On Think Tanks Conference 2019: Washington DC

Organised by On Think Tanks, WRI, Soapbox, MediaTank
Event type Event
Location World Resources Institute, 10 G St NE #800, Washington, DC 20002
Start date 25 June 2019 9am EDT
End date

The first On Think Tanks Conference in the US will be held June 25 2019 at the World Resources Institute in Washington DC. The conference will bring together think tank scholars, policy entrepreneurs and funders to discuss issues such as public engagement, evidence and values, think tanks and social movements, and diversity and inclusion within think tanks.

The On Think Tanks Conference: Washington DC is the most recent in a series of events held around the world where participants share experiences, present their research, co-develop solutions to common challenges and establish new and strengthen old partnerships. 

The On Think Tanks Conference: Washington DC is designed in partnership with  MediaTank Productions,  New America,  Soapbox, and World Resources Institute (WRI).


Below is the outline for the one-day schedule. The topics will be reviewed and defined by the co-organisers in conversation with participants.

900-1000: Welcome

  • Lawrence MacDonald (WRI) and Enrique Mendizabal (OTT) welcome everyone. This is an opportunity for a brief round of (name/ organisation) introductions and an explanation of the ‘rules of the game’. Here is what you can expect.

1000-1030: Keynote 1

  • Cecilia Muñoz, Vice president of public interest technology and local initiatives, New America: “Public engagement with think tanks beyond the beltway”

1030-1100: Keynote 2

  • Lawrence MacDonald, Vice President Communications WRI, “Engaging with influencers and decision makers to achieve rapid change at scale”

    • Humanity stands at a critical point. Astonishing technological progress, globalization of markets and improvements in health and education have spurred economic progress at a pace unimaginable in earlier eras. Yet humanity’s growing economic footprint is wreaking havoc on the very ecosystems that make growth possible. Although solutions exist,  change is not happening fast enough nor at the necessary scale. Should think tanks turn to the public to encourage and inspire change? WRI does this with an unusual twist: shaping public opinion by starting near the top. We engage early and systematically by creating and engaging with named groups of influencers and decision makers who in-turn influence public opinion to accelerate change. Lawrence will describe this approach, illustrating it with three recent examples, and share an emerging effort to make these activities more systematic and effective.

1100-1130: Coffee break

1130-1300: Parallel A

  • A1. “Hearts v Minds”convened by John Schwartz (Soapbox), Nat Kendall-Taylor (FrameWorks Institute), and Gretchen Goldman (Center for Science & Democracy, Union of Concerned Scientists).
    Think tanks have always sought to present themselves as sources of objective debate and analysis. But is there really a public demand for evidence-based policy? Are we communicating in the wrong ways, to the wrong people and putting ourselves at risk of losing relevance and credibility? In this session we examine the role think tanks have in promoting basic values like peace, sustainability and justice. This session looks at practical ways we can go about expressing and framing these principles. It also explores how the choices we make around values and evidence impact the ways in which we engage with the wider public.
  • A2. “Beyond Tokenism: Diversity, equity and inclusion at think tanks” convened by Brigid Schulte (New America) and Renuka Iyer (WRI).
    Why is Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI) important for think tanks? What can be done to ensure that the views and voices of women and other marginalized groups help shape think tanks’ work? How are think tanks in Washington approaching this issue—and what more can be done? What tools are available to think tanks that want to go beyond tokenism to truly embrace diversity, equity and inclusion? Brigid, a leading thinker and commentator on these issues, and Renuka, a practitioner who is leading a DEI initiative across WRI’s global network of nearly 1,000 researchers and other employees, will convene a conversation about why DEI is critical internally (when selecting leadership, staff and contractors) and externally (when shaping vision, mission, and projects). The goal of the discussion is to jump-start greater attention to DEI issues in think tanks in Washington, DC, and beyond.

1300-1430: Lunch

1430-1500: Keynote 3:  

  • David Nassar, Executive Vice President and Chief Strategy Officer, The Hawthorn Group,+ “Think Tank Communications: Past Glories, Present Challenges, Future Opportunities”
    • While he was there, Brookings was recognised for the innovative work he and his team did to expand the think tank’s profile through the use of digital content, partnerships and innovative projects like the Brookings Essay and Brookings Film. During his tenure, their social and email following grew by hundreds of thousands and traffic to the website grew by millions. He led partnerships between Brookings and such notable publications as the New York Times and Esquire magazine. He also made landmark videos including a film called “The Life She Deserves” that premiered in Los Angeles at an event cosponsored by Variety Magazine.

      In this talk, David reflects on the lessons learned during his time at Brookings, lays out the current challenges facing think tank communicators and offers some pointers on how think tanks might tackle the question of public engagement in the future.

1500-1630: Parallel B

  • B1. “The Activist v the Neutral arbiter” convened by Savior Mwamba from Open Society Foundations (OSF), Brendan Halloran (IBP). Think tanks are increasingly seen as political operators with access and power to bring about (or encourage) policy change. This has led many to reach out to and work with or through social movements with whom they share values and objectives. Many, however, portray themselves as neutral arbiters, free from an agenda driven by change. Are these permanent strategies or do think tanks adopt them in response to their environment? Could they co-exist within a single organisation depending on the policy issues being addressed? What implications do each have for the way in which think tanks undertake research, communicate and engage with their multiple audiences?
  • B2. “How can think tanks work and support one another?” convened by Luca Brunner (Open Think Tank Network). In this session we will explore opportunities and challenges related to local collaboration (e.g. among DC think tanks supporting each other), mission driven collaboration (e.g. on specific sectors or focused on a shared policy objective), international networks (e.g. North-North or North-South collaboration).

1630-1700: Tea break

1700-1800: Report back, closing remarks and launch of WonkComms DC

1800 – Join us for drinks at the  (we will announce soon)

As always, this day-long conference is only the beginning. We look forward to continuing the conversation.

There are three types of spaces to share ideas:

  • Plenary presentations and debates are 30-45 minutes long (presentations should not be more than 15 minutes long) and intended to give us ‘something to think about’.
  • Parallel sessions are 1h 30 minutes. Parallel sessions do not have ‘panelists’ but are, instead, convened by one or two people to kick-start the conversation. Any participant interested can share his or her views and experiences on the topic. 
  • Extended coffee-breaks (30mins) and lunch-breaks (1h 30mins) will allow participants to engage with each other directly.

About the partners

OTT is a global platform dedicated to the study and support of policy research institutes and the broader policymaking environment. OTT provides independent services, research, ideas and advice publicly through their website as well as other channels.OTT is supported by the Hewlett Foundation and hosted by Universidad del Pacífico.

MediaTank Productions is a film and video production company that specialises in creating content on public policy issues. MediaTank works with think tanks, NGOs and academic institutions to tell powerful, cinematic stories that influence policy and drive change.  

New America is dedicated to renewing America by continuing the quest to realise its nation’s highest ideals, honestly confronting the challenges caused by rapid technological and social change, and seizing the opportunities those changes create. Since 1999, New America has nurtured a new generation of policy experts and public intellectuals. Today they are a community of innovative problem-solvers, combining their core expertise in researching, reporting and analysis with new areas of coding, data science, and human-centred design to experiment and innovate nationally and globally. They prize their intellectual and ideological independence and their diversity, seeking to do their best work and to reflect the America they are becoming.

Soapbox is a specialist graphic design and digital communications agency working with many of the world’s leading think tanks, NGOs and academic institutions. Founded in the UK, Soapbox recently opened a US studio in Washington DC.

WRI is a global research organisation that turns ideas into action at the nexus of environment, economic opportunity and human well-being. WRI works with partners to discover and advance solutions to seven urgent challenges: food, forests, water, energy, cities, climate and the ocean.

Who will be there

We aim to make our conference as inclusive as possible while maintaining a balance between the types of participants and their experiences. We have developed a list of invitees based on a long history of engagement but we will make an effort to make room for those interested in joining – and contributing to the discussion. 

Therefore, if you would like to join please let us know by completing this form. (Don’t complete this form if we have invited you already.)


Enrique Mendizabal: [email protected] 

Find out more about OTT Conferences