Seven ingredients of a strong think tank

20 April 2022

Think tanks are civil society organisations with a particular focus on conducting research to influence policy. But within this broad definition, there is a lot of diversity. Over the years, different criteria have been used to categorise think tanks – for example by scope (Weaver, 1989), research activity and audiences (Plehwe, 2015) or affiliation (McGann, 2021). 

However, these categories do not explain the core elements that make an organisation a think tank. To help answer this question, I asked 13 directors of Mexican think tanks what they consider to be the core elements of a think tank and what features contribute to a successful or strong organisation. 

The study was carried out between May and September 2021 with, 13 semi-structured interviews with independent Mexican independent think tanks. Seven salient elements emerged from these discussions, which I present here. 

1. Qualified workforce

The first key element is a workforce grounded in effective human resources management, with a well-thought-out strategy to recruit and retain experts. 

A robust team of experts requires people with excellent analytical and execution skills. Having good researchers is not enough – it is vital that there are also good communicators. 

Think tank directors highlight the importance of creating a space for professional growth and employee autonomy. Building a strong team takes time and money. However, think thanks often experience high turnover. Private and public sector organisations tend to have competitive salaries and benefits that think tanks cannot match, and good researchers frequently leave for better-paid opportunities. 

2. Strong and visible leadership

Think tanks are shaped by their leadership. As the leader of a think tank is the face of the organisation they should also be a good negotiator. 

The leader usually decides the directions a think tank will pursue. Directors also steer alliances to promote the organisation and decide on its advocacy role.

3. Diversification of funds

Funding is the Achilles’ heel for think tanks. Diversification of funds enables think tanks to choose their course of action and follow their chosen policy agenda. Diversified funding empowers think tanks to be independent from their funders, which increases their credibility.

 A lack of funding can compromise a think tank’s mission, in which case it must adapt, perhaps going in a different direction, to survive.

Think tanks make deliberate decisions, such as expanding their thematic agenda to attract funding and establishing collaborations and joint strategies to increase outreach.

4. Clear policy agenda

A clear policy agenda is the think tank’s ‘flagship’ and includes its objective and core themes. A strategic planning process and an organisational theory of change are generally used to decide the policy agenda.

Think tanks are known by their work on a particular theme or group of themes, and their reputation is built through their agenda and its contributions to civil society. When think tanks can allocate experts to a topic, they frequently shape their agendas to participate in policy debates on that topic. 

Some think tanks manage to preserve their policy agenda over time, whereas others amplify or contract their agenda.

5. Well-crafted communication strategy

A good communication strategy should identify a think tank’s audiences. Think tank directors stated the importance of increasing think tank visibility and adapting communication strategies. 

Think tanks mainly produce policy briefs, specialised reports, and infographics for policy outreach. The presentation of these final products should be tailored to their different audiences. 

Recently, think tanks have adopted new communication methods, such as storytelling or podcasting, making their findings more accessible to larger audiences.

6. Governance structures for advice and management support

Think tanks should have at least one advisory body to guide the direction, expand connections and provide support to the directors. However, a governance challenge is how to create a balance between the board members’ oversight and the directors’ authority. 

Without well-defined tasks for the governing and management bodies of the organisation, the governance negotiation process can be arduous. Of the 13 think tanks interviewed, 11 had partners, or an advisory board, or a steering committee. This research did not address the differences among these types these governing bodies.

7. Monitoring, evaluation and learning systems

Think tanks need a monitoring, evaluation and learning (MEL) system, although many of them outsource this performance-measurement task. Implementing a MEL system requires time, money and expertise. 

Most think tanks invest in MEL to strategise, but none of the think tanks interviewed had in-house expertise. Think tanks recognised the importance of MEL as a tool for improving their work and measuring progress. Citations, media outreach and project-based indicators are regularly used to measure performance. 

The study identified seven important elements of successful think tanks, but they were not ranked since that was not the purpose of the study. However, different think tanks might prioritise or give some of these elements higher priority in their organisations, developing their own mix that best suits them and their intended audiences. Therefore, each element merits further investigation to unpack the differences among think tanks.