Supporting think tanks: 5 ideas for action

24 July 2014

[Editor’s note: I’ve made some corrections to the introduction related to TTI and reviewed the arguments to clarify that I am in no way offering an assessment of TTI. I have not evaluated the initiative. It simply provided inspiration to write about mentoring and think tanks support. This post is a perfect example of how publishing something can generate a richer discussion than if the conversation was only had in public.]

We need more and better think tanks in developing countries. I am yet to come across a place where one could argue ‘we have enough’. And where there seem to be too many, well, this is probably because too many are not good enough. Otherwise, nobody would complain. [For more on supporting think tanks please go to the Supporting Think Tanks Topic Page.]

The challenge

I’ve recently had a conversation about approaches to capacity development that I think is important to share. Here is the challenge:

Mentoring approaches work well but how to scale them up? Scaling necessarily requires a certain degree of management and agency from a third-party (a funder or a consultant, for instance).

Or does it?

This conversation was inspired by the Think Tank Initiative, but does not pretend to assess the TTI’s capacity development efforts, so it is worth explaining a few things. The TTI has a number of capacity development approaches or mechanisms that mimic efforts by other funders, including:

  1. Entirely think tank led: This involves awarding its grantees a programatic grant and the grantees decide what to do with the funds. Some have used them to develop their capacity (involving clear organisational changes) while others have spent most of it in ‘business as usual’ work. This is entirely up to them.
  2. Think tank and donor collaboration: The TTI has a matching fund programme. It works, more or less like this. The grantees tend to get together with 1 or 2 other think tanks seeking to work on a similar organisational development issue. They develop a programme together, often involving a consultant or outside help of some kind. Then they allocate their own resources to partly fund the effort and the TTI matches this with additional funds. As in the first case, the think tanks are the clients.
  3. Mostly donor led: Funders  also organised a number of workshops, webinars and other interventions managed by them (or by contractors) to provide the grantees with support. These can be described as managed capacity development programmes and are designed by the funders (with varying degrees of involvement from the grantees) and their contractors  (like IDS, R4D, CommsConsult, Practical Action, and others). For a review of such approaches: Developing research communication capacity: lessons from recent experiences.

Of course there are benefits and costs in all these approaches. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with a donor led (and managed) intervention. And there is nothing that suggests that think tanks will always learn more if they are 100% in charge. The TTI has correctly tried to provide their grantees with as many options as possible.

In my view, that is not really the point. All three are valid. There is something else, more important, at play here. Does the approach, whatever this is, encourage agency or does it stifle it? Does it encourage independence or dependence? Does it reward responsibility or irresponsibility?

Anyone who reads this blog will know that I am an advocate of treating think tanks fairly, not as if they were precious flowers in need of constant attention. Think tanks and their staffers are no delicate flowers. They are quite savvy. They must be slightly Machiavellian (not necessarily in a bad way) to survive and thrive in a context that is certainly not the most friendly. So they must be doing something right.

I therefore always assume that think tanks leaders (and staffers) are quite competent (even if they do not always have all the information that maybe other have access to), responsible, and commited men and women. To me, the directors of a think tank in Ecuador or in Zambia is no less competent, responsible, and committed than the directors of Brookings or Chatham House. I have no reason to assume otherwise.

The difference in their think tank outcomes must lie elsewhere: in the resources the organisations have at their disposal, the political and funding contexts, access to qualified staff, software, data, etc. And this blog tries to address this.

So when it comes to finding mentors and developing their organisation’s development plans, I think that directors and other think tank leaders can and should be able do it themselves (with help, sure, but just that). Just as we would not intervene to appoint a mentor for the director of Brookings we should not intervene in the case of a director of a think tank in a developing country. Of course we can support and help. I spend a lot of my time putting people in touch -directly or through this blog. And we can certainly support their own efforts by providing them with information or resources. But there is a big difference between helping and doing, even if the line is between them is difficult to find.

If funders do intervene, the way that donor or contractor led approaches sometimes do, by providing them with a predesigned and managed programme, they must do so with great care. They have to be aware that it is possible that the message this sends is that, regardless of the public discourse, they, in fact, consider think tanks’ leaders to be less-than-competent, irresponsible or/and uncommitted.

And if this is what they think (if they truly think that their grantees need to be given such kind of attention), then there is another question they ought to be asking: should we be supporting them in the first place?

Of course it is quite possible that the think tanks themselves may consider it appropriate to ask their funders to help them to develop a programme to support them further. This make perfect sense. But there is, again, a difference between being passive recipients of an initiative designed by someone else and being active co-developers or clients of such an initiative.

And even here, there is a kind of fourth interpretation: passiveness should not be seen as a sign irresponsibility or incompetence, rather lack of interest in what is being offered. The think tanks that do not get involved in the design of these more donor-led approaches may be the ones that prefer and are satisfied with the first kind of support: entirely think tank led. They know what they want and wish to get on with it.

This is why a multiple-approach effort like the TTI’s is a good idea. Not all mechanisms will work for all think tanks.

Both the think tank led and the matching fund mechanisms, for example, assumed that think tank leaders are competent, responsible and committed. They gave think tanks agency to decide what they needed help with, find their right mentors, consultants, etc. and contract out any support they considered appropriate themselves. All the responsibility was on them.

Not all chose mentors, of course. Some preferred to hire new staff to bring in new skills to the organisation; others have hired consultants to address specific issues; and others have partnered with other think tanks to acquire new competences. In other words, the think tanks themselves created new approaches in addition to those designed by the funder. This is a perfect example of how the grantees, with a bit of freedom, were able to contribute to the initiative.

On mentors specifically, quite a lot has been said lately. Mentors cannot be expected to do too much. Mentors, in any sector and in our own private lives, will support their mentees in their own quests or journeys. They will offer a space and an opportunity to explore options, ideas, tools, etc. They will give them confidence. Mentors may also help to find (but not always do it themselves) the right resources, consultants, etc. that the organisation needs. This is what mentors do.

The mentor can also help directors and other think tank leaders to find out what aspects of their organisations they need to build their capacity on. They may be able to provide the think tanks with examples of needs assessments used by other organisations or simply point at the issues that the mentor recognises, from his or her own experience, to be in need of development. The more the mentor knows the organisations and his or her mentees the easier this will be.

It is worth saying that the directors of the top think tanks in the world also have mentors. The CEOs of the largest corporations also have them. Mentoring isn’t something that only poor developing country think tanks need. Everyone can benefit from such a relationship. And mentoring requires specific skills that not everyone has.

This kind of support is, in my view, always preferred to having an externally provided needs assessment (often by a contractor hired by the funders). Unlike the contractors, mentors are business-neutral. They do not stand to gain any future work from the think tanks. On the other hand, in my experience, contractors tend to find needs in the very same things that they claim to be good at: “This think tank needs to improve its use of digital tools… and we can help with that!” (Notice how in the recommendations below I begin with my own ideas.)

The challenge still remains: can we scale-up mentoring programmes? I would argue that we do not need to. Mentoring is a personal strategy and choice to be made by the organisations themselves.

What can funders do?

Now, even managed capacity building approaches can emerge from think tanks themselves or from their interaction with others.

One kind of managed approach involves encouraging relationships and collaboration between the think tanks themselves:

  • For some time now, an initiative to develop a School for Think Tank directors promoted by Orazio Bellettini an other think tanks within the Think Tank Initiative has been brewing. There is another effort to learn from capacity development efforts among the Latin American think tanks, too. Why not support efforts like these and scale them up when the prove to be promising for others?
  • Another possibility is supporting peer to peer efforts within the cohort of think tanks funded. Many think tanks see investments in communications, intranets, new governance arrangements, etc. as dead costs that compete with their research efforts. But what if they could profit from a good experience? What if they could take their new communications skills or new governance arrangements and train other think tanks in the network and be paid for it – just as consultants would? Their own efforts could help raise funds for the organisation or at least to cover the investments made. The communications team, for example, could argue that it is generating income by running “communications for think tanks” workshops (like the ones I get paid to do -but would be far more convincing and valuable if they came from comms experts in other think tanks!). This would help convince some think tanks to get on with reforms that they see as too expensive.
  • Funders could also make use of think tanks outside their cohort. Assuming that funders seeking to develop think tanks’ capacity  do not support think tanks that are better off then why not work with them as ‘partners’ of their initiative by encouraging the the funded think tanks to seek support from them. It has happened in TTI’s Latin American think tanks already at the behest of the think tanks themselves (e.g. FARO and CADEP sought support from CIPPEC on fundraising).  There are opportunities everywhere. Unfortunately, right now, funders are more likely (it is easier) to pay US or UK based consultants or international development think tanks to run these workshops at costs which are much higher than anything that their own grantees (or other think tanks) would charge. There are a number of organisations that I would happily work with to develop “communication workshops” to compete with the usual northern based suspects, for example: CIPPEC in Argentina, FUSADES in El Salvador, SPDA in Peru,  SAIIA in South Africa, PMRC in Zambia ,and SDPI in Pakistan, to name a few. (Email me if you are interested.)
  • There are also opportunities to support grantees to reach out to their peers in better resourced think tank communities. IPPR and IPAR Rwanda have been working together for a few years. Why not support think tanks to join and participate (non-aid) international policy networks where these kind of relationships can be forged?

What I am trying to say is that think tank funders need to be more hands-off in relation of the support that the think tanks get (what, how, who, when) and more focused on exploring and supporting mechanisms (funding or otherwise) to create incentives for them to seek more help on their own. It should reward effort and agency and not compliance. A while ago I wrote a post on funding: How to fund think tanks? A few questions that may help decide.

If the grantees do not take advantage of the opportunities provided then their funders should simply not fund them in the long run. Funders should not assume it is it is their responsibility to fund them for ever or throughout the whole funding period originally agreed.

Another kind of managed approach deal with providing more specific skills:

  • By far the most important one has to be the capacity to lead a think tank. The school for think tank directors promoted by Orazio Bellettini (or my school of thinktankers idea) is a good model. But should the think tanks themselves do this or should it be charged to a university or institute with experience in the matter (a management or a public policy school, for instance). These interventions can focus on the capacity to make and implement strategic decisions. In other words, the capacity to design and follow-through development plans.
  • Specific and stand-alone training courses (which could very well be provided by the think tanks themselves) could also be provided. But, like the School idea, they should not be completely underwritten by the funder. If the provider thinks there is a market for these trainings then they should invest in them and charge for participation. Too many workshops are designed with funder’s money without there being a real demand for them -but who cares in the end: the consultants will have been paid regardless. Consultants always win, think tanks maybe.

A 5 point strategy

Hence, my (and therefore open to debate) recommendations are:

  1. School of thinktankers type of effort to inspire future leaders,
  2. School of think tank directors or deputy directors (in my view, in partnership with a good management school -it may be a professional certificate or a specialisation in an MBA or MPA programme) to prepare the leaders to run what is a very complex enterprise, and
  3. Methods and tools for self-reflection like a “stress test” or funding think tanks to do more analysis and research on themselves (instead of funding external consultants).
  4. Matching funds or other incentives for think tanks to use their own funds to fund their own mentors and consultants to address te challenges they face. This has been an excellent idea and should be used more.
  5. Topic specific or region specific courses but 1) paid partly by the participants and 2) open for all and anyone who wants to apply… hence ensuring that the organisations promoting them have thought about their market and are responsible for providing high value for money.