What is a think tank? Defining the boundaries of the label

22 October 2014
SERIES Think tanks: definition and terminology 17 items

This is the question of the ages. There isn’t a month that goes by without someone asking me this question. Ironically, it often comes from think tanks themselves.

Search for “Think Tank” images and you’ll come up with a Blur album, a camera bag company, and quite a few ‘joke’ images playing on the idea of a brain and a military tank or a fish bowl. Ask your friends what they think the definition of a think tank is and they are more likely ask “think what?” than venture a definition.

One of the reasons that it is hard for us, who work with or in think tanks, to answer this question it is that there are lots of different types of organisations that are labeled think tanks. Bookings and RAND could not be more different but are still both taken as two of the most famous think tanks in the world. Global think tank lists include organisations as different as CASS (the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences) and Grupo Faro in Ecuador. Their comparison is impossibly useless for any practical purposes -and certainly for efforts to define them.

It is not hard to find ‘for-profit’ corporations, civic associations, university faculties, international NGOs, national NGOs, UN bodies, public policy bodies, foundations, semi-formal ‘groupings’ of people, public service committees (many set-up to address very specific problems), etc. that call themselves think tanks. In Latin America, for instance, there are several ‘traditions’ of think tanks that have emerged in different countries (at different times and for different reasons). In Indonesia, the group of think tanks funded by the Knowledge Sector Initiative includes university based research centres, advocacy organisations, academic bodies, research centres with a strong medical focus, and NGOs. These different origins hide the fact that they all share a common objective to influence policy.

The Think Tank Initiative’s and the Think Tank Fund’s grantees are also extremely different to each other. Even when patterns emerge these cannot be pin-pointed to a region or country.

So, are they all think tanks, then? When people ask me to define a think tank they are often asking me to pass judgement on other organisations. This is not hard to see. It makes the definition extremely political and even uncomfortable. I do not think I can be the one to judge who are and who aren’t think tanks in a given country.

When one think tank accuses another of doing too much consultancy I feel like I need to ask if they, themselves, don’t. Or, if another argues that an organisation cannot be a think tank because they are for-profit, I feel I should point out that they may in fact be using their profits to communicate their ideas far more than they, a not-for-profit, are.

This is one of the reasons why we set-up the Premio PODER al Think Tank del Año in Peru. This award, modelled after Prospect Magazine’s award in the UK, provides an excellent opportunity to, as Grayson Perry does for Art, define the boundaries of think tanks. I recommend Grayson Perry’s Reith Lecture, by the way.

Grayson Perry argues that defining art is too difficult. The definition is fluid and porous. It changes with time and location. The same is true for think tanks. Many of the organisations that we comfortably label as think tanks in Peru would never be considered by the Prospect Magazine judges.  It is all a matter of perspective.

Instead of defining them, Perry would argue that we should attempt to define the boundary of the label. How far can we go before the organisation can no longer be called a think tank and becomes something else? For instance:

  • When does an organisation stop being a think tank that generates its income through consultancy or that combines consultancy with more independently funded research and become just a consultancy?
  • When does an organisation stop being an academic think tank, based in a university, and focused on a range of fairly broad and theoretical issues, and become just an academic research centre at a university?
  • When does an organisation stop being an advocacy think tank with strong ideological or value based arguments to become just an activist organisation?
  • When does an organisation stop being a think tank with a strong covering power to become simply a council or commission?
  • When does an organisation stop being a think tank with a strong media presence and the capacity to generate popular news stories to become a not-for-profit (or for profit even) media outfit?
  • When does it stop being a publicly funded and managed think tank based in a ministry or another public body to become a policymaking body itself?

We could go on. The point is that the boundary is hard to define. I would argue that, in the UK, a small percentage of consultancy work or even public funding could disqualify an organisation for using the label. There are, after all, plenty of private and philanthropic funds available for think tanks. Depending on consultancy income and funds from the government could set them apart from the rest.

In Peru, however, it would be impossible for think tanks to survive without consultancy work or funds from the state. You would find it hard to find an organisation that received actual no-strings-attached grants; most get contracts.

But, who could define the boundary? The Premio PODER assembled a group of people who live and work in Peru and who have first had knowledge of the political, economic, social and intellectual space that think tanks inhabit. They are political and international finance journalists, business leaders, academics, and intellectuals. PODER itself is a magazine that specialises in politics. If anyone can judge who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, is them.

Therefore, the first thing that the judges did before voting for their favourite think tanks of the year was decide whether the applicants deserved the label.

The result, this year, is rather interesting. The list of finalists and candidates below provides a great opportunity to reflect on this:


  • Centro de Investigación de la Universidad del Pacífico (CIUP), and
  • Instituto de Investigación Científica de la Universidad de Lima (IDIC)

Stand-alone NGOs (from ‘more’ to ‘less’ academic):

  • Instituto de Estudios Peruanos (IEP),
  • Grupo de Análisis para el Desarrollo (GRADE),
  • Sociedad Peruana de Derecho Ambiental (SPDA),
  • Gobierno y Desarrollo Humano (GDH),
  • Foro Nacional Internacional,  and
  • Instituto Peruano de Economía (IPE)

International NGO:

  • Soluciones Prácticas

For-profit firms:

  • Instituto de Economía y Empresa (IEE),
  • Macroconsult, and
  • Apoyo Consultoría

Public sector-based:

  • Instituto Nacional de Salud

This is not the time to address each of the candidates –the results will be announced on the 29th October. The point that I want to make is that the judges considered that what mattered most of all was the think tank function that the organisations performed. They agreed that all of them tried, through their own particular business models and approaches, to inform public (and often private) policy.

They laid down the boundaries based on their assessment of this, let’s call it, public good function. Where they, through whatever means their business models allowed them (for instance, through advice, advocacy, training, convening, etc.), doing their best to inform public and private decision makers on issues of public interest? If the answer was ‘yes’ then they lay within the boundaries.

The for-profit firms could raise some eyebrows but these are coincidently two of the organisations that people in Peru more often associate with the label ‘think tank’. The label is relatively new in relation to its association with organisations in the university-based or the more academic stand-alone NGO categories. If anything, they have only recently began to call themselves ‘think tanks’, and some still do so reluctantly. In fact, it much older and established in relation to the for-profit organisations that emerged in Peru in response to their founding partners’ view that the government and the private sector lacked useful and practical information and advice.

In other words, the label think tank is more closely associated to efforts to fill very specific information and knowledge gaps for decision-making; less so for those focused on less urgent matters. But, for different reasons, it has been appropriated by a growing number of organisations.

So there is an element of self-identification in the definition of the boundaries, too. Tom Medvetz places a great deal of value on this: the act of labelling oneself as a think tank is a political one.

A part of me thinks that if the label is used to describe too many different types of organisations it may lose all meaning. I say this because I’ve seen how many organisations have began to use the label only since their usual funders have began to focus their attention on think tanks. But another part of me thinks that what matters isn’t the label but the function -and the contribution to society. Surely we want more organisations to produce information and knowledge to inform public policy (openly). Does it matter if this is done by academic research centres, consultancies, government agencies, NGOs (domestic or foreign), blogs, or even individuals? In a way, the more the merrier.

Another positive outcome of this self-definition is that the organisations that ‘join’ the community open themselves up to the same kind of scrutiny as think tanks are subject to. For-profit think tanks would have to respond to demands for greater transparency, for example. They would be expected to be more open and forthcoming about their data and research methods. The label beings certain benefits but can also impose new responsibilities.

The most useful definitions, therefore, are the ones that focus on their functions and their role in society rather than on their structure. What are these functions? The list has grown over the years. It now includes:

  • Providing ideas (including popularising ideas), people, access to power
  • Creating, maintaining, opening spaces for debate
  • As boundary workers or windows into the policymaking process -and into other spaces (this comes from the literature on think tanks in China where think tanks are described as windows that allowed Chinese policymakers to look into Western policy communities and societies -as well as allowing western policymakers and scholars to look into Chinese policymaking communities.
  • Channels of intellectual resources to political parties, interest groups, leaders
  • Legitimising ideas, policies and practices -and individuals or groups
  • Monitoring and auditing public policy and behaviour
  • Public and elite (including policymakers) education (something often forgotten by many think tanks as it is certainly difficult to assess its impact).

So maybe, instead of “knowing one when I see one”, it is more accurate to say we’ll “know one when we see what they do.” A national award provides an excellent opportunity to learn more about the label in a country. And to attempt to define think tanks from the bottom, up.