The Winterschool for Thinktankers: lessons so far

24 May 2018

Building on a successful first experience in 2017, the second edition of the Winterschool for Thinktankers took place in Geneva in February 2018. The programme is the result of a partnership between OTT, foraus, The Think Tank Hub and Southern Voice, who joined in 2018.

After running the Winterschool for two years, we are in a position to better define the features of the programme and share some lessons about developing and delivering a comprehensive and meaningful global capacity building effort for future think tank leaders. These lessons will also inform the preparation of the Winterschool 2019.

An international setting for a global gathering

From the start, we felt the city and the programme were a perfect match. Geneva is an excellent scenario for a gathering such as the one proposed by the Winterschool. The programme’s activities take place in International Geneva, a uniquely diverse place, allowing participants to discover and visit renowned and influential organisations at the international level (including the United Nations, the Red Cross, Médecins Sans Frontières, and others).

Geneva’s international environment fits perfectly with the Winterschool’s spirit. Between 2017 and 2018, the school had participants from 24 countries: Mexico, Brazil, Britain, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Ukraine, Nigeria, South Africa, Iran, China, Australia, Ghana, Sudan, Mongolia, Malaysia, Ecuador, Colombia, Sri Lanka, India, Argentina, Canada and Uganda.

The trainers themselves have diverse backgrounds, bringing with them experiences from their own contexts. The Winterschool is designed to allow participants to learn from each other in a truly international setting.

Watch the video of the 2017 Winterschool:

A systemic view of think tanks’ work

The design of the programme allows participants to go through the core functions and aspects of think tanks’ work: from conducting policy relevant and influential research (think tanks’ raison d’etre), to communicating effectively, through measuring and evaluating impact and performance, as well as governing the institution and raising funds.

This overview of think tanks’ work is very important for future leaders: both for those who intend to work their way up the ladder of an organisation, and for policy entrepreneurs who want to establish new research institutes in their countries.

At the same time, the programme is relevant to those who have a defined role within their organisations (e.g. responsible of communications, research directors, board members, etc). Besides learning from renowned practitioners in their respective fields, they can benefit from broader discussions involving other areas that affect their daily work. These include how researchers and communicators can interact better to influence policy debates or how the Board can get involved in fundraising. They also benefit from discussions with peers from around the world.

A strong practical approach

The Winterschool is not designed around heavy theoretical presentations. We want participants to be able to think strategically and resolve daily challenges in their organisations, which is why our approach is mainly practical. We ensure this through a variety of strategies:

  • Experienced lecturers: Morning sessions are delivered by thinktankers with important trajectories in their respective fields: from current and former executive directors, to board members, research directors or communications officers. These sessions address common challenges and provide ideas and tools to tackle them. Activities, exercises (e.g. how to manage institutional challenges with the Board or the Transparify Think Tank Integrity Check) and discussions reinforce this practical and reflexive approach.
  • Visits: One of the features that makes this programme unique is that morning lecture sessions are combined with visits to renowned and relevant institutions in the afternoons. These visits allow participants to see organisations “in action” and learn from their own work. For instance, the communications session in the morning is complemented with a visit to the Geneva Press Club in the afternoon, where participants get to hear from international journalists on the work of think tanks, or to the Blue Brain Project, where they learn how complex ideas can be  communicated. 
  • Learning journals: Throughout the week participants are asked to fill a learning journal. In these journals they set learning objectives for each topic and reflect on what they’ve learned during each session. By the end of the week each participant has documented lessons to apply once they are back in their organisations. Most importantly, the learning journals are meant to offer them a roadmap for future learning based on what they don’t know.

A heterogenous group to enrich debates

Diversity is at the heart of the Winterschool. Besides geographical mix, participants come from different kind of institutions, each with different missions, goals, staff, budgets, etc. They also represent different backgrounds (from economics to politics or STEM) and expertise, which means they have different roles within their own organisations. This heterogeneity creates the environment for interesting debates, where each participant can contribute with his or her knowledge and experience. This diversity and the opportunity to learn it brings is one of the main benefits of the programme, and is broadly acknowledged in participants’ evaluations.

Building bonds: networking, friendships and continuous support

The Winterschool is a good opportunity to get to know other thinktankers and begin building an international network. This is especially relevant for individuals who are taking their first steps in the field or are thinking about setting up a new organisation. Participants have remained in contact through WhatsApp (WISCH17) and Slack (WISCH18). Both were both tools used during the week in Geneva to plan afterwork sessions, and have served as channels of communication once the programmes ended.

Beyond the Winterschool’s activities, OTT provides a space of continuous support for participants, serving as a platform to showcase their work, advising on critical decisions, sharing documents of relevance on the topics addressed during the Winterschool, and more. Participants are encouraged to keep in touch and see OTT as a partner to enhance their wok and accomplish their professional goals. Similarly, the Think Tank Hub in Geneva is ready to welcome participants and their institutions and host them whenever they are back in town.

Moreover, the nature of the programme encourages participants to build strong links during the week, through group dinners, sightseeing walks and a friendly and relaxed environment during the sessions.

Cross-learning between OTT activities

The Winterschool has proven to be an important initiative which strategically links activities under the OTT umbrella. In particular, the Winterschool draws on curricula and content developed for the OTT School, which has provided training to more than 300 thinktankers between 2016 and 2017.

Resources and articles available at OTT are part of the programme’s recommended readings, especially its thematic series on communications, funding and other relevant topics. Moreover, the Winterschool speaks to the OTT Fellowship programme as the future thinktankers are meant to be leaders in their organisations and precisely those who require longer term support.

Looking ahead: WISCH19

OTT, foraus, the Think Tank Hub and Southern Voice are planning the third edition of the Winterschool. The lessons learned in 2018 will inspire us to improve several components of the programme: from the curricula to the trainers’ profiles and sessions’ dynamics, as well as the visits to relevant institutions and social activities.