successful. He describes three major ways to make strategic planning beneficial for fundraising:

1. Build the strategy and related processes into researchers’ everyday work.
2. Spell out a monitoring and evaluation system that communicates impact while generating useful information.
3. Be explicit about the connection between the strategy and funding needs.

As for think tank funders, “Fund like a “Secret Dragon”: some ideas on how to support think tanks”:

Try, as hard as you can, to leverage domestic institutional or long term funding from the local private and public sectors. Help make the case for think tanks just as it has been made in developed countries.”

More advice for funders: what kind of funder are you? Do you fund think tanks to do their own thing because you like what they are already doing, or do you fund organisations to change them into a better version of themselves? Depending on what group you belong to:

If a think tank is funded to ‘do its own thing’ it should not be also expected to do things differently (…) On the other hand, if a think tank needs to reform -to improve- then funding should be focused on reform. Expectations that, as well as improving its management, research and/or communications, the think tank should influence policy successfully, for example, are utterly irrational.” The post includes a list of suggested questions (and answers) to ask when thinking of funding a think tank: who to fund, what to fund,  and how to fund and for how long.

Think tanks should be funded in full knowledge of what they can and cannot deliver.

Although this series focuses on the issue of funding the theme at OTT is actually “funding and supporting think tanks”. And support does not always translate to cash- there are other ways organisations can be supported.

“Support is never just about money. Money is really only a way to open the door. The real intervention is in the ideas that will be shared in the process; and ideas are best shared by people.”

With that in mind, I’ll include in this series an article to broaden the concept of “support”:  Supporting think tanks series: synthesis of the think pieces – context related lessons. The article includes links to five articles from think tank experts on support for think tanks.

Read more series related funding and supporting think tanks:

Read more from: Erika Perez-Leon