When the 2008 economic-financial crisis hit, few think tank professionals in Europe were worried, convinced that their well-established funding model would survive the shock.
And they were right, for a while. It took 3-4 years for the effects to reach the ‘thinking’ community.
First there was a decrease in public and business sector funding. This was most visible in think tank partnerships with the corporate sector, which experienced massive cuts in its public and institutional affairs departments.
This was followed by a gradual shift towards a project-based granting model, replacing the long-term core-funding model. A new à-la-carte think tank-donor relationship emerged, based on partnerships for specific projects of most interest to, and with the most effective cost-benefits for, the donors. Above all, think tank-donor relationships could no longer be taken for granted; think tanks now had to constantly compete for funds and projects.
In Italy, one of the most affected countries by the 2008 financial crisis, this change has been marked. Donors were asking think tanks to work on larger projects with more diverse partnerships – for example working with the media to reach public audiences – but without bigger budgets.
Despite the pressure to ‘do more with less’, according to 2018 data by the Italian National Institute for Statistics, the think tank sector (which is largely non-profit) appears to have continued to grow in the decade following the financial crisis.
Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit and, again, we have entered in a new ‘non-business-as-usual’ working model.
In the early days of the pandemic, thinktankers didn’t know what to expect from their donors. Would they get their funding renewals? Would no-cost extensions for work that had to be put on hold be granted? Would funders understand the new and unpredictable context in which they were operating, especially in terms of deliverables? And donors themselves were experiencing uncertainty, internal organisational reassessments, and the need to redefine their priorities.
Italy has a lively think tank community, with many organisations working on key European and multilateral dossiers. Italy has also been among the hardest hit countries by the pandemic in terms of death and contagion rates. Public bodies, private companies, individual donors, and foundations all redirected budgets to respond to the health emergency.
In addition to COVID-19, what makes Italy an interesting case study is the rather unstable political landscape. In February 2021 – mid-pandemic – a new government was formed, led by former European Central Bank Governor Mario Draghi.
This political instability represents a double-edged sword for think tanks. On the one hand, it makes thinktankers’ daily work unpredictable and challenging, especially in building relations with policymakers and other key stakeholders. The political continuity in terms of priorities and agendas can never be taken for granted and you always need to be ready to adapt to new interlocutors with different priorities.
On the other hand, funders see think tanks as stable partners. Thus, the political instability also represents an opportunity for think tanks. They are interlocutors that funders can go to for an exchange of ideas and to build partnerships beyond the political instability.
In this moment of deep uncertainty brought on by the pandemic, therefore, public and private funding bodies can find in think tanks a reliable ally as they take on the task of adapting priorities and reallocating funds resulting from cancelled activities (like public conferences and overseas travel).
The collaboration and exchange with think tanks could be the engine for private funding entities to act more publicly, especially in their relations with non-governmental organisations working on humanitarian fields. Think tanks (being trusted partners for donors) can act as ‘gatekeepers’ for other civil society organisations as partnerships are readjusted.
The COVID-19 pandemic has reshaped the global order like no other crisis since the Second World War. Its long-term social consequences are still to come and are less visible than the short-term political and economic ones. Should we expect another shift in think tank-donor relations in the coming years, as the long-term social effects of the pandemic start to appear?
Will private donors turn away from think tanks and expert communities in order to fund more vulnerable entities like NGO’s working in the cooperation and development field? Or will they turn further towards the think tank community so that they can serve as a bridge to other civil society organisations?
Now that we have entered a new phase in the pandemic with vaccines being rolled out in Europe, my hope is that think tanks and donors can consolidate new priorities collaboratively through a mutual process of listening and strategic thinking, in order to catch up with new challenges and to better understand those currently in place. This might allow us all to be ready to react and not only suffer the consequences of future uncertainties through more varied and broader partnerships and synergies.