Strategic governance and management of think tanks: recovery efforts by a start-up

18 December 2017

As with many start-up organisations across the world, novel ideas are not enough to create a successful think tank, most especially from a developing country context. Many are the factors that need to be considered when the vision of such an organisation is conceived, and decisions related to the governance and management structure of the organisation must be among the foremost considerations.

From this background, as founding partners of PACKS Africa, we decided from the onset to engage the assistance of a professional consultant. And there, the challenges begun – unavailable funds to pay for professional services. However, based on my previous experience with On Think Tanks, an organisation dedicated to the capacity development of think tanks, I decided to access some of their published materials on the necessary decisions for the creation of a viable organisation.

Initial support

Interestingly, we got very useful resources from On Think Tanks  that gave details of the different types of think tank options to explore. Considering our unique background we opted for an independent civil society think tank. We were also guided on the choice of governance structure – an independent Board of Directors – who were to charge the organisation to work towards its stipulated vision.

That was the end of the support we could access, but we started successfully in March 2017 with a firmly composed corporate board with seven members (including the Executive Director, ED) from diverse backgrounds and experiences. Our thematic areas were information systems research, knowledge management and advocacy for the use of research and evidence in policymaking.

The original challenge

Together with the board, we had to create the management structure that would be most effective and efficient for our operations, and these were discussed at great lengths in our first two meetings. But there were questions still lingering…’to what extent should the board be involved in the administration of the organisation?’

We had started operations, with administrative leadership provided by the ED and supported by a Director of Programmes. Since the thematic areas of the organisation were to be handled by these two officers from then onset, we had plans of engaging the services of an administrative assistant within the first six months but that could not materialise because of limited funds.

The test

Then came up, also within the first six months, issues that questioned the management structure that we were putting together – staffing model and organisation, line management and staff appraisal. We had no clues at this point and a seaming appraisal had already caused a fallout between the ED and the Director of Programmes after six months.

The intervention

Fortunately for the organisation, we had the opportunity to access the OTT’s course on Strategic governance and management for think tanks, under a scholarship arrangement. As the ED writing this blog post and a personal beneficiary of the course, I must confess that so much learning transpired within the few weeks of interaction with the learning materials.

Among the things learned from the course are those related to how to structure communication between the Board, management and staff of the organisation, research team organisation, and the use of line management and staff appraisal as tools for staff development.

Going forward

Materials from the training are going to be shared with the board, and a careful reconsideration of the next steps of action will be outlined with them. Among issues to be considered with the board going forward are those related to the following:

  • relationships between Board, management and staff (including roles, communication, etc.);
  • staffing model and organisation;
  • line management;
  • terms of reference for staff and any volunteers; and
  • staff appraisal

It is our firm conviction that with the necessary adjustments, the organisation will be able to lay a firm foundation as envisaged in our strategic plan for our first five years. We will be excited also to share with our audience how much growth has been recorded as a result of the learning that we made from the support of our capacity building partner, OTT.