Six lessons from the 2019 WinterSchool for Thinktankers

7 March 2019

On January 27 2019, participants from 23 countries congregated at the Impact Hub in Geneva to kick-off the 2019 WinterSchool for Thinktankers, during which they would deep dive into the actual workings of a think tank. As the only 2019 OTT-TTI Fellow from India at the WinterSchool 2019 (WISCH2019), I had the unique opportunity to learn from diverse perspectives on thinktanking in minute detail. As an OTT-TTI Fellow, the WISCH 2019 turned into a veritable breeding ground for ideas that think tanks need to ponder over and possibly work to change from within if they truly aim to be research change catalysts. I list down my top six lessons from the WISCH2019, which encapsulates why such inputs act as a refresher course and puts back the “think” into think tanks.

Think tanks need to know: Who they are? Why are they needed? Where do they come from?

Not merely existentialist questions, these are actual relevant queries that need to compel think tanks to ponder about their identity, their goals, their history and where is it they want to go and how. At WISCH2019, ‘context’ became an important aspect to define where think tanks function and exist. That is why it is important for think tankers to understand organisation’s economic, social, political, and legal dimensions

Is your think tank transparent? How involved are its board members? Are they representative of all the stakeholders with whom you want to work with?

Within the safety of regular work routines, think tanks can, sometimes, operate in ways which can bring some discomfort within the organisational workplace. It is therefore important to question if the think tank is transparent. Furthermore, it is crucial that the role and involvement of the board members is understood clearly by all the members of the organisation. Even the nomenclature of the type of board is often not known by think tanks. Even lesser known are the actual pros and cons of different types of boards. All think tanks need to ensure they have a solid governance structure to deliver sustainable funding strategies and to produce high quality research.

The ideal thinktanker is a storyteller, a networker, an engineer, and a fixer.

The days of stoic and pedantically worded reports are long gone and what remains is ensuring that a think tank has the ability to weave its research inputs to tell a good story. This story should demonstrate the solution and not just extrapolate on the problem. Having a networker will hold a think tank in good stead, especially when it comes to enabling collaborations and creating networks for funding. A think tank will also benefit if it has thinkers who act like engineers and who look at real world problems with a practical solution frame of mind.  A fixer with a Rasputinesque bent of mind in a think tank can help ensure the focus is not on the problem, but rather on fixing the problem.

Is the monitoring and evaluation system at your think tank geared towards actionable learning?

In most organisations (and think tanks are no exception) monitoring and evaluation (M&E) are often performed often as an afterthought, as a good to know rather than as a must know. M&E should ideally be conducted for knowledge creation to help expand an organisation’s knowledge of the actual effectiveness of strategies. It can also be a tool for empowerment to boost the strategic planning skills of participants and help foster acceptance of shared objectives and commitment to these objectives.

Does your think tank have a communications strategy? How is it implemented and designed?

Think tanks don’t function in silos far away from the real world, therefore to remain relevant and to ensure their work is heard, seen and read, think tanks need a definitive communication strategy that emphasises on maximising impact and influence. Think tanks would do well to have a communication strategy that focuses on enhancing their brand, has clear target audiences, chooses relevant communications channels, and has a way to measure the impact and effectiveness of its activities. Designing communications for think tanks is all about understanding who your audiences are and what they want. Therefore, it would be a good idea to identify information needs, preferred channels for communication and preferred frequency of communication.

Why think tanks need to ponder over funding models for financial sustainability?

In a largely fragmented and polarised climate, funding sources are not aplenty. A pragmatic think tank will invest in ensuring the development of organisational capacity for sound financial management and accountability. This also means think tanks need to contemplate and work on finding the correct mix: on that fits the organisation’s mission helps the organisation grow and focus on its core research work. This also means think tanks need to develop a fundraising culture, where they know that they have something unique to offer and can proudly state who they are and are unafraid to ask for support. In a think tank everyone is a potential fundraiser!

Thanks WISCH2019 for helping me look at both the macro and micro level think tank issues. This has allowed me to question aspects that I did not delve into earlier and look at other important domains, like fundraising, in a new light.