The title of this blog post is also the title of the first chapter of Ray Struyk’s book, Managing Think Tanks. During the following weeks, we will be publishing chapter summaries in order to delve deeper into governance structures, staff management, improving leadership and streamlining administrative processes. (For a preview see this Masterclass on managing human and financial resources.) Governance and management strategies and skills have never been a strong forte among the think tank community: Struyk attributes this to the fact that most think tank directors focus exclusively on what they believe are their organisation’s main tasks – expanding the number of policy options considered to address a nation’s problem, providing hard facts and analysis to political parties and NGOs, empowering small players in the political process, etc. Also, directors tend to be academics who have little experience in management, thus overlooking administrative details important to the think tank’s efficient functioning.
There is a more fundamental reason for senior managers at think tanks to make time to address basic administration and financial management tasks: their organizations will work more efficiently. Dynamic, charismatic leadership cannot offset flawed administrative systems
Managing Think Tanks provides guidance to think tanks and other research organisations on addressing problem areas they might encounter. Each chapter is filled with specific, real-world examples from think tanks around the globe gathered from interviews with leaders of ten leading Western think tanks and more than thirty think tanks in transitional economies. Struyk also relies on his thirty years of experience working at think tanks, fifteen years studying and mentoring them, as well as on a close study of superior management practices recommended both for non-profit and for-profit organisations.
The donor community has worked on institutional development in the past. These efforts have tended to focus on the needs of young institutions, such as equipment to support research operations and Internet access and home pages. Donors have also tended to organize workshops that addressed the needs of start-up NGOs more generally, providing skills to new and comparatively simple operations.
However, changes are happening in the world of think tanks in developing countries. A considerable number of think tanks around the world either have or will reach what is called the “second stage of development”:
“Second-stage” institutes are at the point where they move from a low, often highly variable level of operations and a small number of sponsors to a higher level of activity—a larger staff, more projects, greater specialization in staff assignments, and more opportunities in the policy process and for educating the public on current policy issues.
When they reach this stage, think tanks have to alter their management and financial systems in order to be efficient and effective.
Of course, these think tanks are not the book’s only target audience – foundations and other supporters of think tanks, such as bilateral and multilateral donors, who are interested in helping think tanks improve their processes.
Check back with us every week for a new chapter summary. The following chapters of Managing Think Tanks will touch upon the following:
- Motivating staff to be productive and encouraging valuable staff to remain with the organization (essential elements include staff assessment, training, and compensation);
- Organizing highly relevant training;
- Controlling the quality of the product presented to clients, particularly through a peer review process;
- Communicating effectively the results of research to policymakers and the general public;
- Working successfully with the board of trustees or board of directors— getting the best advice from the board on strategic issues without having board members too involved in management questions;
- Developing new products and services and identifying new clients and other opportunities;
- Understanding how to compete for government contracts;
- Determining an overhead rate that is accurate and will withstand the scrutiny of outside auditors;
- Generating information essential for senior managers on the organization’s activities, broadly defined;
- Structuring the research staff—when and why to employ teams of researchers or individual senior researchers supported by a research assistant or two; and
- Creating strong team leaders—the key middle managers at think tanks who direct projects and have the most interaction with policymakers.