Unraveling Think Tanks’ Business Models

November 25, 2016

[Editors’ note: The paper was produced as part of The On Think Tanks Exchange with the support from The Think Tank Fund and the Think Tank Initiative.]

Why study think tanks’ business models? Rarely discussed yet critically foundational, a business model is an essential part of an organisation’s sustainability. It is the heart of any organisation, including think tanks. A think tank’s business model is composed of fundamental aspects pertaining to this kind of organisations. This elaborates on the definition of “business model”, its dimensions, as well as offer examples of think tank business models.

From think tanks’ perspectives, this study is significant for many reasons. Although the importance of business models is acknowledged, few think tanks make enough efforts to design, revise or change their business model. Instead, we found that some organisations don’t feel the need to review their business model because it has been used for a length of time with no major problems.

Most think tanks are absorbed with finding and implementing projects, and fail to reflect on the working of their own business models. Even if they did face a difficult situation within their organisation, they would most probably attribute it to external factors rather than the performance of their business model. The fundamental problem, however, is that think tanks are reluctant to learn from their counterparts. They fear that an open discussion on the subject would give their competitors too much insight into their operations.

Think tanks are also aware that the study of think tanks’ business models is limited. Compared to the business world, where business models and computer-mediated practices are growing fields of study, the study of business models for research organisations is still a rarity. This is truer in developing countries.

There have been very few attempts to analyse think tanks within a business model framework using the tools of analysis suggested by the business model literature.

To successfully study think tanks’ business models, it is important to consider the context in which they operate. Political, economic, cultural or social circumstances can influence think tanks’ missions, target audiences, or how they generate revenue. For instance, context includes the existence (or absence) of a philanthrophic culture, the willingness of the governments to work with civil societies, democratisation and decentralisation processes, donors’ priorities, employment regulations and the intellectual environment of a country. All of these influence the decisions a think tank makes regarding its business model.

This study tries to describe the business model of think tanks. It focuses on the internal aspects of a group of organisations to help identify their business model of choice. The study is guided by two main questions:

  • What are the frequent business model decisions that think tanks make?
  • How do these decisions relate to context?

Its findings are meant to provide think tanks with knowledge that will allow them to shape their business models in a way that allows them to fulfill their missions in the contexts they operate in.

This study was funded by The On Think Tanks Exchange, the Think Tank Initiative and the Think Tank Fund.