Understanding think tank–social movement engagement

8 June 2020

[This is a summary of the eighth working paper of the On Think Tanks Working Paper Series, Activists and policy experts: exploring think tank engagement with social movements.]

Before COVID-19, experts were loathed (at least in the global North), perceived to be in their ivory towers detached from the public. While experts may have remerged as some of the most visible faces in the pandemic response (even if politicians have given them the stage to deflect blame), questions around their credibility and legitimacy remain, and greater engagement with the public is seen by many to be the answer.

In contrast, social movements offer a powerful way for people to express their grievances and foster or halt change, based on their lived experiences. But social movements haven’t always had the specialist knowledge to engage with elite policymakers or to make actionable policy proposals.

Partnerships between think tanks and social movements might, then, appear an ideal way to bring about progressive change. Together they can achieve a balance between democratic accountability and expert input. But we don’t hear much about think tank–social movement collaborations. Do they exist? And if they do, how well do they really work, and why?

This is what OTT set out to uncover in a study funded by the Open Society Foundations’ Economic Justice Program. We summarise some of our findings here.

  1. Social movements and think tanks (broadly defined) do work together! As both think tanks and social movements take many forms, it is not surprising that their collaborations do too. These range from groups of activists engaging with groups of policy experts, to groups of activists sitting on a think tank’s board, think tanks being part of a broader political movement, and many more.
  2. Reasons why social movements and think tanks collaborate with each other: these include to acquire new knowledge and insight (albeit about different things); to engage with, be heard by, and be seen as credible by, specific non-traditional audiences; and to connect with other organisations with shared objectives and values. Ultimately both think tanks and social movements collaborate with one another to contribute to changes in themselves and to wider society.
  3. Initial connections between think tanks and social movements: these are made through people’s own personal and professional networks; introductions from funders; introductions from intermediary NGOs; through a history of working together or in a similar field; through popular recognition, and; through a formal scan of the ‘field landscape’. Crucially, we found that social movements were unwilling to work with think tanks until they were sure they could be trusted. Where sufficient trust had not been developed through a process of getting to know and understand one another, the collaboration became stuck.
  4. What do think tanks and social movements do together? During collaborations with social movements, think tanks generate and share knowledge; teach and train their counterparts; broker, convene, mediate and facilitate relationships and discussions with stakeholders; provide advice, identify policy options and draft proposals; engage directly with stakeholders and represent their concerns in policy processes, and; provide resources to support the collaboration. Conversely, social movements played an important role in mobilising the public through direct action, and providing insight and knowledge of people’s lived experiences and needs.
  5. Difficulties in working together: the differences between social movements and think tanks created opportunities to collaborate, with collaborators benefiting in the ways we describe above. However, these differences also created difficulties, including the way in which think tanks and social movements engaged with each other (with think tank experts often seen as ‘telling’ and ‘teaching’ their social movement counterparts); organisational priorities; goals and approaches to policy engagement; views on who should engage in formal policy processes, and; views on the nature of the knowledge that is produced.
  6. Approaches to resolving difficulties: social movements, and especially think tanks, managed their differences and difficulties through demonstrating humility and being reflexive; taking a long-term approach (that fosters trust); ensuring an open process to engagement (with each other); making any technical knowledge that is produced accessible and encouraging internal engagement (especially within the social movement, which may have many members who are not part of the conversation with experts). In some cases, an intermediary played a key role in managing and mediating differences. We also found that some think tanks ‘kept their distance’ from social movements to protect their independence (and credibility).
  7. Funding for collaborative work: not surprisingly, collaborative work is labour intensive and requires funding. In many cases, think tank experts engaged in collaborative work with social movements on a voluntary basis (in addition to their usual workload), which in some cases proved challenging. In other cases, collaborative work was funded by core or institutional funds from either the think tank or social movement. For others, collaborative work was funded by external funders.
  8. The impact of external funding for collaborative work: the practices of funders had both positive and negative consequences on collaborations. In some cases, funders urged think tanks and social movements to work together in the first instance. The ‘projectisation’ of a collaboration encouraged both parties to consider jointly their objectives and approaches (during which differences could come to light). Some funders enabled collaborators to change and adapt the parameters of their projects. In some cases, changes in funding priorities prevented parties from taking a long-term approach to collaboration. Funders tended to focus on issues and favoured think tanks (which more often than not mirrored funders in their organisational set up). Social movements were often absent from or obscure in funders’ ‘theories of change’, effectively giving think tanks control over resources and power in the collaboration. And finally, increasingly stringent accountability requirements created significant administrative work for think tanks, from which, in many cases, they shielded their social movement counterparts.

Read the full paper for more detailed findings, as well as analysis on what this means for think tanks and social movements who want to collaborate, and for funders who want to support such collaborations.