Searching for sustainable funding models: lessons from OTT’s support to Latin American think tanks

10 May 2018

[This article was originally published in the On Think Tanks 2017 Annual Review.]

Funding is a key concern for think tanks. It affects organisational sustainability, the way people work and the type of research that can be conducted. In the long-term, it even impacts on a think tank’s ability have policy influence.

Think tanks in developing countries are increasingly interested in understanding how to develop or strengthen domestic support for their work, so as to create new sources of income. They recognise that they rely too heavily on international funding, or on conducting isolated projects under a consultancy model.

But think tanks are not the only ones concerned with sustainability. Donors also want policy research centres to innovate their funding models in order to be better prepared to overcome the inevitable financing challenges that will arise when their support comes to an end. This is very relevant in Latin America, where international donors are increasingly withdrawing money from the region as most countries move towards, or reach, middle income status.

In 2016, OTT began supporting the Latin American Network of Think Tanks (ILAIPP). We were keen to strengthen the sustainability capacity of the network and of its members. The project, which is still ongoing, focuses on providing direct support to the network’s facilitator and executive body and enabling it to develop a sustainability strategy. We ran an online course for the network on re-thinking funding models, provided mentoring around selected projects being undertaken by think tanks in the network and developed learning products to share with the network and with the wider public.

After 18 months, we have started to generate lessons that may be helpful to others looking to run similar capacity building initiatives that focus heavily on mentoring. Here are our top five:

1. Time, funding and capacity constraints prevent innovation

Even when sustainability is a key concern, very few think tanks are able to allocate enough time and funding to pilot new initiates that may help bring about change in the way they approach fundraising and funding management.

Linked to this, think tanks in Latin America rarely have dedicated teams in place to work on strategic fundraising activities. The responsibility usually falls on a range of staff, mostly directors or communications and monitoring staff, who lack the proper skillset or struggle to find the time to discuss, learn or implement new approaches to fundraising.

2. Mentoring initiates work best face-to-face, but are prone to being sidelined

Mentoring initiatives are affected by a range of organisational issues and external events, including key staff members leaving, the need to focus on a new research project or a sudden political crisis. In this context, mentoring activities slow down and work plans need to be adapted. With this in mind, both think tanks and mentors need to remain flexible, while at the same time maintaining clear objectives.

Mentoring efforts tend to be more challenging when they are done remotely. That is, when the mentor and the mentee do not have a chance to meet in person. While the advantage of face-to-face working is clear, mentoring is largely implemented as a long-distance enterprise. This makes it particularly prone to being sidelined when distractions arise.

3. A shared vision is essential for effective organisational change

When embarking on processes that aim to promote organisational change, it is important for both mentors and mentees to have a shared vision. Is the focus on modifying management structures? Is it about setting up a new strategic unit or formalising new procedures? Is it about piloting a novel approach to fundraising? If there is lack of agreement around these questions, then establishing an action plan will be difficult and implementing it will be almost impossible.

4. Practical examples are few and far between

Think tanks demand practical examples, relevant case studies and good practice guides. They want to know how their peers faced and overcame challenges. But when it comes to the specific area of funding models, there are few documented case studies to offer. This is in part because of the sensitivity and secrecy around the topic.

In Latin America, we found it difficult to identify experienced thinktankers who could convey the key issues surrounding funding in a meaningful way. Though we turned to international organisations for support, context variations were significant enough to pose barriers to a meaningful dialogue.

5. Funding cannot be isolated from other organisational processes

Funding models cannot be isolated from other operational processes. The linkages with financial procedures, governance approaches and communication actions are very strong. It is therefore important to take a broad approach to capacity building that recognises these linkages. For instance, when working on redefining the funding model of an institution, it is important to ensure that the mechanisms through which to channel new funds are in place.

There is no one-size-fits-all way to help think tanks transform their funding models. OTT and its members have tested several approaches, from traditional face-to-face workshops to short and long online courses. We have also worked on specific pieces of consultancy, including implementing mentoring processes. What we have found is that a mixed set of interventions have the best chance of succeeding, implemented over a sustained period.