What keeps think tank directors up at night? reflections on funding, staffing, governance, communications and M&E

7 May 2012
SERIES Think tanks governance and management 19 items

Over the last year or so I’ve been discussing challenges (as well as opportunities) with many think tank bosses and their funders. From time to time I’ve published a few reviews or broad recommendations. I’ve had the chance to review several think tanks for my book (coming soon) as well as for specific consultancies. Others, like CIPPEC and the Think Tank Initiative, have surveyed and interviewed their partners and grantees about this, too. There are a number of issues that keep coming up:


The bottom line is the bottom line. Think tanks are universally concerned with their funding environments and their own individual prospects. Of course, the face different challenges depending on their business models and their countries’ policy context. I have identified three broad types of funding environments:

  1. Aid dependent: where money for well-established think tanks is readily available
  2. Newly middle income or post-conflict: where money for think tanks has or is in the process of disappearing fast but no options are readily available.
  3. More mature middle income: where a local philanthropic community exists or is developing and/or where regional investment or development agencies have picked up the role of funding research.

The challenge for funders is to make sure that the second scenario above is avoided.

But funding is more than just about the next project. Inevitably, all think tanks need to build up reserves or an endowment that may allow them to make strategic decisions about their research agenda and policy engagement. I’ve written about this in this blog.

Foreign funders can help by paying greater attention to leveraging domestic funds as a way of guaranteeing their grantees long-term financial sustainability. Currently, the onus is place on the think tanks. Funders give them money but condition it to them being able to ‘win business’ in the future from other sources. But if all funders do the same, then who are these think tanks going to go to next? The only way forward is for research funders to get together, pool their research funds through national (independent) research councils or bodies and use these to leverage domestic public and private funds.


Think tanks tend to face two concerns related to staffing: how to find the right staff and how to retain them. There are two extreme scenarios to consider. The number one factor affecting think tanks capacity to staff themselves appropriately is the availability of trained researchers, communicators or managers. I have written about the importance of investing in universities of high standards as a way of supporting think tanks. In my view, ‘workshops’ or ‘post graduate’ degrees just won’t do. With this in mind, two extreme situations arise.

  1. Where there are not enough qualified researchers but aid funds are readily available: this leads to think tanks having to compete with well funded Ministries of Economy, Central Banks, Aid Agencies, and the private sector by offering salaries that are, in many cases, nominally higher than those paid to researchers in the United States or Britain. These salaries are simply unsustainable but they also lead to the poaching of the few competent researchers left in universities and hence the cycle is completed: if no researchers are left in universities this lowers the quality of teaching which lowers the quality of graduates which limits the options of think tanks who have to poach them from academic departments or other agencies, etc. The race to offer increasingly higher salaries in on and this cannot end well for think tanks.
  2. The other scenario is where there are at least more competent researchers but significantly fewer funds to attract them and keep them for long enough to make a difference for the think tank. In these contexts, think tanks also compete with well-funded government agencies and the private sector: and lose. Their only chance is to seek to offer opportunities to access policymaking spaces (of power) or post-graduate degrees abroad. In these cases, think tanks particularly struggle to attract more mature researchers (between 35 and 45) who have some experience in government and solid academic credentials.

Often the solution sought is to ‘build their own’ but this is easier said than done. The Belgrade Centre for Security Policy, however, has been able to do it: have a look at their Belgrade School for Security Studies and their Internship Programme. It is worth learning from it.

Think tanks should also consider hiring internationally. It is not uncommon to find ‘foreigners’ working for think tanks in the US or the UK. Good researchers, good communicators and good managers can work anywhere. If a think tank needs a good economist and cannot find him/her locally, they should widen their search to other countries. There are many excellent economics, sociologists, public health experts, scientists, communicators, and managers very keen to work in developing countries for local (or only slightly higher) salaries. The idea that all expats need to be paid expat salaries is misplaced and keeps many think tanks from advertising globally.

Funders, too, have a role to play here. They could (and should) demand that new posts filled with their funds are advertised more widely (and they should help) so that anyone who is eventually employed is clearly the best candidate for the job.

Research agenda

Developing the right type of research and on the right issues is another challenge for think tanks. What is the right research agenda? A number of factors come to play in this decision:

  1. Where is the money? Inevitably, think tanks without endowment need to consider who is funding what.
  2. What do we know? This has to be matched with the centres’ capacity; particularly, the areas of expertise of their staff.
  3. What is important today? Somehow they must make sure that their research pays attention to policy issues that are current and relevant to policymakers, the opposition, the media, and the public today.
  4. What is going to be important tomorrow? but it would be a serious mistake if they did not keep an eye on the future and paid attention to problems that are emerging and are not yet in anybody’s agenda.
  5. Who are our audiences/publics? I prefer the idea of focusing on a public than on an audience but in any case, it is important to know who is it that the think tank is trying to communicate with. It may be a local audience, an international audience, an institutional one, individuals, etc.
  6. What do they need? Often think tanks spend a lot of time an effort on long primary research and academic standard studies when all that was needed was a short analysis of a few options. A randomised control trial can help but so can a simple cross-tab exercise: USD200,000 over a several months versus 1 hour’s worth of work over lunch.

Having said this, I consider that think tanks tend to make things more difficult than they need to be by paying too much attention to  point 5 above. I have written before that research agendas and research teams can be organised in a way that is de-linked to the way the think tank communicates.


Governance is a broadly unexplored issue. Ray Struyk is one of the few who has given this sufficient attention. Many think tanks inherit their governance structures. Academic think tanks have complex boards made up of the very researchers who make up the think tank’s senior staff (which makes any change difficult if not impossible but at the same time creates stability) and tend to have extremely cumbersome quality assurance processes that make the road from idea to publication extremely long; NGO think tanks tend to rely heavily on boards made up of representatives of other NGOs or of the international community which tends to insist on advocacy rather than research; other think tanks have boards that are entirely international to avoid any partisan affiliations (but this de-links them from local politics) while others are overtly political (which is not the same as partisan) in their choice (but this makes them uncomfortable grantees for international funders).

Whatever the governance structure a few things could be considered as good practice:

  1. Make sure the board is locally relevant: Even the think tank has international members these ought to be interested in the think tank’s country and politics.
  2. Make sure the board has the right mix of skills: The Board is there to help the director and his/her staff. Board members should have: content knowledge, context knowledge, and expert knowledge on key issues such as management, finances and accounting, fundraising, communications, human resources, politics and policymaking, etc.
  3. Do not make it too board heavy: Some think tanks have boards, advisory bodies, international boards, managerial boards, etc. Then they add boards to programmes and projects. All of this costs money to manage. Think tanks need to think about what is absolutely necessary.
  4. Think about what is right for a think tank: A board for an academic research centre may not be useful for a think tank. A think tank board needs to be ‘out there’ on behalf of the think tank. It needs to approve ideas quickly and open spaces for the researchers.
  5. Quality control: One of the best comments I have ever heard about quality control is from Mairi Dupar from the Climate and Development Knowledge Network. When interviewed for a position and asked about how to ensure good quality she said: the best quality assurance solution is to hire competent people. A lot can be done by simply focusing on hiring the right staff. If all else fails, however, it is useful to make sure that there is always someone looking after certain issues or types of work so as to ensure consistency in quality. A simple solution is to make sure that the line-management system chosen includes ongoing quality control by mentoring.
  6. Staff management: Some think tanks organise themselves as consultancies with lots of hierarchies and levels. This takes time to manage and can also create silos; but it feels organised if the organisation is quite large. Others, like SMERU in Indonesia have an interesting system where all researchers are pooled into three groups: senior researchers, researchers, and junior researchers. On any given project they work they are groups into teams by the Director and Deputy Director (often junior researchers act as project coordinators in small projects as a way of building their capacity). At the end of the year their performance is reviewed by consulting their peers about it. This allows researchers to learn from each other and develop several skills. It also provides several opportunities for line-management and mentoring.
  7. Leadership: It is important that there are clear leadership roles within the organisation: all the way from the director down. Too many think tanks are bogged down by consultation obsession and nothing ever get done.

Digital or not digital

Since leaving RAPID I have taken a slightly conservative stance to ‘research communications’. While I believe that engaging with old and new media and making use of as many communication channels and tactics as possible is a good idea, I am not happy with the way that some organisations and consultants seem to be ‘pushing’ their own approaches on think tanks from all sorts of contexts. Behind this is an assumption that if a think tank is not ‘online’ it must because they do not know how.They also forget that the introduction of new communication practices in developed countries was met with significant resistance by their researchers.

The fact is that there are other reasons for this resistance. Many think tanks are already very successful at communicating with their main audiences. They do this by using context-sensitive approaches that donors and consultants cannot ‘see’: face to face meetings, professional and social networks (the real ones not the digital ones), etc. Many policymakers and researchers in developing countries went to the same universities and schools. There are not that many (see staffing challenge).

Not ‘doing digital’ (as a proxy of not trying new approaches) often has more to do with a decision to keep doing what works rather than ignorance. In this case, my recommendation is to think hard about whether the way people access information has changed or is going to change -and how. This should determine the sense of urgency for the think tank. If change is underway or is expected then think tanks should consider preparing themselves to it.

If twitter is not being used today by the relevant policy communities, then this is the perfect opportunity for a think tank to start engaging with it as a way of setting the rules for the way that twitter will be used to discuss policy. In the developed world, many think tanks have been caught by surprise by the rise of the web. As a consequence they are now catching up to other policy players and having to learn how to play by their rules. If think tanks get in early (and doing so it not expensive) then they can set the rules.

Become a think tank

Related to the point above, one of the main challenges that think tanks face is behaving like think tanks. Since many of their researchers come from academia, their funders tend to be biased towards PhD and academic research, their boards are heavily academically biased (partly because academic carries significant credibility in developing countries), and the idea of a think tank is still relatively new, think tanks and their staff find it hard to behave as think tanks and thinktankers. What does this mean?

I have encountered many researchers in think tanks who are unwilling to express an opinion unless research is done on the issue in question. But, I ask them, if you are supposed to be an expert on this subject, what is wrong with saying: “In my opinion … this or that“? Other researchers I have met are sitting on great opinion pieces, briefing papers or policy briefs but are not sure about publishing them unless they are peer-reviewed; but by the time they are the moment has passed and the issue is no longer of public interest.

Donors tend to focus on skills when it comes to capacity development: research, communications, etc. But really, what many think tanks need is to be exposed to ‘the ways of think tanks’. This can happen by hosting think tank researchers or communicators from countries where the ‘think tank way’ is more developed, visiting these organisations to see how they do it, including board members with think tank management experience who may encourage the directors to take risks, etc,

Monitoring and evaluation

This is never going to go away. As Rich says, dollar for dollar, think tanks get more attention than any other organisation on this issue. Lately, the trend in Randomised Control Trials has entered the world of think tanks and there are some donors and researchers suggesting that it is possible to carry out experimental or quasi experimental evaluations of think tanks’ influence. From what I have seen, we should treat these claims with caution. My advice to the think tanks under evaluation is to demand evidence that they know what they are doing. And to donors, I’d argue that they have, among their grantees, RCT experts who could try to tackle this issue: why relay on external consultants when this can become an excellent learning opportunity?

In any case, monitoring and evaluation should build up from the bottom up: and ask more basic questions. I would argue that the first thing that all think tanks should consider is if they are doing the most appropriate things for the context they face. This basic question can be extremely challenging to answer but is likely to offer very important recommendations. And why not turn it into a research question of the think tank’s own researchers to tackle?

Then they should make sure that all activities: research, management, accounting, communications, are done right. Often evaluations focus on impact on policy but little attention is given to the quality of the research or of the communication activities that are supposed to lead to that impact; and the problem tends to lie here. What is the point of spending time and money evaluating impact when the research methods are questionable or the press releases were poorly drafted or the websites are unfriendly?

Related to this, separating communications, from governance/management, from communications is not useful. What is the impact of ‘research communications’? This cannot be answered without considering the subject, type, and quality of the research, the organisation’s governance, its management, funding, etc.

There are, however, lots of very pragmatic tools to keep an eye on individual activities. Nick Scott has written on monitoring communications. But there are other things that can be done to keep an eye on research quality and management.

In the end, any monitoring and evaluation approach chosen must consider that think tanks are not just about influencing policies directly but also fulfil a great deal of other functions (education of elites, prepare new policymakers, create and maintain spaces, help set the agenda, disrupt consensus, etc.). It is in all these functions that their real value lies.

My advice for think tanks is to look for external researchers willing to  carry out frequent reviews that consider their organisations within a historical context and place as much attention to the numbers and web-hits as their do to their organisational culture.

I hope these are useful reflections. Anything else is keeping you up at night? Let us know.