Times of crisis: what can think tanks and their funders do?

19 March 2020
SERIES COVID-19 25 items

Times of crisis present critical reflection points for think tanks and think tank communities. From the Great Depression to 9/11 in the US, from the 1973 coup to the 1990s return to democracy in Chile, and from the Second World War to the recent financial crisis and Brexit in the UK – the history of think tanks is shaped by the crises they live through.

Unexpected events undermine the best laid out plans and budgets. They can lead to panic among leadership and staff, who may rightly worry about their short-term safety and livelihoods, and long-term career prospects and impacts.

So what should think tanks do in a time of crisis? Here, I suggest a few actions think tanks and their funders could take to make the best out of a very complex situation.

We’re keen to hear from thinktankers around the world during this unprecedented global crisis. How has your think tank been affected? What measures are you taking to protect your staff, or to serve your communities? What support do you need? What advice could you offer to your peers?

Join our response to COVID-19 and help share experience and lessons with the global think tank community.

We would also like to hear from think tank funders. How is this crisis affecting you and staff? What are you doing to support your grantees? What advice could you offer to your peers?

1. Take care of your people

Think tanks’ biggest assets are their people: their researchers, communicators, managers and ‘support staff’. They should be our first priority.

Unfortunately, few think tanks have the right human resource policies and practices, in the best of times. Add a crisis like COVID-19, and the result could be disastrous for staff and their families. This is the time to let emotion into the think tank.

This is the time to open up, reach out and engage meaningfully with all staff. If your staff is unionised, engage with the union. If it isn’t, why not find out what unions are advising? All decisions regarding the think tank’s response to the crisis should be laid out for all to see, and management should encourage staff to comment and inform the strategy.

Think tanks should pay particular attention to those who will bear the largest burden of the crisis. In this case this may be women who will very likely have to deal with relatives at risk (or ill) or children home from school. Staff members with disabilities, too, will need to be given special attention; will they be able to work remotely, do they have any special needs to be addressed? And what about staff whose families are based in another city or country? They may have particular circumstances to consider. 

Working from home may be an alternative for some think tanks – but not all will know how to do it nor have the resources. And we should not think that remote working is the same as office work, but online. The office is part of many people’s lives. Staying at home will cut them off from most of the social networks. This can have negative effects on your staff mental health.

Watch Renuka Iyer, from the World Resources Institute, discuss the foundation elements of a long term talent agenda. 

2. Check the strength of your governance model

If you have a board, now is the time to use them. This is when you will find out if the board and other governance arrangements are fit for purpose.

Executive directors should not attempt to steer their organisations alone through the crisis. Their boards should support them in their decisions, provide expert advice and even join staff meetings where tough calls will be made and announced.

And if boards are not ready, then executive directors should seek governance support from senior managers.

Watch Simon Maxwell, former director of ODI discuss think tank boards. 

3. Make sense of it all

This is a role few think tanks take seriously enough. In times of crisis it is often best to hold back on publishing policy recommendations and attempt to make sense of what is going on. When the crisis hits, policymakers do not need a never-ending stream of information and advice. What they need is help navigating the cacophony of information out there.

Think tanks are well placed to help filter the good evidence from the bad, contextualise advice or the experiences of other countries, and moderate public debates and discussions.

They can also play an important role in communicating that information to the public.

And when it is over, think tanks should begin to try to explain how we got to the crisis and how we could avoid it in the future. (Maybe noting that the COVID-19 crisis is likely to return next year.) They may want to explore how public and private institutions behaved in the run up to the crisis. Were they ready? Did they prepare in advance? Did they have the systems and processes necessary to respond? 

When the crisis is over, we will also want to learn about what has changed. How have our attitudes and behaviours changed? How has the public agenda shifted? What have we learned from this? Are our institutions stronger or weaker as a consequence?

4. Calculate the real costs of the pandemic and talk to your funders

Many think tanks will be out of pocket after all this is over even now. We at OTT have taken a big hit due to having to suspend our annual conference and other events. Think tanks will most likely find that they made similar commitments that have to be written off. In some cases, staff will have to be sent home at a cost to the organisation. In other cases, promised funds or projects will not materialise in the short term, with implications in the medium and long run.

Think tanks whose reserves are invested in the financial markets will have surely lost much of their capital over the last few weeks. This could have a significant effect on their long-term sustainability. Exchange rate fluctuations, too, could bankrupt them if they go unchecked.

Finding out where these costs are and calculating them thoroughly should be think tanks’ first priority, after taking care of their staff. Then, they should talk to their funders and seek their help. Long-term funders don’t want to see their investments go to waste and are likely to help.

In the process, think tanks should consider their business models and how they have responded under the stress of the crisis.

Watch Ruth Levine, formerly from the Hewlett Foundation, talk about the funder-grantee relationship.

5. Don’t give up your agendas but make a smart connection to COVID-19 where relevant

A crisis or shock like COVID-19 shifts and refocuses the public agenda overnight. There is nothing else on the news. Think tanks should resist the temptation to give up their agendas altogether in favour of the visibility that the crisis could give them. If they do, they risk having to start from scratch when the crisis is over.

Instead, they should try to find ways to connect to the crisis by making use of their own agendas and expertise. They could, for instance, discuss the public health sector and its capacity (if they specialise in public services or are a public health systems think tank), address gender inequality in the response (if their work has a strong focus on gender inequality), consider how the economy will be affected (if the think tank has a strong economic policy agenda), offer broad policy advice (for instance, social policies that may be complementary to public health decisions, such as education, transport, infrastructure, security, etc.) or consider the way the global system has responded (if the think tank has a focus on international systems or international development policy).

Think tanks could do this quietly, too, preparing for when the crisis is over. The public and think tanks’ key audiences will surely want to learn more about the effect that the crisis had on the environment or the state of public services.

Your communications team need to take centre stage. They will best placed to help the think tank position itself now and over the next few months.

Watch Marjorie Alaine, from the Partnership for Economic Policy Network, on how to position your research. 

6. Give remote working and online conferencing a serious try

If there ever was a time to invest in remote working and take advantage of the opportunities offered by digital tools: it is now. Many providers are even making their services free of charge for the next few months.

This will be good for your staff in the future too.

Find Nancy White at Full Circle for advice on moving online. This is not business as usual.

7. Find your peers, pool resources and share ideas

In a time of crisis think tanks should reach out to other think tanks and seek to share resources and collaborate. When the crisis is systemic it affects everyone, and everyone will need help.

National, regional and global networks should be activated to find common solutions to common problems. This is not the time to see peers (or competitors) go under or to go under without asking for help.

The strength of a think tank community is directly linked to the strength of individual think tanks. Larger think tanks should be willing to offer help to smaller ones. They could share their strategies and tactics to cope with the crisis.

The same is true for think tank funders. They often know each other and have, from time to time, sporadic meetings on funding think tanks. This is the time to reach out and explore how to respond in a coordinated manner.

8. Funders: create shared reserves and emergency funds

Instead of providing grants to think tanks directly, we have argued that funders could set up shared reserves and emergency funds for their grantees. The shared reserves would allow think tanks to draw funds, at no or very low interest, to invest in the short term. Emergency funds would be used by think tanks facing bankruptcy or a serious disruption to their work.

Most think tanks will be alright during the crisis. They will emerge bruised and may need to fix a few things to get back on their feet. A shared reserves fund could help them make the necessary investment (hire new people or avoid firing them set up new systems, develop new projects, etc.).

A few think tanks, however, will suffer greatly. They may see most of their savings depleted, their staff may be forced to leave and change jobs, their rent may become unmanageable. These think tanks will need a lender of last resort to save them from collapse.

9. Funders: negotiate key services on behalf of your grantees

Many funders use the services that think tanks will need to work remotely. They could be contacting them on behalf of their grantees to try to get a good deal for them. This could include online working and conferencing services like Zoom, Bluejeans, Slack, Dropbox, etc. 

It could also involve other planning and management services that may help think tanks adopt a more permanent digital approach to their work.

Several think tanks may be facing more serious problems that will require financial, legal and accounting advice: for example, due to a failure to deliver on contracts, issues related to their own workforce or tax bill or concerns over their savings and investments. 

10. Funders: ask think tanks to tell you how this crisis is affecting them

Funders should not expect think tanks to volunteer a cry for help. Our experience suggests that they are more likely to keep it to themselves. We therefore recommend that they ask their grantees, in a systematic way, how the crisis is affecting them, so that they may find common problems that could be addressed by a few actions as well as individual, complex challenges, that will require a more targeted approach. Not everyone will be affected equally.

Several funders have already done this. We have received emails from the Hewlett Foundation, IDRC and the Open Society Foundations.

Many funders engage with think tanks via contracts for services. They involve outputs that think tanks are expected to deliver on time as condition to payment. In some cases, think tanks will struggle to do so. Staff may not be able to access the resources they need, field trips may have to be delayed, and other stakeholders on whose participation the project depends may not be available. Don’t wait for your contracted think tanks to let you know of delays, get in touch and tell them your plans to support them.

We will do our best to identify and share cases to help build the necessary evidence base to help think tanks and their funders to act together.

Final reflection

COVID-19  is a crisis affecting everyone, everywhere. Think tanks do not need to take centre stage in the national or global debate to be relevant and make a meaningful contribution to their societies. Better leave the limelight to the epidemiologists and policymakers who need to communicate critical information and advice. 

First, they must take care of what matters most to them: people, ideas and the sustainability of their model. Only then they can focus their attention on what they know best. 

This may involve shutting down or reducing their workload and expectations for a few weeks or even months or for the rest of the year. To do so should not be seen as a failure in any way. It is necessary to guarantee their sustainability and long term contribution.