Scenarios for the future of think tank support initiatives

18 September 2014
SERIES Funding for think tanks part one: domestic funding 16 items

I’ve been discussing the possible support of a couple of think tanks with a long-time funder. Underlying our conversation is the concern by the funder that when they leave (and they will) one of the think tanks will collapse. Its finances do not look right, its research agenda seems in need of an urgent rethink, etc. The funder has been supporting this think tank for quite some time so it is perfectly understandable that it is concerned about its future. It feels a bit like a parent not wanting to let go of his or child.

The thing is that think tanks are nobody’s children. Sure, the people who work there should not be treated as things but the think tanks themselves are things. They should exist and continue to be supported as long as they serve their society (or whatever purpose its funder or funders consider appropriate).

Still, it is hard to let go; and this is why it is so surprising that few efforts consider an exit strategy. Sure, they assume that after a period of time the think tanks will be stronger, will have better systems, will be staffed by more competent or professional people, they finances will be more diversified, etc.

The assumption is made that the initiative will be successful and therefore think tanks will be alright. They will be able to fend for themselves.

I think that maybe 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.

One way of doing this is by thinking about possible scenarios. I was going over a project I designed for DFID in Zambia to support think tanks and then I followed up with the TTI and KSI websites and realised that this ‘what next?’ question had not been asked. Surely, TTI and KSI teams have asked it, internally. (Surely their funders are considering it.) But what I mean is that it is not being publicly asked.


So what may be possible scenarios for the future of long-term think tank support initiatives? Now that the TTI has launched a call for evaluation of the second phase (and KSI has published it evaluation approach) it might be worth considering an interesting addition to any evaluation effort: what next? In fact, maybe this ‘what next?’ question ought to be a central feature of the TTI evaluation bids.

NESTA published an excellent study/paper a few years back on the Art of Exit: how to decommission programmes and projects in a creative way? Thinking about scenarios help us to do that. So let me suggest the following scenarios for a multi-year think tank support programme:

Scenario 1 – A new phase with the same participants: More of the same is always an option. Think tanks do need long-term commitments from funders who want to support the development of their capacity. The TTI’s long-term commitment to just about 50 think tanks has led to important improvements that would not have been possible with uncertain support. I am editing a series of cases on organisation reform from Latin American think tanks and this is a clear finding: long-term commitment (not even the support it self -although this has been useful) has had a positive effect.

However, this would inevitably raise the question of dependence. Both ways: are the think tanks going to be dependent on foreign funders for ever? (and: will the foreign funders be dependent on the same think tanks for ever?) This is an unlikely scenario beyond two (definitely three) phases. Either donor policy will chafe dramatically (think tanks will no longer be in fashion, for instance) or a new leader will want to make a mark with a new project.

There is another downside for continuation. Like long-serving governments, they tend to run out of ideas. Change in the staff could be useful but this may lead to trying old ideas. And, let’s be honest, there is not much that can be done if the initiative is not willing to change its approach. Like think tanks themselves, funders ought to change (even if ever so slightly) their agendas to keep them relevant and engaging.

Scenario 2 – New participants: This is an interesting option for initiatives that are working well. Innovation may not need to come from changes to the approach but from changes to the participants. New think tanks, from the same countries or from new countries, could be just what they need. They could be great sources of new ideas and opportunity to revive the supporters’ creative capacity. The incorporation of new think tanks to support could come in many forms:

  • New think tanks in addition to the existing think tanks: this would probably see the initiative grow in size but new participants could inject new challenges and opportunities for learning for everyone else. It could also work well that the ‘older’ participants may change their role from grantees to mentors.
  • New think tanks to replace old think tanks: this is a more likely scenario if we assume that funders won’t want to increase the budget after two or three phases of an initiative. We could expect that the third or fourth phases (or second phases depending on their length) would be more efficient and so the same amount or fewer funds could go much further. New think tanks would allow the initiatives to put what they think they have learned to a test. New think tanks would also extend the reach of the initiative beyond the original cohorts thus supporting the broader think tank community (in the same country or even in a region).
  • New think tanks in the same countries or new think tanks in different countries: this will of course depend on the initiatives. An initiative like the TTI could very well move to new countries but one like the KSI might not (although Australian Aid or other funders could take the project elsewhere after Indonesia). Supporting new think tanks in the same countries could strengthen the think tank community there and help balance some of the relations of power that the initial support might have disturbed. It could also allow the initiatives to continue to learn about these contexts and even support, indirectly, their own former grantees. New countries could be a new exiting challenge and an indication (or a signal) that think tanks should expect the presence of foreign funders for ever.

In the case of initiatives that work I would encourage this approach. It seems like the right thing to do: spread the love.

Scenario 3 – New type of support: If the Art of Exit can teach us anything is that even if things work now, they may not work for ever. We’ve got to be open to the possibility of changing things before the become obsolete even if they are at their prime. So taking the lessons learned so far and trying to imagine an alternative should be part of these initiatives DNA. Earlier this year I visited Indonesia and was talking to a few of the think tanks involved in the KSI. We considered the size of the initiative, its various components and activities. It got me thinking about how different the initiative could have been: I started with the budget and the initiative’s objectives and thought about alternatives (not necessarily, better) to the current design. I could do that, of course, because I was not busy implementing the initiative. I have that luxury.

When donors develop their programmes and when organisations bid to deliver them, they, collectively, lock themselves into a sort of design path that heavily reduces the space for creativity. Once the plans are in a contract, changing them becomes almost impossible.

But new phases (even the end of inception phases or the process of developing annual reports) are an opportunity to consider all options. And this should include something else entirely. What could new support to think tanks look like? Some off-the-wall ideas could include:

  • One-off up front grants: a funder could calculate how much they expect to grant a think tank over a period of time, say 8 to 10 years. Then applying a small discount (10-20%) they could offer them all the money in advance with the condition that this is the last time they will be allowed to ask them for money. It puts all the responsibility on the think tank which, with fund in the bank, should be able to plan ahead.
  • Loans: why not offer think tanks interest-free o low-interest loans instead of grants? This may not apply to most think tanks but those that need the money for a short-term investments could be better served this way. And the funders would be able to reuse the funds to support other think tanks in the future.
  • Set up reserve funds: rather than funding the directly, give them certainty.
  • Set up national research funds: rather than funding as foreigners, why not spend s a bit of time setting up local offices of the initiative? This need not be a legal entity. A national board would be enough to give the funding of think tanks (and research more broadly) a domestic perspective and the legitimacy that comes with it. Basically, this means that funding decisions will be made domestically rather than from far away. This could create new problems but, well, that is politics.

Scenario 4- No more support: Of course, the option of not providing any more support for think tanks is an alternative. In fact, this may be the effect of the debate generated by the New York Times article on foreign funding of think tanks in the United States. One possible scenario is that other governments will think that foreign funding of organisations whose mission is to influence them is, at the very least, questionable. This could lead to a great deal of constraints and red-tape and even intellectual or financial repression.

Although, my guess is that think tanks will eventually pass as an organisation of interest for international development funders. I do not think this will be a bad thing, however.

To take away: seek excellent and avoid dependency 

In a way, thinking about these scenarios has a bit to do with seeking excellence by never saying no to alternatives (even if they are not in the original plans) and a bit to do with avoiding dependency.

Excellence comes from taking an open innovation approach to developing and implementing the best possible support initiative. Open innovation assumes that we do not always have the best ideas (in fact, it is quite likely that others -somewhere else- will have better ideas) and makes a point of trying to find them and use them. Thinking about scenarios and making them explicit can be a great way of identifying and testing new ideas. We may discard most of them but maybe an element of one will stick around to make a difference.

Avoiding dependency is as much about making sure that think tanks do not grow dependent of one funder or programme as preventing donors from becoming dependent of a few think tanks. A great deal has been written about think tanks being dependent. By making sure that they understand that support has a time-limit (that it will run off in the not so distant future) donors can help think tanks to take full advantage of the support. I get the feeling, for instance, that think tanks in Latin America are by now quite sure that they are living through the last years of easy foreign funding and are therefore more interested than ever to take advantage of whatever support they can get.

Avoiding funders’ dependency is a less popular topic. Funders and the organisations (consultancies, think tanks, NGOs) that they tend to work through in developed countries tend to work with the same small cadre of think tanks. These are organisations that they know well and that they have supported or contracted for many years. Regardless of the quality of the work, they find it easier to endure disappointments than seek out new think tanks to work with or fund. As a consequence, there are countries with two or three think tanks regardless of the fact that there are millions in research funds available. Instead of more think tanks, these countries end up with a few centres with extremely highly paid researchers and a huge bottle-neck when it comes to research production.