Think tanks and the challenges of funding in Brazil

18 July 2016

Think tanks, in the most general definition of the label – relatively independent and non-governmental organisations, focused on producing expertise about public policy to influence the debate on the subject – are a recent phenomenon in Brazil. +Due to the successive occurrence of authoritarian governments during the 20th century in the country, an unfavorable political environment for independent think tanks, the first Brazilian think tanks were borne out of the governmental apparatus.

From the end of the 1980’s onwards, a period that marks the beginning of the re-democratisation process, the phenomenon attenuates its governmental essence and we can see a frank proliferation of non-governmental think tanks in the country. Therefore, in accordance to the incipience of its development and consolidation as relevant organisations in the Brazilian political scene, their modus operandi is still in formation, including – and especially – regarding their funding models. +

Largely borrowing from NGOs or universities their repertoire of fundraising (and therefore competing with them for resources), think tanks still dedicate themselves poorly to thinking funding models which are sensible to their own particularities. This often presents pitfalls for their autonomy and their political influence remarkably in the medium and long term. It is noticeable how few such organisations in Brazil are able to compose a funding matrix both heterogeneous and progressively incremental. The Brazilian Center of Analysis and Planning (CEBRAP), the Fernando Henrique Cardoso Institute (IFHC) and the Brics Policy Center (BPC) are few examples of Brazilian think tanks that have been able to do it.

Segmenting funders

After several years working in a foundation that supports research institutes located in the second largest public university in the country, I learned the hard way, a few important lessons about research funding in Brazil. After supporting the financial management of university research projects for about two decades, the foundation faced the challenge to create an active fundraising model for the university’s research initiatives.

The model it designed sought to combine three main lines of financing by creating teams and processes able to deal with the specificities and challenges of each.

  1. The first line helped researchers to build competitive proposals for national and international grants.
  2. The second helped researchers in seeking sponsors and endowments for their institutes or to their programme of research through a more institutional and generalist approach.
  3. Finally, one last line actively prospected opportunities, considering the expertise installed in the university, for researchers to act as consultants and to transfer technology developed by them to the market and the government.

A particular research project could be contemplated by all three approaches to seeking resources, if there was vocation and scope to do so.

This three-folded approach was used to enhance considerably the chances for a research to succeed in funding terms. We used to modulate the resource needs by type and tried to prioritise specific approaches to funds and resources for each module. For example, for equipment needs, sponsors were the first to be approached; for enabling physical space and human resources, endowments were prioritised; for expansion of the lines of research, the focus was on consulting or open innovation articulation; to obtain daily resources for survival and conduction of research projects in progress, grants were the main option.

The modus operandi of the research institutes in universities do not necessarily equate that to think tanks’, as the former are not commonly committed to influence the political debate. Therefore, they are not always involved in the war of ideas – which require specific skills and resources and go beyond knowledge production. Even still, their assumptions of independence from governments and funders and their purpose to offer to society the benefits of their research results are common between them.

In this sense, my experience working with funding for university research led me to useful reflections when I became involved in the study of and work with think tanks.

I found that funders often interfere in the work that think tanks are able to do. The interference of potential funders happened in several dimensions:

  • Sponsors interfering in the directions of projects when negotiating partnerships;
  • Grant making organisations interfering on the scope of research when they set very specific terms of eligibility in their calls for proposals; and
  • Clients interfering  on the parameters driving consultancies’ methodologies and models of research delivery.

Today, working directly with think tanks I see very similar challenges repeating themselves, and revealing a great deal of intersections between possible funding models.

The three-line model applied to Brazil

The best results out of these thee approaches to funding have been in national and international grants. However, with lower volume of resources per project. The large volume of approved projects amounted to a positive result, but this required a large specialised and full-time team. They relied, also, on good funding opportunities databases, which we created ourselves in partnership with another university foundation in our district.

Endowments, sponsors and crowdfunding initiatives, on the other hand, have always led to lower results. An extremely fragile philanthropic culture in Brazil associated with major basic development challenges in the country, turns potential donors away from research funding. Their efforts in that matter tend to aim at direct poverty alleviation and addressing social inequalities, still so abysmal in Brazil. In this context, we can also understand the great occurrence of so called “think-and-do-tanks” in the country, aware of the greater appeal of the interventionist profile as a fundraising model.

The actions focused on “selling expertise” trough consultancy or technology transfer revealed two types of results: consultancies, very demanded by the market, had a positive cost-benefit effect for the institutes, especially by allowing staff remuneration, a kind of payment generally prohibited by most national governmental calls for proposals. The technology transfer option, on the other hand, showed significant barriers facing slow and counterproductive legal bureaucracy from the university regarding the closure of deals, which often reached a dead end.

Today I facing the same challenges helping think tanks to develop their funding models. I have the conviction that this guideline to compose a funding model that segments a diverse array of possible resource funds is still a good starting point. It allows us to consider financing with attention to the particularities of the think tanks’ business models, centered on their ability to influence public policy, but also concerned about sustainability and academic credibility.

It seems that the combination of a permanent search for national and international grants, associated with the search for institutional and financial partnerships (endowments and sponsors) to encourage expansion and institutional projection, and a consistent portfolio of services and products is one of the ways to achieve that. In Brazil, at least, facing, as aforementioned, a weak philanthropic culture, large delegation for the government of research funding, and the preponderance of NGOs in enabling financial support from national and international organisations, such diversification is critical for survival.