The international think tank: 10 ways to raise your profile and become a global player

2 September 2015

A Peruvian researcher asked me a question this week: What are the best options for internationalising a think tank?

This question has, at least, two dimensions.

  1. How can a think tank raise its international profile -to use locally?
  2. How can it become an international player -beyond its local politics?

This merits a lot more research than what I’ve done in the last couple of days but let me venture a series of options as a way of encouraging others (and myself) to address the issue in greater detail in the future.

How to raise a think tank’s international profile -to use locally?

This is the easier of the two challenges. The suggestions below are organised from easier to harder (or from cheaper to more expensive). It means being better known globally for work they do locally. They are based on think tanks that I know about and ideas that I’ve had over the years:

  1. Engage, comment and publish abroad: this may sound simple but one of the most effective ways of getting one’s name into new regional or global networks is to engage with them and their members. This can work for an individual researcher as well as for a think tank. Three very useful tools for doing this, in order of difficulty, include:
    1. Tweet at them and with them. Join international think tanks and NGOs on an issue of common interest; add your views (based on research in your country) to policy debates in other countries; follow international opinion leaders, think tanks, and their researchers; etc. Of course, you will have to tweet (most likely) in english (or their own language -this works in any direction: a British think tank can gain relevance in Peru by joining tweeter discussions among Peruvian think tanks) but at 140 characters this is something that many researchers should be able to do.
    2. Comment on other think tanks’ blogs and articles in foreign media and platforms. Even if you do not have much to say about the specific issues being discussed, adding a comment that refers to work done on the same subject can be a great addition to anyone’s blog or article. As someone who writes a lot, I treasure comments to my blog and I am always keen to share them with my own audience. Often I invite them to turn their comments into a post.
    3. Publish abroad: there are many options when it comes to this. The hardest is to try to publish in renowned academic journals and this is also probably the least impactful -at least for the purpose of raising one’s profile. Much easier and better is to try to publish op-eds or blog posts. Platforms like On Think Tanks offer a space to share your views to a global audience; but even better (for think tanks interested in sharing their opinions on specific policy issues or events) are initiatives like VoxEU (there is now a Vox LACEA for Latin America), The Guardian’s Comment is Free (or its international development portal) and The Conversation, that has a section for Africa. They offer a perfect opportunity to showcase your work to a well-informed audience. The point is that these sites need regular contributors and will be very happy to hear from think tanks anywhere in the world offering to provide high-quality analysis. They will even offer editorial support (which can turn into a great learning opportunity for your researchers). If senior researchers do not have the time, young ones will and are likely to be willing to. Each post is an opportunity to provide a summary or to link to your own work -even if it is in a different language. It is worth noting that if what you want to share are academic papers or resources, there are lots of relevant global repositories that you should use; checkout ELDIS, for instance. They will help write a summary for your work and share it widely.
  2. Contribute to Wikipedia: This is harder than it seems as it needs to be part of an organisation-wide strategy to make a significant difference. But updating all relevant Wikipedia pages (not only the country ones but the general ones: e.g. Education policy instead of Education policy in Peru) is a great way of making it to the top pages of any search anywhere in the world.
  3. Hire globally: This is easier than it seems -except for legal matters. Think tanks have many options that are worth considering:
    1. Young bright minds from around the globe. In Europe and the US young and bright researchers will be so thankful at the opportunity of a well-managed internship at your think tanks that they will be for ever indebted to it and help, at every chance they get, to raise its profile and represent it when they go back to their countries and their careers. Foreign interns can be a great asset for a think tank interested in the three approaches above. There is a variation on this approach. Just as the think tank can try to attract young bright minds from abroad it may want to encourage its own young bright minds to emigrate: to study or to work in other leading think tanks around the world. This requires a concerted effort by the organisation to prepare their younger members of staff to develop new skills, build their research portfolio, and raise their own profiles.
    2. Appoint fellow nationals working in leading international universities as research associates. Double or triple affiliation is very common in the US and in Europe. CEPR in London is most likely Europe’s largest economics policy think tank with a handful of staff in London. All their researchers are based in universities across the region. The large and popular think tanks we all know about (Brookings, Chatham House) have non-resident fellows based internationally, too. Not so in developing countries. This a missed opportunity as most of these researchers are likely to offer think tanks in their home countries far more than they will get in return. They can help create an image of a global think tank by adding new “bases” to your staff list; they can strengthen the capability statements of any application; offer access to global networks; and even provide publications in English (or other relevant languages) for your think tank to include among their own. In exchange, they may ask for a place to work at while visiting, maybe the chance to present their research to a local audience as a way of maintaining “their contacts back home”, help with media contacts, etc. You could even offer to find data for them, interns in case they want to work on a study through your think tank, and logistical support.
    3. Hire globally. This is much harder of course but some think tanks manage it. In my view, any post is perfectly acceptable for a foreigner. Even that of Executive Director (Fundación Ethos in Mexico has a Peruvian Executive Director). But each think tank will have to decide that. Mostly, having one or two senior researchers and maybe someone in the comms department could help. Think tanks worried about having to pay ex-pat salaries should not be too concerned. The fact is that in many countries (in many countries in Africa, for example) salaries in the sector are quite high -even higher than those in the US or in Europe. And where this is not the case, there are many other incentives attracting international researchers to opportunities abroad.
  4. Travel: International conferences are a preferred location for influence for the global think tanks and global NGOs. This is where they have an advantage over domestic think tanks. The World Bank meetings, the COPs, regional studies networks (like LASA for Latin America) and global alliances such as the Global Development Network, offer great opportunities to make a mark and raise a think tank’s profile. This is expensive, it requires lots and lots of planning (if done properly) and may even demand significant changes in the kind of work that the think tank does (it has to appeal to these audiences) but it can lead to the next approach on the list: new global business. It is worth mentioning that another advantage of employing non-resident research associates is that they may be able to travel to these conferences and represent your think tank without it costing you anything. They can keep an eye out for new contacts for your think tank, present your work or even negotiate possible collaborations with other organisations.
  5. Bid for or join regional or global projects: Working in a British international development think tank I noticed that there were some organisations (in other developed countries and in developing countries) whose names always came in large multi-country/region projects. We all knew there were other think tanks in those countries but we always found it easier to go to the usual suspects -those we knew best. It did not matter that the quality of their work wasn’t always the best; it was easier to fix it on the go than to find new partners. For a think tank trying to raise their profile, multi-regional projects are a great way to get all of the above:
    1. They are likely to have global communications teams that can act as a free outsourced communications team for your think tank: helping with the tweeting and blogging but also investing on your own communications capacity.
    2. They will ensure than any research done by your think tank (certainly within their project) gets as much global exposure as possible -including updating Wikipedia pages you did not even knew existed. Checkout ELLA, for instance. It represents a number of thin tanks in Latin America and Africa.
    3. They will introduce you to researchers from other countries and could even second some to your offices to help out with some study or with certain aspects of the project. It is up to you to take advantage of them.
    4. They will pay for travel and facilitate access to international conferences as part of the project’s own efforts.
    5. And they will certainly include you in future bids -and their competitors will also include your think tank in future bids.

How to become an international player -beyond local politics?

This is much harder and the ideas presented here merit a lot more research and analysis. They are also, more likely to be found in think tanks based in the US or other large think tank communities. This challenge implies think tanks producing work that is relevant beyond their own political spaces.

Once again, from easier to harder:

  1. Raise your international profile (see above): This ought to be a good first step to achieve this objective. It makes little sense to try to become a global player without raising one’s international profile. However, the next 4 options can certainly help to achieve this objective.
  2. Address global policy questions: Think tanks can achieve this following either one of two approaches:
    1. Study issues that concern other countries, too. Migration, climate change, the rise of the middle class, disaster risk reduction, etc. are issues that can be studied globally. Study these issues in comparative projects or incorporate other country cases studies to your own work. Joining multi-country/region projects would certainly help.
    2. Study issues of global public interest: international trade, global economic governance, global migration, MDGs, etc are issues that require international responses and have their own international platforms. SAIIA’s Global Economic Governance in Africa programme is a good example of this; so is ODI’s post2015 project; and pretty much all of CGD’s initiatives.
  3. Join international alliances or networks -project specific: Some think tanks create or join global or regional networks on a specific issue that confer them with international status. A good recent example is the Southern Voice on Post-MDGs initiative.
  4. Develop strategic alliances -the airline alliance model: This is much harder and could take years. Efforts like The On Think Tanks Exchange provide an opportunity to explore such partnerships (even if CGD argues that partnerships are better between individuals). Simon Maxwell, former Director at ODI, used to argue for the need for Airline Alliance type partnerships in which think tanks would collaborate by “representing” each other in different parts of the world and on different issues.
  5. Set-up offices across the world: The World Resources Institute calls itself a global think tank -it has offices and projects across the world; Brookings has “offices” in Qatar, India and China,  countries; South Africa’s Institute of Security Studies has offices across Africa; Practical Action has a regional office in Lima; etc. This model is expensive and difficult but probably the surest way to claim to be truly global.

These are just a few approaches that can help think tanks to become more international. What else could they do? If you have a recommendation or a case to share, please do so below.