School for Thinktankers 2023

Organised by On Think Tanks
Event type Event
Location Brussels
Start date 29 January 2023
End date 4 February 2023

After two years online, we were happy to return to an in-person one-week School in Brussels. The seven-day event ran from 29 January – 4 February 2023, hosted by Bruegel, the European Policy Centre (EPC) and the Centre for Africa-Europe Relations (ECDPM).

The School for Thinktankers is designed to develop participants’ think tank skills and prepare them for, or strengthen, leadership roles. It offers practical knowledge, learning and networking opportunities to help you and your think tank grow. Participants also enjoy activities like a city walking tour and a visit to the European Parliament.

Applications now open for 2024 School

Topics covered:

  • Governance and management
  • Policy relevant research
  • Communications
  • Fundraising and financial management
  • Monitoring, evaluation and learning

Expert trainers:

  • Andrea Baertl, Research and Learning Director at OTT
  • Andrew Sherriff, Associate Director of Institutional Relations and Partnerships at ECDPM
  • David Watson, Managing Director, Communications and Publishing at Chatham House
  • Enrique Mendizabal, Founder and Director of OTT
  • Esen Alieva, Visits Administrator and Lecturer at the European Parliament’s Directorate-General for Communication
  • Fabian Zuleeg, Chief Executive at EPC
  • Guy Grimshaw, Senior Brand Designer at Soapbox
  • John Schwartz, CEO and Founder at Soapbox
  • Kathleen Van Hove, Senior Policy Officer at ECDPM’s Institutional Relations and Partnerships Department
  • Katja Knežević, Deputy Head of Outreach and Events at Bruegel
  • Lene Topp, Project Lead of the Science4Policy Competence Framework at the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre
  • Lizza Bomassi, Deputy Director at Carnegie Europe
  • Naomi Isaacs, Brand Strategist at Soapbox
  • Scarlett Varga, Head of Development at Bruegel
  • Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Founder and Owner of Public Engagement

OTT Team:

  • Andrea Baertl, Research and Learning Director at OTT
  • Erika Perez-Leon, Consultant at OTT
  • Jessica Correa, Programme and Project Manager at OTT
  • Louise Ball, Director of Communications at OTT
  • Rodergio Camberos Garcia Sancho, School for Thinktankers Intern
  • Stephanie Nicolle, Research and Learning Officer at OTT
  • Syranno Baines, Senior Digital Communications Officer at OTT


We welcomed 22 participants from 17 countries to the School. The diverse cohort included thinktankers from leadership, research, communications, partnership management and MEL roles. We also welcomed funders, AI experts, academic-practitioners (‘pracademics’), and individuals interested in setting up a new think tank.

Programme summary:

Pre-School virtual sessions

23 January

Session 1: Welcome and programme overview
Speaker: Andrea Baertl and Stephanie Nicolle, OTT

The School for Thinktankers kicked off with a virtual welcome session equipping participants for their upcoming trip to Brussels. Participants were introduced to the programme objectives and sessions and got a chance to meet their cohort.

Session 2: What is a think tank? History, roles and models
Speaker: Enrique Mendizabal, OTT

In this opening session with OTT’s Founder and Director Enrique Mendizabal, participants gained a deeper understanding of what think tanks are, their history, and the various roles and models they serve in today’s evolving landscape.



30 January

Session 1: Finance for non-financial managers
Speaker: Sonja Stojanovic Gajic, Public Engagement

Think tanks may be founded on great ideas, but it’s good financial management that ensures their sustainability. In this session, Sonja Stojanovic Gajic provided practical tips on how to navigate the complex financial landscape of think tanks. Participants learned how to maintain financial health during times of crisis, and to explore new funding opportunities, including establishing partnerships with the private sector.

Session 2: Leading a think tank: challenges and key functions
Speaker: Lizza Bomassi, Carnegie Europe

Effective leadership and management are essential components of any successful think tank. During this session, Lizza Bomassi shared valuable insights on how to align a think tank’s goals with the strengths and talents of its staff. Attendees learned how to foster an environment that encourages continuous improvement and growth, how to have honest conversations, set clear expectations, promote communication, and motivate team members.


31 January

Session 1: Think tank governance and management
Speaker: Enrique Mendizabal, OTT

Enrique Mendizabal returned to lead a session on the importance of good governance and management for delivering a think tank’s mission and vision. Participants gained a better understanding of how to maintain organisational independence, engage effectively with funders, and learn from successes and mistakes. Enrique also discussed the pros and cons of different types of boards and how to establish a board that meets the unique needs and expectations of a think tank.

Session 2: Exploring funding and engagement models: strategy and management
Speaker: Scarlett Varga, Bruegel

Scarlett Varga led an insightful session on funding and engagement models for think tanks. Participants learned how to adopt a “fundraising mentality” to recognise the value of their work without overpromising or underselling their work to donors, nor compromising independence. Scarlett’s in-depth exploration of different funding and engagement models provided attendees with practical strategies for managing the fundraising cycle, from scanning for opportunities to follow ups and reporting on agreements.

Session 3: Credibility, transparency, and integrity workshop
Speaker: Andrea Baertl, OTT

Andrea Baertl challenged participants to reflect on the principles of credibility, transparency, and integrity. Through a hands-on workshop using Transparify’s tool, attendees learned how think tanks can manage reputational risks and build trust with stakeholders.


1 February

Session 1: Communication strategies
Speaker: David Watson, Chatham House

David Watson took participants on a #wonkcomms deep dive, sharing his expertise on communication strategies. He emphasised the critical role of strategic thinking and planning in think tank communications, stating that “not every problem has a report-sized solution.” To illustrate this, he introduced participants to Chatham House’s communications “orchestra” and invited participants to assess the effectiveness of a communications strategy.

Session 2: Event planning and management
Speaker: Katja Knezevic, Bruegel

Katja Knezevic discussed different types of events and their purposes, including small meetings that inform Bruegel’s research and thinking, and large conferences that facilitate debates on critical issues. She also provided guidance on managing events throughout their lifecycle, including crisis management, highlighting that event coordination is a highly stressful job. To help ensure successful events, she shared useful tips and tools, including analytics to measure success.

Session 3: Workshop on branding
Speakers: John Schwartz, Naomi Isaacs, and Guy Grimshaw, Soapbox

The Soapbox team challenged participants to flex their creative muscles during an interactive and informative workshop on branding. Participants were divided into groups and tasked with designing a branding strategy for a given think tank. From developing the tagline and personality to selecting the right audience segments, the groups had to bring it all together to develop a winning strategy.


2 February

Session 1: Visit to the European Parliament
Speaker: Esen Alieva, European Parliament

Participants had the chance to visit the European Parliament. Esen Alieva, a Lecturer and Visits Administrator at the parliament, started the session with an introduction on the parliament’s history, structure, and functions. Participants also had the opportunity to observe a plenary session where parliamentarians voted on crucial matters, such as waiving immunity for certain members and the report on improving working conditions in platform work.

Session 2: Managing think tanks in times of perma-crisis
Speaker: Fabian Zuleg, EPC

After visiting the European Parliament and watching the plenary session in the morning, participants were warmly welcomed by the team at the European Policy Center (EPC). Fabian conducted a session on the challenges think tanks face during multiple crises — from the financial crisis and the war in Ukraine to the climate crisis. He emphasised the importance of cooperation between European partners, global partners, and political and non-political actors to co-develop solutions.

Session 3: Knowledge brokering competencies for policy researchers and MEL for policy impact
Speaker: Lene Topp, Joint Research Centre – European Commission

Lene Topp guided participants through the Science4Policy competence framework which responds to the gap between the supply and demand for policy-relevant research. The framework emphasised the importance of appropriate policy and the problems that come with policy making.


3 February

Session 1: Skills and competencies for think tank work
Speakers: Andrew Sheriff and Kathleen Van Hove, ECDPM

The group was warmly welcomed at ECDPM by Andrew and Kathleen. The ECDPM team candidly discussed their framework and business model, sparking a conversation that enabled participants to draw parallels with their own think tanks.


4 February

Session: Closing session
Speaker: Andrea Baertl, OTT

As the School drew to a close, participants took time to reflect and share their key learnings, discussing how these insights could be applied to their work. Following this, participants received certificates for successfully completing the School. To wrap up the session, participants exchanged compliments and positive feedback in a heartwarming gesture.

Other activities in Brussels

Beyond learning opportunities, the School also offered plenty of chances for participants to have fun and network with each other. In addition to the enlightening visit to the European Parliament, the group enjoyed a walking tour of Brussels, during which they spotted the iconic Tin Tin mural and indulged in delicious Belgian waffles! The School also featured group dinners and lunches, providing an ideal setting for participants to connect, learn more about each other’s work, build relationships, and identify potential opportunities for collaboration.


Post-School session

9 February

Session: What I did differently on Monday morning
Speaker: Andrea Baertl, OTT

A week after we left Brussels, participants came back together virtually to share how they had used knowledge acquired during the School, leveraged their newly-formed connections, and established a means of staying in touch for future collaborations.


We look forward to welcoming a new group of participants next year.
If you’d like to join the 2024 School, please register your interest.