Think tank networks: the holy grail?

18 November 2013

[Editor’s note: This post has been updated to include advice provided to ACFID’s University Network.]

In early November, 12 Latin American think tanks launched a new network: ILAIPP. This is an off-shoot of the Think Tank Initiative in the region -the 12 think tanks are TTI grantees. The network has a number of objectives:

The network itself should be considered as an early success for the TTI as it shows that its intervention can, in fact, lead to the formation of new regional institutions that have, at least in theory, the capacity to support think tank development beyond the lifetime of the TTI.

But far from being over, ILAIPP faces a number of challenges that other think tank networks also face -and will face.

A few weeks later I was invited to talk to the board of ACFID’s University Network in Sydney.

In an effort to offer these new networks some advice and my best wishes, here are some lessons we have learned about networks and some friendly advice for them:

Networks are stronger when their members come together naturally: Strong networks do not need funds to exist and to function. Their members come together, funds activities out of their own pockets (and time), organise themselves, help each other, etc. Like any healthy community, its members see themselves in each other and are driven by a strong feeling of solidarity for them. This has several implications:

  • Homogenous memberships are easier to manage (although not as interesting): When think tanks come together to form a network they should try to join organisations with similar structures, business models, ethos, ideologies, policy interests, approaches to research and communication, age and history, etc.
  • Membership contributions are more effective than third party funding: In the medium and long run, membership contributions are the only way forward for networks. If they depend on a third party donor to exist (if in fact this is the only reason why it was set up in the first place) then they are unlikely to survive funding cuts. Not will they be able to manage the roles and functions of the network as this will be ultimately controlled by the non-member funders.

Networks are stronger when they have one clear purpose: Often networks have conflicting (and confusing objectives). They want to influence, but also support its members, and help others, and also do work together, and also… I have worked with many networks whose members cannot say what the network is for. This is quite typical of think tank networks when their origin is too closely related to their funders’ agency or with a highly heterogenous membership. Or networks that include members from different backgrounds (academics, NGO workers, members of the public, policymakers, etc.). In this case, ILAIPP, has several objectives:

Each objective requires a plan -and a facilitation plan to go along with it as well as  resources. A network with several objectives may have to make some choices and prioritise one or two in the short term and leave the others for later.

A network with several objectives and a heterogenous membership may have to make impossible choices.

Networks are not the solution for everything: For a long time, donors have been pushing the idea that networks are the solution for everything. The concept became a buzzword and soon all funding to think tanks started to be channelled through networks. Think tanks were asked to ‘partner’ or network with other organisations in order to access funds to undertake collaborative research and advocacy. Together, everyone thought, think tanks would be more effective.

The problem, of course, is that these made-up networks (created by a third party or to satisfy a third party’s interests) are rather problematic. In a real network, there is little concern about who is the facilitator or who is in charge. Everyone plays a role -whatever they can do in support of the network. In a real network, there is little need to be reminding members of deadlines, to share information or ideas, to help others with their work, to communicate or amplify a message, etc. Member in a real network do all of this naturally. This is, after all, why they created or joined the network. If you don’t, then you are out.

Most of the time what donors or think tanks need is a project; not a network. A project can be led by a single organisation and can include roles for lots of others. These roles, however, are managed and monitored as they should be. These projects can be used to build capacity, organise collaborative research, organise events, communicate and amplify messages, etc.

Networks are time consuming -and think tank networks need serious facilitation: A network of think tanks of the size of ILAIPP or as heterogenous as ACFID’s University Network will need at least one person (it could be a few -but not too many- people sharing the role across a few of the think tanks) to facilitate the network’s activities and members’ interactions. Facilitation is not about ‘doing for’ but ‘encouraging other to do’. Good facilitators create the opportunities for members to meet each other, work together, and advance the network’s purpose and objectives.

Without facilitation, the network will be little more than a name, a website and an annual event. This is, unfortunately, the fate of most think tank networks I’ve seen.

Here is great advice from Simon Hearn on Online Community Facilitation.

Networks require communication: Twenty years ago people and organisations joined one or two networks, max. Being a member was hard work. Communications took for ever and involved letters and long trips to arrange events and meet other members. Today, a email will do. People join networks left, right, and centre with the click of the mouse. So every network faces intense competition from many other networks and spaces. To ‘win’ its members’ attention networks need to be active communicators (yes, having money helps, but even that is not as important as communication).

The facilitator plays a key role in network communications but members have to play their part too. Using Twitter feeds can help to keep websites updated and blog-like pages may allow the networks to aggregate members’ content into a single space. But communication needs to go further to ensure that members’ attention is captured. Do not underestimate this.

Embrace new technologies (but remember that networks are made of people (or organisations) -these networks at least): In 2004 when we were setting up the EBPDN or later when we set up the OMLC there was no Facebook or Twitter. We decided to develop a stand-alone platform with a resource library and a discussion fora to email function. We spent lots of time and money developing something that soon became obsolete.

Today, networks can take full advantage of new technologies. Take Twitter for example. Twitter followers (and their followers) constitute network members (or potential members). They, or subgroups of them, can be deployed for specific purposes: an event, a project, a discussion, etc. Once the purpose has been achieved the members can go back to being followers again.

There is no need to manage membership databases anymore -constantly having to update contact details and making sure that profiles are up to date, too. A linkedIn group can take advantage of the fact that their members will keep their profiles up to date.

Resource libraries can be replaced by Goggle Drive folders or Scribed accounts. Events can be managed using Eventbrite (which can also help manage the invitees to the events).

Each one of these (and other) spaces may have different ‘members’ extending the reach of the network beyond what may be possible to manage centrally.

Don’t take it personal: Network facilitators should assume that most of the people and organisations ‘signed up’ to the network won’t participate as much as they hoped they would. Most of the time, they will be happy to get emails or announcements (and even attend annual events) but won’t engage beyond that. Facilitators should not take this as a personal ‘attack’.

Similarly, remember that people like to complain. Even after making very effort possible to engage with the members and include them in decisions some will complain that ‘they were not consulted’ or that ‘the disagree with the decisions’. This is ok. Expect it to happen. In heterogenous networks in particular it is impossible to please all members all of the time.

So good luck to ILAIPP. It would be good to see more of these ‘groupings’ in other regions and networks like ILAIPP expanding beyond their current members (and even changing their membership if necessary). All in due course.