The Think Tank Initiative’s Exchange in Bangkok has been a well deserved celebration of the contribution the initiative and its approach to supporting think tanks has made to the sector. It has also been a celebration of the contribution of core funding to the development of think tanks.+ It has been, almost, unanimously hailed as the best possible funding for think tanks.
Core funding has huge benefits and we believe that think tanks can do great things with it. It has allowed think tanks to build their own capacity, focus on key policy issues beyond the short term cycles that project funding demands, develop new and deepen old partnerships across sectors and countries, and substantially change the global think tank landscape.
But, are there any downsides to it?
In this short article I share 6 possible unexpected and undesired consequences. These are only hypotheses based on discussions with think tanks from this cohort and informed observers over the last 10 years. Some will be explored further by the Think Tank Initiative’s evaluation as well as other efforts to learn from how we fund and support think tanks. And I believe many may have other less obvious explanations.
1) Delayed reform
TTI grantees have often reported that the support from the TTI came at the perfect time. Many have claimed that without the TTI they would have had to close or possibly seek out entirely different business models.
For many, the core funding received allowed them to avoid having to embrace project driven model. As core funding comes to an end, however, they are facing the inevitable: more project based funding.
Many are now talking about the need for substantive reform of their business models. There has been talk at the TTIX of real concern about the sustainability of their models.
Acting on this will demand changes in their governance, management, staffing, income streams and even research and communications strategies.
But, is reform too late?
2) Day dreaming at the wheel
A few statements made during the TTIX suggest that some directors and researchers have enjoyed a golden yet unsustainable age: a focus on research with little concerns for communication, fundraising and entrepreneurship. This even makes sense from a communications perspective. If there is little competition in a country (and in some countries this is the case) then more and better research can have an inevitable impact. Communications makes a clearer difference when there are other competitors (which is what is now happening: from NGOs, consultancies, the private sector, academia, government, etc.).
Core funding offered think tanks the chance to invest in researcher-driven research agendas, expand research bodies (or faculties), and invest in the kind of tools and resources that researchers like to invest in. They have used these investments to expand their research agendas, incorporate new research methods and produce high quality research. The impact this will have is likely to be positive in the long run.
However, the end of core funding will feel like a bucket of cold water that suddenly wakes them up from a dream that has been too-good-to-be-true.
Will it now be much harder to invest in other roles, change their business models, etc.? Most importantly, will this sudden change in fortunes trigger a change in mindset among all researchers?
3) Unreal costs
With core funding at hand, the incentive to look after the penny was all but removed from think tanks’ concerns for close to a decade. Questions about real costs and tools to identify and monitor them have only recently emerged -and, for the most part, this has been motivated by funders rather than think tanks. This is something that the Think Tank Fund asked itself a few years ago as it moved away from core funding.
Core funding has been used for a range of things, from the salaries of core support staff (e.g. communications), to funding governance roles and activities (e.g. board meetings), participation in national, regional and global events, executive directors’ salaries, etc.
But they have also allowed think tanks to top-up important yet loss-making projects by subsidising staff time, acquiring equipment or data, etc. Goran Buldioski from the Think Tank Fund (a project that OSF in Europe ran for a few years during the first phase of the TTI) worried that some funders where subsidising others. Many of the groundbreaking studies they have produced over the last 10 years have been in fact made possible by this subsidy.
But, has this led to unreal and unsustainable cost models? In fact, do all think tanks have the capacity to effectively identify all the costs that go into a research project?
4) Unsustainable (staff) bills
This is a delicate issue to address – and it cannot be in any way generalised. However, over the last decade, core funding has allowed many think tanks to sustain competitive (and very attractive) salaries for their leadership and senior researchers which are unrealistic for their contexts.
In some cases, salaries of key staff have reached levels similar to or higher than those in the private sector, international aid agencies and high-paying government jobs.
While this made it possible to protect their talent from being poached by government, the private sector and aid agencies, some of these think tanks are now facing a staff bill that few, if any funder, can meet.
A sudden adjustment may have important consequences for the capacity of think tanks to sustain their talen pool. And it will certainly involve a certain level of intergenerational inequity as new researchers join with less than advantageous deals.
Without core funding, would they have adjusted their business models and salaries to meet their markets? Or, should we take this as a lesson to avoid providing core funding unless we also attempt to change the context in which think tanks operate?
5) Fewer incentives to collaborate?
This may have little to do with core funding but it is still worth considering.
It was perfectly logical to assume that core funding would lead to more rather than less collaboration. This was also my assumption at the start of the TTI. I thought that the early collaboration between think tanks in Latin America would lead to a strong network and that this experience would be copied in other regions.
I also thought that after the TTIX in Cape Town, collaboration between think tanks in different regions would be possible.
However, after almost 10 years, collaboration appears to have been rather limited: within countries, regions and the global cohort there are only a handful of examples. Thinktankers, TTI staff and observers have openly reflected on this issue during the TTIX in Bangkok.
In some cases, it appears that core funding has incentivised less, rather than more, collaboration. One participants said so: “I do not partner with organisations that also have high research capacity.”
Was it that they wanted to protect their funds? Was it that with secure funding they had no need to look for partners? Maybe if they had had to work in more funder led projects they would have been asked to partner or collaborate with other centres or organisations.
Or, maybe, this had nothing to do with core funding. There is high diversity within the TTI cohort and this makes it hard for collaboration. Maybe it is not in think tanks’ DNA to collaborate – hence the effort.
A question that we ought to ask ourselves is if the successful collaboration we have seen within TTI are in any way a consequence of core funding -or something else: Southern Voice, the research produced by ILAIPP and their annual conferences, for instance, are all funded in addition to the core funds provided. Could these have taken place without core funding?
6) Core funding addiction
Espacio Publico’s former director led a total reform of his think tank only after he was able to convince his board and leadership that core funding was a thing of the past. Once they gave up on the idea of being a core funded think tank, they started looking for and found alternatives.
There was still a lingering longing for core funding at the TTIX in Bangkok. Think tanks who asked about future funding, stubbornly inquired about the possibility of raising new core funds – even though the funders present insisted that the chances of this kind of support were close to none. Consultancy or project based funding was generally seen as something to be avoided if at all possible.
This is only to be expected. After 10 years, core funding has become a norm – entire careers have been built on the back of core funding. Many think tank leaders and senior researchers (and certainly young staff) have known nothing else or have little memory of a time when their think tanks did not enjoy this sort of support.
Should core funding support include a rehab period? Maybe core funding could be provided in a decreasing manner until, on the last year, the transition seems seamless.
Core funding and the TTI experiment have made significant and positive contributions to individual think tanks and the sector as a whole. Many think tanks have taken advantage of this -many from day one. But these and other unexpected challenges have emerged in our reflection. They present an excellent opportunity to learn for future efforts.