When to start?
Start now. If you are waiting for everything to be in place you will most probably never start. That being said, you should ensure that you are somewhat able to carry out this work and that you have some of the skills needed. If not, invest some time in working on the knowledge and skills you need. But don’t overdo it. Start the thinking and planning stages and work your way from there. There is no need to do everything at the same time. Choose an entry point and start there. What makes for the best entry point depends on you.
Here are a few easy (and cheap) recommendations to start with. These can be done alongside your main research work and will help the think tank to start gaining recognition before your first research output is ready (Mendizabal, 2016):
- Get started before seeking big funding. There is no need to wait until you have funds to start. With a light and flexible structure, you can start right away.
- Publish while you read. You do not need to wait for the big report to be ready. You can start to publish articles, book reviews or blogs about the books or papers you are reading.
- Publish other people’s ideas, if you agree with them. Using content produced by your board members, associates, and even third parties, is a perfectly valid way of ‘producing content’. Think tanks often miss the opportunity to be present in policy debates because they want to wait until ‘they’ have something to say. Windows of opportunity can open at any time and if a think tank is not ready to say something it will miss it altogether. There is nothing wrong with saying: ‘As so and so said, the best solution is to …’.
- Use research you have done before. New think tanks sometimes say that they have little need for a website because they have little to publish, or that starting with an event is not possible because they do not have any research to present. This is not exactly true. Think tanks are all about their people and it is unlikely that the people making up a new think tank (however young they are) do not have any previous work and ideas, published or not. All of this can and should be used by the new think tank. You do not have to take credit for it (if a paper was written by the director or a researcher while working for another think tank, for example, do not delete the original logo) but can certainly republish it and add it to the list of studies written by the think tank’s staff. An event, too, can be organised to ‘broadcast’ guests’ work via the new think tank’s YouTube channel or website. You are not stealing; you are helping to give ‘old’ researchers a longer shelf life. And this is great.
- It won’t break – don’t be afraid to publish. Before you start you will face an almost existential question: are we ready to publish? In other words, are we ready to say what we think? Unless your outputs are of such a terrible quality that getting to this point has been an indisputable miracle, then our advice is to go for it. Your outputs may not be perfectly diagrammed and they may have typos, but you can always publish new versions (digitally, of course) and by repeating the process you will get better soon.
Strategic planning (+) Based on Mendizabal, E. (2013b), Strategic plans: A simple version Learn more
Based on the reflection and analysis you have carried out in the previous steps, define your strategy – but don’t overdo it. A strategic plan does not need to be too prescriptive. It clarifies what a think tank does and why, but it should not read like a log frame. After reflecting on the questions in this manual (and answering them) you should be ready to draft your strategic plan. Here is an example of a simple plan (based on Mendizabal, 2013 c):
- Vision and mission (1/2 a page). The reader should understand the contribution that the think tank is attempting to make.
- Things we will do to fulfil our mission (2–4 pages). The activities that the think tank will do, for example research, communications, capacity development. Alternatively, you could frame it in more original terms: generate knowledge, share knowledge, promote public debate/understanding, develop capacities, etc.
- Things we need to deliver the mission (2–4 pages). These are the inputs or the back-office to the mission. Here you can describe its governance, business model, human resources, organisational change projects, etc.
- How will we know we are on the right track (1–2 pages). An outline of the MEL strategy.
- How will others know how we are doing (1/2–1 page). For instance annual reports, website transparency, etc.
Another example of a starting strategy is that of PMRC – ZAMBIA. The ‘PMRC series’ consists of (+)Based on Mendizabal, E. (2013), A Zambian think tank start-up: A possible model Learn more:
- A background note, followed by:
- One or more policy briefs based on the background note, and followed by:
- A snapshot
- A reading list
- A blog or a series of blogs
- Videos and podcasts
- A cartoon
- An infographic
For more on strategic planning read Mendizabal, E. (2013b), Strategic plans: A simple version and Datta, A. (2016), Strategic planning: It’s just as much about the present as the future.
Now we present some examples of the challenges that founders faced when they started their think tanks. Some of these challenges surrounded getting people to know them and their work, or recruiting and retaining qualified staff; others arose around ensuring the availability of funds or building the very idea of think tanks in a context where they are barely known.
Box 55: Nicolás Ducote on the challenges faced when setting up CIPPEC Argentina
The main challenge was for people to get to know us, which is why we put a lot of effort into communicating ‘face to face’ and into grabbing their attention so that they would have us on their radar. We would generate products, like the Legislative Directory, that didn’t have great aggregate value but that allowed for a lot of people to know about us. For example, all of the legislators, who we would go visit one by one, got to know us during the process. That way, 270 people who we wanted to influence, would have some sort of contact with us. At the same time, the Legislative Directory was a tool used by all of those with some connection to public policy: the institutional departments, the executive branch, the media; in relation to which we placed ourselves as a bridge that many people wanted to cross.
We also worried about communication and the press, although, at the beginning, it was beyond our capacities: we tried working with a news agency, but we didn’t have the capacity to produce the press releases that they would ask for every week. So instead we found out who were those people who wrote about our topics, and we created links with them, we put ourselves at their disposition: when they asked us about a fact regarding some topic, we would kill ourselves to get it, even if it meant distracting ourselves from other projects, because we thought that if we delivered they would be more willing to talk to us in the future. Therefore, we became a habitual source of reference, and naturally, other actors began to recognise us as knowledgeable in certain subjects, and so we gradually became a mandatory source of reference. By 2004 or 2005, we had the capacity to put on the agenda certain issues that were central to different policy topics.
At the same time, our efforts in getting people to know us were linked to our search for funding: it would be easier to get financing as more and more individuals knew us. Alongside all of this, we put forward a process of institutional investment that wasn’t visible: we would put 10% of all of our revenue each year into creating an anti-cyclical fund; we sought to buy our own offices, etc. Sustaining institutional strength was a challenge because donors, particularly those who had a strong outlook on impact, like the international cooperation, had no incentive to finance institutional strength, and CIPPEC was always expensive for donors: we had all of our employees on the payroll, we did everything in a neat and demanding way, etc.
In summary, the mix of effective communications, fundraising, and strengthening the institution made a lot of very talented people want to approach CIPPEC. When we communicated, they got to know us; when we raised funds they knew that they could count on a good salary; and they knew that we were a ship that had all of its flotation devices put in place in order to continue with its course.
Box 56. Challenges faced by ISET Nepal: Retaining staff and ensuring funds
Retaining qualified human capital and ensuring financial sustainability are our two major challenges. In fact, retaining qualified professionals is a major challenge for many research agencies and think tanks in Nepal. We find ourselves competing with international NGOs, bilateral donors, and multilateral agencies for qualified human resources. This has forced us to be creative: we invest in training a young generation of professionals and provide them with new opportunities. This has helped maintain our staff retention rates.
The changing in-country regulatory context presents another challenge. Any research organisation or think tank must comply with national laws. In Nepal, regulators inquire about the specific contributions that our research has made to meet the country’s development objectives. We reiterate that our role is to produce knowledge and argue that research findings should be aimed at improving policies and practices – but are not directly responsible for them. But we have a hard time making a case.
Regulators use the same yardstick to judge research organisations as they do to judge a development organisation that, for example, works on building schools or planting saplings. This is like comparing apples and oranges. One of our biggest challenges right now is to change the perceptions of government regulators regarding the importance of critical research and the role it can have on the policy landscape.
Box 57. Challenges faced by GPTT in Iran: Developing the concept of a think tank
Seyed Sadegh Emamian is the founder and director of the Governance and Policy Think Tank (GPTT) in Iran and was interviewed by Andrea Baertl.
My main function as a founder not just as a director was to establish the institution. We defined ourselves as a university accredited think tank, so I started to approach former colleagues who had graduated from the best universities in the world and had returned to Tehran and I asked them to join the initiative. One of the main challenges was attracting prestigious academic figures who were interested in the policymaking process, rather than just being academics, and also attracting young, talented, recent graduates as policy researchers.
The second challenge was the challenge of the unknown. The concept of think tanks in Tehran was very new when we started. It wasn’t a national concept that everybody knew about. We tried to define what a think tank is, the reasons behind establishing one and why we need to have think tanks when we already have research institutions within public departments or academia. So, defining, rationalising and legitimising our institution was an important challenge.
Other challenges that I can mention were how to establish and maintain ourselves as an independent think tank that is not politically biased or academically attached to a specific school of thought. And also fundraising. This was challenging at the beginning and continues to be a challenge.
As these examples show, most think tank founders will face challenges at the beginning. We hope, however, that the recommendations provided in this manual, together with the lessons learnt from other founders, can help you better navigate them.
When to let go? (+)This section draws from: Echt, L. (2018), Leadership transitions: Lessons from three Latin American think tanks Learn more(+)and Mendizabal, E. (2013g), Director’s profiles and how to replace them. Learn more
There will come a time when you might need to step down from leading the think tank (if you are the executive director) either because it is best for you or for the organisation. Executive directors lead on a wide range of issues: staffing, fundraising, budgeting decisions, communication issues. And after a time in the role a change is needed to infuse new ideas into the organisations and also for the director to rest (Echt, 2018).
The skills that an executive director needs to have are varied, and most importantly are acquired by experience. And so it is a good idea to plan for a leadership transition early on in the think tank’s life. Successful experiences of leadership transitions show the value of investing in internal leadership (e.g. CIPPEC, Fedesarrollo, Grupo Faro) to guarantee ‘a supply of highly qualified candidates for future transitions’ (Mendizabal, 2013g). In all of these cases, organisations chose leaders from within their ranks. Indeed, it is very common in think tanks in the global south for executive directors to take up this position in organisations where they worked in previous roles. This has the advantages of a leader who is familiar with the organisational structure, the staff, the donors, and so on. But a limitation is that this could reduce the chances of bringing change to the organisation (Ramos 2021).
There are alternatives to choosing leaders from within the organisation. Here are a few recommendations for when that moment comes (Mendizabal, 2013g):
- Headhunting companies can be useful, but use your networks and go beyond your usual communication channels to find candidates (explore other sectors and even countries).
- The board is critical to the process and must own it.
- The staff should also be involved, and be invited to parts of the interview process.
- Give candidates a chance to get to know the organisation (even disclosing private information) before their final interviews (it makes the process richer and easier to choose the best candidate).
- Expect a long process and prepare the staff, partners and audiences for it.
- Former directors should keep their distance (after the handover process). This is even more important if the director was also the think tank’s founder.
In 2012 and 2013 Leandro Echt interviewed some former and current directors and discussed strategies for planning for a transition process. Here are the lessons from these interviews:
1. Identifying the new leader.
- Professionals with working experience in the organisation are a plus. In some organisations, it is the tradition to hire someone from within.
- Investing in internal leadership may offer a supply of highly qualified candidates for future transitions.
- Experience in politics and knowledge of the policymaking process are important assets.
2. Managing the transition process.
- Support from the outgoing director and the board is critical for a smooth transition.
- Keep the outgoing leaders engaged with the organisation (internally but also externally with key stakeholders such as donors or policymakers) until the new director is fully settled.
- New directors need to gain the support of their former colleagues and the staff: give them space and time to express their concerns and ideas.
3. Caring about the external image and sustainability.
- Depending on the reasons for leaving and the context, the organisations needs to choose between a private or public transition. Both are adequate but it needs to be decided and managed in the way that the think tanks sees fit.
In short, if you have a clear understanding of what a think tank is and you are sure that you want to set up one: start now. A good way to start is to go back to the three capabilities we included in the introduction:
- Think ahead about the possible futures your think tank will encounter.
- Think again and reconsider previous ideas or projects to see how to obtain better or different outcomes.
- Think across by crossing boundaries and learning from the experiences of others, understanding their contexts and their reasons for choosing certain options.