[Editor’s note: This is the third of a series edited by Elizabeth Brown, Aprille Knox, and Courtney Tolmie at Results for Development, focusing on think tanks’ context. The series addresses a subject of great importance to think tanks as well as to those supporting them. It provides a substantial contribution to On Think Tanks’ efforts to promote a more nuanced discussion on the subject. If you want to be a guest editor for On Think Tanks please get in touch. This post is based on the study “Linking Think Tank Performance, Decisions, and Context,” undertaken by Results for Development Institute in partnership with the University of Washington and with generous support by the Think Tank Initiative.]
From macro organization-wide decisions to micro day-to-day project choices, think tanks are strategically, if often implicitly, responding to context.
They’re doing so by leveraging their endogenous capacities, or the capacities that result from think tanks’ choices in the way that they select, combine, and manage factors of production to meet their organizational objectives. Input factor choices, such as quality and quantity of research staff, short-term and long-term research priorities and topics, and the balance of research or advocacy-oriented work, all contribute to a think tank’s endogenous capacity.
For the purposes of our research, we divided these capacities into the following four broad categories:
- Credibility Capital: Factors that contribute to the institutional reputation of a think tank, including: research quality; type of evidence produced; research agenda; and political party
- Communication Capital: Factors that contribute to the organization’s ability to produce and present high quality, policy relevant research using a broad array of channels, including: communications capacity and media.
- Social Capital: Factors that help think tanks to build trust over time, including: institutional origins and governance; institutional ties; and network affiliations.
- Resource Capital: Factors related to the funding strategy undertaken by a think tank that enables it to hire and pay staff, manage the organization, and undertake communications and operations tasks, including: funding and finances.
We found –through focus group discussions, interviews with think tank staff, a global survey of think tanks, and our literature review– that there are many ways in which think tanks are taking advantage of their internal capacities as a response to external, exogenous factors. These capacities influence the decisions of think tank executive directors and project teams regarding policy problems to focus on, research decisions, audiences, and communications channels. It is this ability to strategically utilize resources and adapt to shifting contextual issues and priorities that sets think tanks up for success.
Below is a smattering of both the seemingly obvious and somewhat surprising strategies that think tanks recommend for leveraging endogenous capacities:
- Credibility is key: Transparency over funding, research, and policy recommendations translates into credibility in the eyes of the public, which think tanks report as necessary in order to obtain policy influence.
- Research quality matters: The capacity to produce high quality research is widely understood as a necessity for think tank success. High level research quality is in turn reliant on a think tank’s ability to attract and retain high quality staff, and can similarly be improved by the implementation of regular quality review processes.
- Be relevant: While a think tank is typically able to build their credibility over time by pursuing a consistent long-term research agenda, windows of opportunity arise during which they must choose whether or not to adapt their strategies in order to respond to the most relevant issues of the day. Think tanks report needing to actively build their research and communications credibility over time by selecting topics in which they are likely to have an impact. Thus, they are often adapting their policy agendas to match government policy priority areas.
- Communicate strategically: In most cases, think tanks report that analyzing rather than simply synthesizing information and producing concise, understandable research helps them to achieve their policy goals. This is further strengthened by strong project communications strategies that are adaptive to target audiences and implemented early on to ensure stakeholder buy-in.
- Partner and engage: Finally, think tanks cite the importance of building institutional and individual social ties, both formally and informally, in order to increase the flow information to and from policymakers. Our global think tank and context survey showed that think tanks reported an average of between 13-14 ties across different types of organizations – international donors, domestic donors, advocacy groups, policy research organizations, civil society organizations, academic institutions, political parties, businesses, unions – and functions – funding, research, capacity building, issue focus, and communications. Some functions for partnership appear to go hand in hand. For instance, think tanks that partnered to perform research also often partnered to build capacity. Similarly, think tanks that partnered to work on an issue tended to also partner to communicate results or produce an event. Thus, think tanks are strategically partnering and engaging with other stakeholders to enhance their internal capacities. These findings are further supported by TTI’s infographic, which maps significant collaboration between TTI-supported think tanks and external collaborators.
How to Operationalize
So, if you’re a think tank project team member looking to assess your own context before or while implementing your next research project, or an executive director aiming to revamp your organizational objectives, take into consideration the strategies reported above. Become aware of the strengths and weaknesses of your own organization, as well as those of other local institutions for strategic partnering purposes. And explore further the indicators we developed in our survey. These can act as a starting point for considering how best to measure and enhance your own endogenous capacities.