Report on Progress: November 2014 to April 2015

27 July 2015
SERIES About The On Think Tanks Exchange

During the period we worked on the organisation of the third event and progress on the three projects.

Planning for the third event

At the Jakarta Workshop we decided to allow the participants to decide where to hold the third Exchange. We opened up the process by encouraging the participants to “bid” for the possibility of hosting the meeting. We received two applications: from Grupo FARO in Ecuador and CEBRI in Brazil.

The participants were allowed to vote and after some discussion with both bidders it was decided to award the responsibility to Grupo FARO. CEBRI declined in favour of FARO but showed interest in hosting the fourth and final event.

Planning then progressed with Grupo FARO as before.

The Quito Meeting

The meeting in Quito was held between 6th and 10th April 2015. Grupo FARO hosted the event in several locations. The event reports include:

The meeting provided the opportunity for the projects to work together and report on progress so far. At the end of the fourth day, each of the teams prepared a presentation.

This meeting was significant because it made it possible to witness the evolution of the collaborations. In addition, we conducted a short survey to explore some of these issues. The following findings are noteworthy:

  • From professional to personal relationships: The relationships between the participants have evolved from mainly professional ones to quite close and personal. It is significant to now that all participants shared comments, pictures and experiences through Facebook pages, Facebook messenger groups, and Whatsapp.
  • The participants have been able to use these new relationships to explore other collaborations. For instance, asking for help accessing information or requesting contributions to their own projects.
  • Through trial and error, the participants have found and settled with preferred channels of communication; e.g. weekly sky calls to maintain momentum.

The meeting also provided an opportunity to explore lessons learned about collaboration and about the project (see below).

Current Status of the Projects

The following updates describe the status of each of the projects at the end of the Quito meeting:

Case Studies on Communication Strategies of Think Tanks (CSCS)

See their presentation Progress Report and Objectives for the Quito Exchange

This project examines the external communications activities at the team members’ think tanks, based mainly on desk research and interviews carried out by the team members. The desk research forms the basis for a case study of each think tank, but the team has taken a slightly different approach. Instead of carrying out a case study of each think tank in parallel, the team works collaboratively, reading each others’ documents in order to understand the communications activities of each think tank, as well as the policy context in which the activities take place. The four case studies will be prepared in a collaborative fashion. In a sense, this reflects the very collaborative working style into which the team quickly settled – the project proposal itself was written in the same, very interactive fashion during the team’s face-to-face meeting in Budapest last July.

During the first phase of the project (from October to December 2014) each member of the team prepared a description of their institution and interviewed selected staff members on their concept of “communications” and how this was implemented in the think tank. Once these descriptions and interviews were completed, the results were circulated among the team and each member reflected on the similarities and differences across the think tanks. The outcome was a set of four “institutional” papers and a short comparison of the four institutions.

In the second phase (January to March 2015) each member of the team worked on the initial draft of their case study, which examined selected communication activities in their think tank. The drafts were based on the structure and methodology developed by the team during the Jakarta workshop, and served as a road test of this structure. Again, drafts were circulated, allowing the members of the team to reflect on the similarities and differences across the four think tanks. The output from the second phase was, of course, the initial drafts of the four case studies.

The team’s objectives during the Quito meeting included:

  • Discuss each draft case study along with the comments made by the other team members
  • Select the communications activities to be analyzed in detail in the next version of each case study
  • Decide on the structure and contents of the final “product” of the project

One issue that arose in the course of preparing the drafts of the case studies was whether it made more sense to examine individual communications activities or groups of communications activities.

Finally, the team used the time available during the week to decide on the sequence of activities during the next (third) phase of the project, which involves “learning by doing” across the think tanks. They also spend some time discussing the ways in which the team might collaborate going forward.

One interesting aspect of the project is the very collaborative and consensual approach taken by the team. Will this help or hinder the delivery of the project outputs? As the team has noted, their approach has meant slower progress in the initial stages, as each team member has to absorb information not only about their own think tank, but three others as well. But this may save time when the team comes to compare and draw lessons from the case studies, since the team members will share a large degree of background knowledge of each think tank and so be able to understand the political context in which the communications activities take place. So even though the initial stages of the project were completed later than expected, the team expects to catch up in the coming months.

Performance Self-Assessments for Think Tanks

See their Presentation during the Quito Exchange.

Like the “business models” project, the PSATT team spent January and February 2015 narrowing their very broad topic – “think tank performance” to something more manageable and “doable”. The team agreed to focus on four dimensions of performance – strategic direction; the role of the board; knowledge management; and quality control, and once this decision was taken, they could begin drafting the survey for the staff of their think tanks. After piloting a draft of the survey on a small group of staff, they have administered the revised questionnaire to all the staff, using the online tool SurveyGizmo.

In parallel with the staff survey, each member of the team is busy with “desk research” on performance, using a common set of research questions. The survey and desk research are a prelude to a set of structured interviews with key staff members, which will explore in more depth the key issues about performance identified by the survey and research. The survey, research and interviews will provide a foundation for the case studies of the think tanks.

In Quito the team’s objectives were to:

  • Analyse the survey results
  • Reflect on the survey application process
  • Begin work on the case studies

The aim was to produce:

These aims were achieved.

Some qualitative highlights of the responses to the survey include:

  • CEBRI: The strategic plan is multi-year (it expires when it is fulfilled, the context changes, or you feel the need to update). In contrast, survey respondents thought it was an annual plan and there seemed to be no clear understanding of the strategic plan
  • CADEP: A clear area for improvement is knowledge management. There is a lack of knowledge of the role of the Assembly by the staff.
  • BIPA: Vision and mission are understood clearly by everyone in the organization. However, internal communication and translation of strategic goals into operative actions is understood differently between junior and senior staff.
  • EPRC: The dimension in which the organization is lagging behind is knowledge management. The project has highlighted tools and ideas to improve this dimension
  • Grupo FARO: There is a demand for mentoring of junior staff and the need to implement formal quality control process for communication products.

The team had encountered a number of difficulties in interpreting the results of the survey, most of them fairly common:

  • Skepticism of respondents
  • Motivation
  • Different levels of knowledge
  • Partial answers
  • Fatigue
  • Positive bias

These meant that the survey responses had to be interpreted with some care.

The team also devoted some time to the template for the case studies, which required some adjustment to the initial drafts in light of Petra´s experience in using it. In particular the final part of the template was changed to give more emphasis to performance itself and less to the implementation of the performance assessment tool and to distinguish more clearly between information on the current situation in the think tank and perceptions of the situation. 

A comparative study of business models for think tanks in Indonesia and Latin America

Although “doing business” is one of the main preoccupations of think tanks, it is difficult to find any systematic studies of what makes a particular business model successful in a particular context. This collaborative study focuses on think tanks and their business models in Indonesia and Latin America. The project seeks to understand which models have proven to be most successful in these contexts, with the expectation that these insights can be generalized so as to useful to think tanks (and donors) working in other developing countries. In practical terms the aim is to provide think tank leaders with knowledge that will allow them to shape their organisations’ business models to better serve their missions, given the contexts in which they operate.

The project was launched a little later than the other two collaborations, but has caught up quickly. In January and February the team (Hari and Leandro) worked on identifying the dimensions of business models that seem to be most important for the think tanks they will study: their value proposition, financial management, core business activities, governance, leadership, staffing and funding management. The next step was deciding how to approach each of these dimensions, which involved posing key questions, designing data collection tools (i.e. the questions to be raised in the interviews with the staff of the think tanks).

Dimensions of a Business Model

Core business activities What are the activities that think tanks carryout in order to create value propositions, and consequently, generate revenue for their organisation?
Financial management How does the organization deal with revenues and costs to ensure its sustainability?
Funding structure How does the organisation organize and manage the different function regarding funding?
Governance How does the organisation set up its governance in order to make decisions regarding its business model?
Leadership What are the characteristics of leadership that support effective business models?
Staffing How do think tanks identify, attract and motivate their staff members?
Value proposition When producing and selling their bundles of products and services, what value do think tanks offer to their users?

The second major step was to identify the “cases” to be studied (i.e. the think tanks to be analysed) and define a structure for the case studies. Three think tanks in ILAIPP (a network of Latin American think tanks) expressed their willingness to be part of the study: CADEP (Paraguay), Grupo FARO (Ecuador) and Fundación ARU (Bolivia). Three cases were also chosen for Indonesia: SMERU Research Institute, IRE, and the Jawa Pos for Pro-Otonomi Institute.

The team members held preliminary conversations with the leaders of each think tank in order to explain how the team will gather the data it needs. Interviews with Indonesian think tanks have been carried out and initial research notes have been completed for two of these think tanks – IRE and Jawa Pos Institute for Pro-Otonomi. Leandro has also made progress in collecting data for Latin America case studies, and the team has had an opportunity to discuss their initial findings. One contextual finding that has already emerged is the importance of the “micro context”. This includes factors such as labor laws, taxes, regulation, laws governing NGOs and non-profits, market competitiveness, and seems to affect business model decisions more than the “macro context”, which includes factors such as democratic openness, the political and economic environment, and media freedom.

During the Quito meeting the team had the chance to present these preliminary findings and obtain feedback. The team also prepared a blog post on the project’s objectives and methodology, interviewed a board member, the Executive Director and the Finance Director from Grupo FARO, and developed a structure for the case studies.

The team also set out a timeline for the next steps in the project.

Project outputs and dissemination

The Exchange has produced:

  • A blog:
  • A series on barriers to collaboration: 10 blog posts (by the participants) plus synthesis blog posts will be published by the end of May/beginning of June the schedule responds to the need to maintain a publication rhythm in for the blog). These are based on a series of papers developed by the participants in preparation for the event in Lima
  • This series has been followed by another of short blog posts reflecting on the process of developing the proposals in the run up to the event in Jakarta and project and personal posts during and after the Quito meeting. In all, there are 62 blog posts on the website.
  • Three projects are now underway and will be completed by the end of The Exchange.
  • Intermediate products have been developed, including a survey for think tanks in both Spanish and English:
  • A first Exchange in Lima between 25 and 28 March 2014. The event was hosted by IEP. Participants included: Enrique Mendizabal, Stephen Yeo and Vanesa Weyrauch for the organisers, all 10 participants, Goran Buldioski (representing the Think Tank Fund), and on the last day of the Exchange Maria Urbina (representing the Think Tank Initiative.
  • IEP organised an event at the Lima Exchange with Nadia Dobryanska, Irine Gurili and Goran Buldioski on the situation in Ukraine. The event itself constituted an example of think tank collaboration:
  • The communications team met in Budapest in June 2014 to plan their proposal.
  • A second Exchange in Jakarta between 29 September and 4 October 2014. This event was hosted by Article 33 and the participants included Enrique Mendizabal and Stephen Yeo for the organisers, all 10 participants, Dora Hardy for the Think Tank Fund and, briefly, Ben Hillman for KSI.
  • SMERU, KSI and The Exchange organised an event to present the experience of Latin American think tanks in developing a network (ILAIPP) and then a discussion on opportunities for collaboration between Indonesia and Latin America:
  • The third Exchange was organised in Quito between 6th and 10th April 2015. This event was hosted by Grupo FARO and the participants included Peter Taylor and Antonio Romero, from the Think Tank Initiative.
  • Grupo FARO organised a parallel meeting with the Universidad Andina Simón Bolivar on the links between Universities and Think tanks: