Think Tank Boards: Composition and Practices

25 March 2013
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items


Like any organisation, think tanks must have a solid and appropriate governance structure to enable them to deliver their missions. An important aspect of this is the presence of a strong and independent Board of Directors that is successful in procuring financial resources for its institution as well as in guiding the organisation by its founding principles, and encouraging innovation when necessary. +

For this article we reviewed the governance structures of several think tanks, such as those that are supported by the Think Tank Initiative.  We sought for a regionally diverse group that would allow us to observe the different ways in which think tanks’ boards, particularly those in developing countries, were organised. We also delved into think tank boards’ characteristics and practices, board appointment models, and the different criteria employed for choosing and appointing board members.


In order to go into detail on the particularities of each type of board, for instance the manner in which their members are chosen and their roles, we must first identify and explain some different kinds of think tanks. For this purpose, Diane Stone’s classification, which relates to their origin, can be useful:+

  1. Independent civil society think tanks established as non-profit organisations;
  2. Policy research institutes located in or affiliated with a university;
  3. Governmentally created or state sponsored think tank;
  4. Corporate created or business affiliated think tank;
  5. Political party (or candidate) think tank.

The nature of each, as we will see ahead, can tell us a great deal about their governance structure. For example, most state sponsored think tanks will not have the same type of board than, for instance, an independent civil society think tank, or a political party think tank. Think tanks could all also have secondary boards such as advisory boards or management committees depending on their origin.

Several factors such as the legal, economic, political and social context of a nation can also influence the way a think tank manages itself.+ The political architecture and the regime type, for example, may determine just how much independence think tanks can have, or how closely affiliated they are to the government: their boards (or lack thereof) can reflect this. In less democratic countries, legislation regarding non–profit organisations can be quite restrictive, and so board members must work in a very different setting than in fully democratic nations. Philanthropy might not be as widespread either, and so board membership may be difficult to present as an attractive option to potential donors.

A corporate board

We have so far identified three broad types of think tank boards among the organisations and institutions that we have reviewed. The first type is the most common: a board of directors that is in charge of mainly two tasks: defining and maintaining the think tank’s original goals and values, and determining and ensuring its finances. These are corporate boards in the sense that they are quite similar to those of for profit organisations. They can also be referred to as legal boards, as their responsibility for the finances and appropriate functioning of the think tanks is determined by their country’s legislation. This board of directors usually appoints an Executive Director, who has the responsibility of overseeing the staff and all the think tank’s day to day activities.

A corporate board’s role can have three aspects: legal, functional and symbolic. + As mentioned above, these boards are commonly mandated under law to ensure the accountability of their organisation and guaranteeing its fiscal integrity (as think tanks usually receive legal advantages such as tax breaks as other non-profit organisations). Their functional aspect can vary widely, as we will see later on: they can evaluate the centre’s performance, appoint the executive director, and conduct fundraising activities, but they might also be involved in more direct managerial activities. Finally, their symbolic aspect entails ensuring the think tank’s prestige and public image.

We found that the majority of the think tanks in our sample who had corporate boards were from India and its neighbours such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan and Bangladesh. This might be due to an Anglo-Saxon influence as these were previous British colonies, who inherited legislation that treated eleemosynary institutions as public bodies that represented the public interest, and placed a lot of emphasis on keeping the public trust.+ Ecuador’s Grupo FARO, which also presents a corporate board, was founded by individuals who had been educated in the US, and who may have come into contact and become influenced by this governance structure.

There are certain variations to this model. Some boards establish that membership is on a voluntary basis, and the executive director is always chosen among board members, as is the case in Pakistan´s Social Policy and Development Centre and Sri Lanka’s Institute of Policy Studies.

The membership board

The second type of think tank board is a departure from the standard model. In some think tanks, an assembly is formed, consisting of all those individuals that are associates to the organization, usually its researchers and founding members. This assembly is the highest governing body and periodically meets and chooses the Executive Director and an Executive Council, either from within the members or from the outside. Examples of think tanks with this kind of administrative structure are the Instituto de Estudios Peruanos in Peru, the Institute for Social and Environmental Transition in Nepal, the Institute of Policy Analysis and Research in Rwanda, Honduras’ Foro Social de Deuda Externa y Desarrollo, the Asociacion de Investigacion y Estudios Sociales in Guatemala, Fundacion ARU in Bolivia, Ecuador’s Centro Ecuatoriano de Derecho Ambiental, among others.

We found that this type of board was most common among Latin American think tanks. A possible explanation for the prevalence of this model in this region is that many of these organisations have NGO origins and many were set up with strong democratic values at heart in order to counteract the authoritarian nature of Latin American governments. + Hence, these democratic values are expressed in their governance structure.

In this model, the Executive Council is more like a management committee than a board of directors in the sense that it is in charge of the organisation’s day to day activities. It is possible to deduce then that it is the Assembly that is in charge of ensuring that the think tank’s main goals are achieved by electing for the Executive Council and the Executive Director those individuals they feel are best suited for the task.

The project leader’s advisory board

The third type of think tank board is found among those organisations that are affiliated to a state institution such as a Ministry or Department. We found, for example, that the Ethiopian Development Research Institute, which refers to itself as a “semi-autonomous think tank”, has no board of directors but rather an executive director who answers directly to the Office of the Prime Minister (and he also happens to be the Prime Minister’s chief economic advisor). It counts, however, with a Technical Advisory Committee, a kind of advisory board which consists of several state ministers as well as the think tank’s executive director and director of programs, which is presumably in charge of offering advice and guidance regarding the type of research and the overall position the institution should undertake, always in line with governmental interests. According to Diane Stone:

“For governmental institutes, there may no board of trustees in place. Administration, including the hiring and firing of institute directors, is handled by senior bureaucrats in accordance to civil service codes.  Instead, an ‘advisory council’ or ‘scientific panel’ may perform some roles of oversight – depending on how frequently it convenes”.

Government – affiliated think tanks do not need a board of directors to keep the public trust or to ensure that the institution stays true to its mission because its mission is very much influenced by the government or the state institution it works under. This model is particularly found among semi–official Chinese think tanks, albeit with some variations in each organisation:

“Semi-official think tanks are not completely independent because they are independent legal persons founded by the government (as supervisor unit: yewu zhuguan danwei or guakao danwei). They are headed by government-nominated personnel and accept start-up capital from their supervisor government agencies. They also receive a steady flow of administratively appropriated funds as fee for regular research tasks assigned by their supervisor. Their policy outputs are thus somewhat shaped by government directives.” +

The prominence of project leader advisory boards in this region can be explained by the fact that think tanks were created as instruments that legitimised and consolidated existing regimes. This legitimacy fell on the capability of think tanks to disseminate government agendas and obtain public support. Furthermore, East Asian think tanks have historically gotten financial and intellectual support from the state or the private sector, and tend to be state-directed. +

This is not to say that government – affiliated think tanks never have boards of directors. For example, the Chinese Centre for International Economic Exchanges seems to have a Board of Directors, most of who are current and former public officials, as well as academics and individuals from the business sector. It is also under the supervision of the National Development and Reform Commission, a central government department that follows the Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

Secondary boards

As we have seen above, think tanks may have a board of directors and a second body that either supports or replaces it. They may, for instance, have a Management Committee. This management committee can be made up either of members of the board in the form of a sub-committee to advice and monitor the executive director, or comprise of members of the board to effectively manage the think tank. It differs from the board of directors in that it has a more day to day role in the organisation’s activities. In one case we found that the Executive Director was also the president of the management committee (in the Institute for Empirical Research in Political Economy, of Benin).

There can also be an Advisory Board, like in the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. These are usually made up of individuals who have had experience in the public sector and in academic research and who give guidance on the types of research that the institute should undertake. In this particular case, the Chairman of the board of directors is also a member of what they call the Research Advisory Committee, as well as the founding Director. Unlike the board of directors, advisory boards do not have fiduciary responsibility and so are not responsible for the institution’s audit or state of its finances. +

Advisory boards that are comprised of eminent scholars and professionals may add prestige to the institution (Stone, 2005). Orazio Bellettini, the Executive Director of the Ecuadorian think tank Grupo FARO highlighted in an interview that the members of its advisory board provided significant support during the initial years of the institution by giving it the credibility and expertise that were associated to their names. He felt that whenever international agencies and public institutions recognised these individuals, their interest in Grupo FARO increased significantly. 

Who are the members

The individuals that make up the boards of directors are chosen according to the think tank’s orientation and policy interests. Most boards try to include academics that have expertise on the think tank’s subject matter, and who can bring prestige to the organisation, thus increasing its chances of obtaining funding. Individuals from the private sector may also be present, offering them links to possible future financial resources. In semi-official think tanks, former and present public official, close to whatever branch of government is supervising or sponsoring the organisation, make also up the board membership. In the think tank boards that we reviewed, there were always representatives of these three groups.

Members with ties to economic resources seem to play a particularly important role in the Latin American countries where corporate philanthropy is more common. In some Argentinean and Chilean think tanks, those individuals from the corporate sector that make up the board provide them with institutional funds. They also have a say in setting up the general guidelines of the institution according to the work by Braun, Ducote and others.

Thus there are two broad models for recruiting and putting boards together. The first is the “distinguished person” model and the second, the “expert advice” model as describe by Struyk. In the former, interest is placed upon getting individuals that are well known and respected, and not necessarily experienced in public policy or in the organisation’s subject matter or activities. In the latter, board members are far more aligned with think tank research and policy interests as well as management needs.

However, most think tank boards do try to include a diverse number of people, aside from their professional backgrounds. This has the effect of providing the Executive Director with several points of view on topics of discussion. +

The domestic and foreign members

There is yet another difference: the domestic and the foreign member. Some think tanks have international advisory board members while others stick to local ones. The ones that look for foreign members are often the ones which present themselves as technocratic, that want to keep a safe distance from the political debate, or aim to maintain a rather plural position amidst a highly politicised context. An example of this is the Peruvian institute Grupo de Analisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE), which has an advisory board that consists mostly of well–known academics from the United States.

Domestic members are more likely to have formal or informal affiliations to political, economic or social interests and are therefore more common of think tanks with a ‘clearer’ political mission.

Who appoints the board?

We also found differences in the way the board of directors is appointed. Three models are the most common, based on think tanks’ origins. In the first model, the Executive Director leads and appoints the board; these may be called appointed boards. This is common among think tanks that are founded by an individual who may assume the position of Executive Director and puts together a board during the institution’s initial years. For example, Nicolás Ducoté, the founder of the Centro de Implementacion de Politicas Publicas para la Equidad y el Crecimiento (CIPPEC), an Argentinean think tank, was the executive director for the organisation’s first year and brought people into the board.

In the second model, appointing boards, one or more board members take the lead and appoint the executive director and other board members, either from within the think tank or from the outside. This is usually how executive directors are appointed in the corporate type board and in think tanks originating from among its main funders.

In the third model, a promoter or third party, such as an individual, a university, an NGO, a donor, a foundation or a corporate agent, leads and appoints both the board and the executive director. The University of Wisconsin–Madison´s Institute for Research on Poverty works under this promoter led model: the appointments of both the director and the members of its Executive Committee are made by the university. A variation on this is that the promoter appoints the board and it then appoints the director; or the director is appointed first and then, with the promoter, appoints the board.  This type of model can also be found in government–affiliated think tanks.

Board characteristics and practices

Finally, we took a look at board characteristics and practices among those institutions that are supported by the Think Tank Initiative, in order to identify regional differences among them. Think tanks from Eastern and Southern Africa had the biggest boards, the largest comprising of 29 members. The smallest think tank boards came from Latin America and the Caribbean with just two members. All tables were provided by the Think Tank Initiative.


SARO = South Asia; LACRO = Latin America and the Caribbean; WARO = West Africa; ESARO = East Africa

Size notwithstanding, institutions from Latin America and the Caribbean had the highest number of board meetings per year in 2009 and 2010, compared to all other regions. The average maximum for all of the other think tanks was four meetings.board-meetings-region1

The rate of attendance in Latin American and Caribbean think tanks may be explained by the prevalence of membership boards in this part of the world: as mentioned before, the board of directors chosen by the assembly act more as a management committee than as a legal board of directors, and so they would have to meet more often to deal with their tasks. Attendance rate was also highest in this region, followed by board members from think tanks in Eastern and Southern Africa. The lowest rate of attendance came from think tanks in India.


Typically, think tank boards of directors are in charge of hiring the executive director, evaluating his or her performance, evaluating the think tank’s financial performance, fundraising, setting budgets, and ensuring that the organisation stay true to its foundational principles. However, one of the main problems of think tanks is that responsibilities and tasks are not appropriately defined for each body, and so think tank boards may become distracted and less effective because they have to deal with issues that are more operational.+

Board functions and tasks: challenges and recommendations

As mentioned above, a common problem among think tank boards is that their functions are not clearly set out and thus they can become unnecessarily involved in more managerial tasks. For instance, the board may concentrate on day to day activities that could be otherwise handled by the staff, or they are passive in the sense that they only react to staff initiatives and information rather than assert their leadership by indicating the topics for the think tank’s agenda or making recommendations for key strategic reforms.

Sometimes board members may get too involved and even go around the director and secure projects or appoint staff to them, making it difficult for the director to be accountable for the results of the centre. Authority is also often not clearly defined as the board’s role is unfortunately poorly outlined.+

Some of the interviews with think tanks’ executive directors in On Think Tanks shed some light on what they consider important aspects of the board as well as of the latter’s relationship with the staff and with funding. For example, Orazio Bellettini from Grupo FARO has indicated that the institution identified the need to strengthen the board of directors in order to improve the quality of their leadership and governance. Members of their board have expressed their awareness of the importance of their role in governance and institutional sustainability and have expressed a willingness to participate in programs geared towards improving their capacity as board members. Thus, Think Tank Initiative funds have been used for improving and strengthening the board’s role as well.

Grupo FARO also believes that the board should have a more active role in fundraising activities, as well as in managing think tank relations with the private sector and with international donors. Bellettini expressed his conviction in increasing the proportion of the institution’s budget coming from small, local donations, and the board would be likely to be involved in obtaining more resources from local philanthropists.

In another interview, Simon Maxwell, former director of ODI, indicated that it is important to recognise that good governance requires that the boards develop the think tank’s strategy and mark it as their own. This can avoid misunderstandings in relation of where the true ownership of the institutions lie: staff may believe that they own it but, with the exception of membership boards where staff members are also board members, they do not. In order to do there needs to be good communication between the board and the staff. Simon Maxwell pointed out that during his term as Director of ODI, it was difficult to manage conversations with the board.

Another example of the relationship between the board and the staff was provided by Monica Galilea, the former Communications director of Centro de Analisis y Difusion de la Economia Paraguaya. She indicated that if it were not for the board’s continuous interest and support for the institution to have more systematic and structured communication, it would’ve been quite difficult to establish a Communications Unit and an external communications plan. This new unit resulted in those communications tasks that had in the past been dealt by board or staff members to be led by specialised communicators, thus freeing the board from more day to day activities.

While boards may have a wide array of roles and priorities, there are good practices or principles that all could follow. For example, the board should be locally relevant, in the sense that all board members should have an invested interest in the economic, social or political development of their think tank’s country. This includes international board members. It is also advisable to not make think tank governance too board heavy (for example, having a legal board, an advisory board, a management committee, etc.), as this costs money and time to maintain.  More complex governance structures are also more difficult to explain to staff and third parties and this can dramatically affect communications and coordination between them.

Board members should also have a good mix of skills: content knowledge, context knowledge and expertise in areas such as management, finances, accounting, human resources, etc. Hiring competent people, after all, assures quality control. Furthermore, someone in the board (or more) should be focused on guaranteeing consistency in the quality of the centre’s outputs.

There should be a clear channel of communication between the board and the rest of the staff, particularly the executive director. The staff can, even if it does not legally ‘own’ the organisation, help shape the board’s manner of thinking: Simon Maxwell, former director of the Overseas Development Institute, has said that, for instance, the director can shape the membership of the board by suggesting rotating memberships, by familiarising the board with the staff and with the think tank’s projects and outputs, or encouraging the board to review its own performance at least once a year.

Finally, think tanks should reflect on what is right for them. Certain boards fit certain think tanks better: for example, a board for an academic research centre might not be a good fit for a think tank. Leadership roles must also be clearly defined in order to streamline think tank output.


The three board models

Think tanks may choose several models on which to base their governance structures, according to the interests and objectives of the institution. We have seen that there are three broad board models among the think tanks we have gone over, and that these are more commonly found in certain organisations and in certain regions. Corporate boards of directors, also known as legal boards, are responsible for the governance of the organisation and legally responsible for it. They originated from English common law, which considered that charitable institutions were public and thus had to be governed in a way that protected the public trust; many think tanks founded under this tradition present this governance structure.

Membership boards consist of think tank members, which may be current or former researchers and staff and are organised in an assembly. This gives membership boards a more democratic characteristic as the board of directors and the executive director are chosen by this assembly. They are more commonly found among Latin American think tanks.

Finally, there are project leader boards, which are most commonly found in government – affiliated think tanks and do not necessarily present a board of directors per se, but may just consist of an executive director appointed by a ministry or a governmental department. We found project leader boards were more common in East Asia, as think tanks in this region originated as instruments that legitimised regimes and leaders, and many have kept this close relationship with their respective governments.

Secondary boards

Think tanks may also have secondary boards such as a management committee, which oversees organisations’ day to day activities, and advisory boards mainly focused on quality assurance. The latter is comprised of individuals that give guidance to the board of directors on matters such as research themes and may add prestige to the institution. These can be found in all types of think tanks.

Types of board compositions and board members

The combination of board models and the types of individuals that make a part of them have a significant impact on the way a think tank approaches and achieves its objectives. Think tanks may either prioritise including a diverse group of people in their boards or individuals with specific skill sets and expertise that are more in line with the think tank’s interests. Individuals with links to corporations, and financial resources, may also be pursued. Those think tanks affiliated to a governmental ministry or department usually have boards appointed by government officials, and the individuals chosen are likely to be current or former public officials and other agents close to the government. Others, such as more technocratic think tanks, may prefer to include in their board of directors or secondary boards individuals that can assure the independence and impartiality of the institution, usually international members.

Recommendations for good board practices

Whatever the type of think tank board, it is important for these organisations to clearly define the role of each part of its governance structure: of the board of directors, the executive director, and the assembly or the secondary boards. A board of directors should be a group with a varied set of skills, with strong interests in the think tank’s main areas of work, that has a good relationship with the rest of the staff and that has a clear leadership quality. Efficient think tanks are those that do not misallocate main managerial decisions among these bodies but rather set clearly outlined tasks for them (Struyk, 2006).