Six strategies for sustainable think tank funding

4 December 2019
SERIES Ideas, reflections and advice from future think tank leaders 17 items

I work for an independent think tank in Tanzania, STIPRO, whose core funding for almost a decade has come to an end. We are having to redefine our business model and find new and sustainable funding sources.

Here are six strategies we’re using to expand our donor base and to diversify our income sources through additional activities over the next five years.

1.  Involve all staff

Create an organisational fundraising culture by training and empowering all staff on the basics of fundraising.

Regular fundraising training, based on the organisation’s mission, vision and values helps to bring more hands on-deck, and to make fundraising an organisational priority.

STIPRO has no dedicated fundraising staff members but runs annual inhouse training for everyone – from admin staff to researchers.

Bringing staff along to donor events is another great way to make them feel part of the work, and to better understand the donor’s needs.

Make fundraising a core competency of job roles, and a pathway for professional development. For example, in STIPRO a core performance evaluation criterion for researchers is how much they have contributed towards securing funds, such as the number of project proposals they have initiated or led.

2. Scan the donor environment

Make sure you understand which donors are interested in your work. Once you know who they are, you can develop strategies to form a relationship with them, letting them know who you are and what you do.

At the beginning of 2019, STIPRO did a scan of the donor environment in Tanzania. We found 20 potential donors in line with our mission. Most of the donors approached have responded positively.

3.  Provide capacity development services

Donors love capacity building services. If you have a niche, be the go-to trainer for donors in that area.

STIPRO is one of the only think tanks in Tanzania specialising in science, technology and innovation. So, we’re in a good position to earn income through providing training services in these fields. We’ve developed a training module and are completing the accompanying handbook. We have already conducted two training sessions with the University of Dar es Salaam, and a Science, Technology and Innovation policy training session at the Science Granting Councils Initiatives (of Africa), and received really positive feedback for all.

4. Maintain a good relationship with existing donors

Going out in search of new donors doesn’t mean forgetting about your existing ones. Make sure you still submit all your donor reports on time, involve them in your activities and events and acknowledge their support.

Set up organisational systems, or designate one person, to send thank you letters. Maintaining and strengthening these relationships may lead to repeat, or additional, funding.

While STIPRO’s donor for the last 10 years – the Think Tank Initiative – will no longer be able to support us (as the project has ended), we keep our donors up to date with our activities and have shared our success story with them. We believe that a good relationship with our former funder will mean that they continue to be a valuable ambassador for our work.

5. Engage board members

In our case, many members of our board of directors are PhD holders working in universities, with good knowledge of, and exposure to, proposal writing and project management. We’ve invited these board members to hold internal seminars on the techniques used to write proposals. In some cases, STIPRO has also asked board members to review proposals before submission to donors.

6.  Increase your visibility

Being visible is vital for fundraising efforts. This can be achieved through communicating across varied media, such as a website, blogs, news outlets, public debates, seminars and social media.

The aim is to make sure your potential donors know who you are and what you do. Sharing stories about the impact of your work may be a particularly good way to raise your visibility.

Earlier this year, STIPRO redesigned its website, making it more user friendly and helping to improve our overall image with stakeholders. We have also published a number of newspaper articles on how science, technology and innovation (STI) can solve societal problems through evidence-based policies – making us relevant and visible to donors in this area. And last year, we held a seminar with the committee of parliament on why it is important to address STI policy issues. Following this, we have been engaged in several government task forces.

The Science, Technology and Innovation Policy Research Organization (STIPRO) received funding from the Think Tank Initiative – a 10-year project helping to strengthen 43 policy research institutions in 20 developing countries through a mix of core funding and support for capacity development.