The rise of the activist funder and hope for a more moderate 2023

10 January 2023

I noticed a pattern among the end-of-year reflections of my peers: 2022 was bittersweet. It was a great year professionally for many, including OTT (see the end of the article for more on this). But it was a terrible year in terms of the contexts in which we’re working.

Political uncertainty was one of the biggest concerns among think tanks in our state of the sector survey. Cast From Clay’s democracy and experts survey presents a similarly bleak picture. Mistrust is rampant. At the European Think Tank Conference, Jonathan Tanner’s overview of how technology is used to undermine democracy and the role that evidence plays in policymaking has further fuelled my pessimistic outtake.

I believe that this has led to an emerging trend among international development funders and liberal political philanthropists to double down on advocacy and campaigning. Foundations are standing up and joining their grantees in the struggle to fight weakening institutions, the rise of populism and shrinking civic space. But is this potentially adding fuel to the fire? Is it helping or hindering local organisations’ missions?

Funders double down on advocacy

I don’t have hard facts to back up this shift, but it’s something that has come up in conversations with thinktankers and donors around the world. And anecdotally, I have noticed more:

  • Job adverts for communications and advocacy roles at foundations.
  • Foundation staff being recruited from advocacy organisations.
  • Publications that express clearly identifiable ideological positions.
  • Frequent use of confrontational concepts like ‘dissent’, ‘resistance’, ‘fight’.
  • Funder collaborations around short-term campaigns.
  • Calls for consultants to help with evaluation of their impact.

All of this is fuelled by (or fuels) a prevailing narrative that presents our work as a battle, a fight, a struggle for democracy, against populism, for liberal values, against conservatism, etc.

Professionally, this has been good for OTT and our peers. As funders and their grantees expand their efforts to influence policy, our services and expertise have been in high demand.

It has also been good for many think tanks and advocacy organisations. The promise of more money and greater support from funders sounds attractive. But it often comes with strings attached that worry me as I reflect on the year to come.

For instance, greater collaboration between funders is typically presented as a positive development. But diversity can suffer when funders collaborate. Depending on the type of collaboration, funder power can increase vis à vis their grantees who can no longer play them off each other and negotiate in pursuit of their own local agendas (which keeps diversity of thought and strategy going). Now they all must go through a single funder with a very narrow focus.

This is of particular importance for organisations in the most difficult and dangerous political contexts. They depend on small flexible funds that escape any one agenda, and on the long-term personal bonds developed between funders and grantees. But when funds are aligned or pooled those lifelines can be lost.

Active support for value-based positions can also be seen, at first, as a welcome development. Before, when foundations’ public profiles reflected a more neutral stance, it may have seemed as if they were leaving their grantees, many of them very small organisations, to do their bidding.

However, now that many funders are taking a more active and front-line role in global, regional and even national campaigns to bring about political changes, new risks emerge.

Throughout 2022 think tanks and other civil society organisations across the world have told us about their concerns over this new approach. By expressing a view on highly political issues (as all value-based issues are) they threaten the perception of independence that their grantees have worked so hard to nurture over the years.

In some contexts, this puts them at odds with their governments and wider civil society, to the extent that we have heard, more than once, that they prefer to pass on funding offers – even if it risks their financial sustainability.

So, we must ask: is the medicine making it worse?

A more moderate 2023

This is a difficult thing to argue for as it can mistakenly suggest I am not in favour of the value-based reforms that many funders and their grantees are pursuing. On the contrary, I am on the side of broader and deeper rights for minorities and other disadvantaged groups. I subscribe to liberal democratic values.

In my analysis of how 20 years of liberal democratic reforms in Peru came to an end in 2022 I suggested that many thinktankers and experts were partly to blame. Traditionally moderate (centrists or centre-left at most), they increasingly adopted a winners-take-all approach more typically associated with the hard right or left (or hard conservatives). In doing so they attacked anyone who was not willing to get 100% behind their proposed reforms. This pushed many moderates, and many people who had not yet formed an opinion, to the extremes.

They failed to recognise that people take time to form opinions – especially when they are heavily influenced by values. For many people, supporting a gender approach to education means challenging several aspects of their lives: their belief, behaviours and relationships.

Throughout this process they also failed to build political consensus to sustain the liberal democratic reforms. I believe we need to work harder to support progressive change. But harder does not necessarily mean faster and larger.

In my mind it means more nuanced, more careful, smarter action.

IDRC’s concept of scaling impact, and in particular its principles of optimal scale and coordination come to mind as I reflect on what to do. Rather than obsessing with the size and speed at which we deliver change we ought to pay more attention to the lives and livelihoods we want to affect. This may very well mean that we need to pace ourselves, moderate our actions and seek multiple pathways for change.

But above all, scaling impact demands coordination and cooperation across sectors, disciplines, stakeholders and ideologies.

I believe think tanks and other knowledge professionals can build and strengthen the spaces and processes to achieve this. However, it will take a lot more modesty and a lot less hubris.

It is my sincere wish that OTT will be able to make a positive contribution to this approach. We will continue to work with our partners and clients to help and encourage them to explore all possible avenues for meaningful and sustainable progress.

More on the ‘sweet’ side of 2022 at OTT

In 2022, the OTT team has grown and we’re entering new and exciting professional territory.

Our work supporting think tanks has included new projects with IPAR-Senegal, the Partnership of Economic Policy, and the Economic Research Forum. We launched the Build a think tank guide, and are excited about the return to in-person School for Thinktankers in Brussels with Bruegel, EPC and ECDPM, and OTT Conference at Chatham House.

Our work on evidence use has expanded with new projects supporting the Parliament of Ghana, PARIS 21, and joining forces with Instituto Veredas in Brazil to relaunch the Semana de la Evidencia (Evidence Week) across Latin America. We’ve also launched a new Research Support Service, following a successful three-year pilot with the Gates Foundation.

Our work with funders of evidence in 2022 started with a collaboration with Echidna Giving, Imaginable Futures, Porticus and the Gates Foundation to facilitate a forum on education research in Africa. We facilitated a grantee-consultation process to support the Luminate Foundation’s new strategy and helped the Laudes Foundation to develop a new partner-focused learning approach and fund.

We also started advising donors on who to fund, and how best to support them. New territory for us, but with over a decade of experience listening to and engaging with think tanks, we’re in a unique position to offer this advice.