Think tanks and other actors: reflections on creating successful collaborations to effect change

16 August 2022

We called this year’s OTT conference ‘Think tanks and partnerships for change’.

But early in the event, we began to wonder if we’d got the name wrong.

‘Partnerships’ is a loaded word. Some thought it misconstrued the nature of their think tank’s relationship with other actors. 

Perhaps, ‘collaborations’ is a better fit? It covers a fuller range of formal and informal interactions. These range from establishing networks to forging alliances, from formal contracts and memorandums of understanding, to convening, engaging and knowledge sharing with many actors to achieve their goals.

Whatever we call it, one thing is clear: to achieve change, think tanks must work with different types of organisations, groups, and individuals. As Joseph Asunka said in his keynote presentation, we can go ‘further together’.

Working in collaboration with others can take longer and isn’t easy, but it’s more likely to engender long-lasting change.

In this article, I summarise my top takeaways from the three-day conference with thinktankers, funders, and policy entrepreneurs from over 30 countries.

Explore the OTT Conference 2022 report

The nature of collaborations

The form a collaboration takes depends on the actors, goal, context, and the issue. 

The actor’s structure, size, organisation, power, and interlocutors call for a different type of engagement. For example, engagement between a think tank and a funder will look different to a think tank’s engagement with a media organisation. 

The goal of the engagement also shapes the interaction: Will the collaboration be long-term or short-term? Are your outcomes practical or strategic? 

The context can facilitate or preclude certain engagements: some relationships might be impossible or illegal in some settings, but common in others. E.g., formal partnerships between think tanks and political parties aren’t encouraged in the UK or US (think tanks must be non-partisan here) but are common in Germany and Malaysia. 

The issue at stake also matters. Sometimes it’s easy to find connections and reach agreements, but it’s harder when there’s less agreement. E.g., child nutrition is easier to understand and rally behind than tax policy!

Roles and functions

Think tanks

In collaborations, think tanks tend to provide research or knowledge about an issue and access to other actors. They act as moderators in conversations, conveners of different actors, and monitors of progress and actions. They also give credibility to causes and enable organisations. 

Finally, they’re translators. Like polyglots, they’re able to speak the “language” of different actors – often each actor will have different words for the same concept. Think tanks are well placed to do this: some do it well, others don’t.   

Other actors

The roles and functions of other actors are varied.  Actors can provide access, expand the reach of think tanks’ work (and words), provide access to funding, provide credibility and knowledge, and connect think tanks to others with the same goal. 


The roles of actors and think tanks are similar. Both alternate between different functions and roles. The role they adopt depends on who they’re engaging with, why, and in what context.  E.g., in one collaboration the think tank may provide credibility, and in another situation, the think tank may form a partnership because it lacks credibility.

But the potential of think tanks to act as bridges and translators of knowledge sets them apart. For a longer reflection on this, see the keynote conversation on neuroscience, collaboration, and knowledge communication. 

Specific challenges

Independence and credibility

How do collaborators stay independent and true to their origins and causes? This is easy in some cases, but hard in others.  E.g., sometimes the less powerful actor must comply with the more powerful one.

Independence is linked to credibility. Some collaborations affect how organisations are seen by their audiences – their credibility with some audiences can be hindered by certain engagements. E.g., by engaging with a political party or social movement, you risk losing your credibility as an independent or objective party. 

Power dynamics: control of resources and co-opted agendas 

Control of resources can determine the power dynamics between the collaborators. How they’re divided or allocated can skew the power balance in favour of one actor. 

This may leave some partners feeling like their agency is restricted – they can’t act as they want to, or as they usually would. And the most powerful actor can often define the agenda. E.g., the private sector has power because of the resources that they control, potentially creating an unequal power balance. 

Communication and relationships. 

Collaborations are made or unmade by people. The ability of the collaborators to understand and work with others is the most common challenge. 

Making collaborations successful: recommendations

There isn’t one set of rules for success, but there are characteristics that all successful collaborations share. 

In many ways, successful collaborations mirror the three basic needs that Ryan and Deci outlined in their self-determination theory: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. When actors enter a collaboration voluntarily and can decide what to do (autonomy), when their contribution is valued (competence), and the relationships work and are used positively (relatedness), then the collaboration can flourish.

Below are some specific characteristics of successful collaborations:


Shared frustrations are a good starting point, but you must be clear about what you want to achieve: Legitimacy? Funding? Access to information? Change in policy? Change in public opinion? Something else?

Next, clarify the scope and the roles and responsibilities of each actor. The contribution and actions of each party should also be clear, respected and acknowledged by all. Reflecting on and drawing the limits or boundaries of the partnership from the beginning is important.

Speaking the same “language” 

Some think tanks can understand and translate the “language” of the various actors in a collaboration. This can help by avoiding the misunderstandings and problems that can arise from using different terminology for the same concepts – like long discussions and arguments! 

Voluntary collaboration 

All actors must willingly take part and choose their own actions. Externally imposed collaborations are often destined to fail. 


Good relationships are the basis of collaborations. You should engage with different actors and build connections with people. You can then rally these networks when it’s time to act. 

Most collaborations happen because people already have an established relationship (e.g., school or university affiliations). But basing collaborations on existing relationships or networks can hinder diversity and reinforce exclusion. 


Watch OTT Conference 2022 session recordings